Anatomy of a Castle – the Barbican

Old Sherborne Castle

The Barbican, Sherborne Old Castle

Yes, the Anatomy of a Castle series is back. On visits to more castles than I like to think about over the last month,  I was able to take photographs of things I’d read about, but couldn’t illustrate during the original run. In the case of the barbican, though, I have to admit that I’ve been labouring under a misapprehension for years. I thought that it was a bit of wall that was reinforced in some way. This is partly due to the definition of the term in A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases: “An external defence for castle or city; extra defence for a city gate or bridge”. Some of the castles I visited recently have barbicans and the penny finally dropped.

A barbican is indeed a special defence, but it’s a lot more than a bit of wall. It’s a high-walled funnel. The purpose of the barbican is to trap any attackers in a narrow space so that they can be picked off by the defenders in nearby towers and on the tops of the two walls forming the funnel.

The photograph at the top of the post shows the barbican at the North Gate of Sherborne Old Castle. This wasn’t the main gate, but it received supplies delivered to the castle by boat. Anyone attacking the castle by that entrance would have to go up a steep incline no more than two abreast. Probably uniquely, this barbican had a roof. To my mind, at least, that makes it less easy to defend. How would the defenders know what the attackers were up to while they were out of sight?


The barbican, Prudhoe Castle

This is the barbican at Prudhoe Castle. It’s at the main entrance to the castle and is overlooked by the gatehouse. The defenders could stand on top of the barbican walls and shoot arrows down at the attackers. As at Old Sherborne Castle, the barbican is on an incline. It’s not as steep as the one at Sherborne, but it would slow down any attackers a little.

I took hundreds of photographs while I was away, so I’ve got a few more things to add to the Anatomy of a Castle series over the next few weeks.


A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Cristopher Corèdon and Ann Williams

Prudhoe Castle by Susie West

Sherborne Old Castle by Peter White


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Castle, Medieval Warfare

24 responses to “Anatomy of a Castle – the Barbican

  1. I do like Prudhoe , lovely place! Can’t wait to see where else you got to up here.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I thought I knew what a barbican was but I didn’t…thanks April 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Wow. Lightbulb moment. The definition is not helpful. Thanks for sorting this our for us April.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I always thought of a barbican as a defensive something-or-other, and now I know exactly what. I’ve visited Sherborne a couple of times, but never got to the Old Castle. A pity. I like the look of those steps.

    Liked by 3 people

    • The new castle is visible from the old, but I didn’t think I had the time to visit it. In the end I did.

      Some of the old castle is too Elizabethan for me. Sir Walter Raleigh made a lot of changes when he owned it.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I liked the new castle (hardly a castle at all, really, more like a fortified manor house) because it has such a homely feel to it. And not too radically changed from Sir W’s day. I think my favourite castle is Chillingham in Northumberland – quirky by day, but atmospheric at night. I stayed there for three days, and would happily spend a week there.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. So glad this series is back. I don’t think I really had any idea of what a barbican was, it was just one of those castle terms you see/hear about. I can now see how it would work, clever stuff.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Hooray that the Anatomy of the Castle is back! Such a great series, and glad to see the barbican dilemma cleared up.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Count me as another who was clueless about barbicans. Only thing I knew was that it had to do with the entryway. For some reason I thought it was part of the portcullis. But it seems the portcullis was merely a reinforced grid to further hamper anyone foolish enough to attempt entry through the entire barbican.

    Pity the poor soldiers forced to be the vanguard. They must have known they were dead men, presumably to encourage the expenditure of defensive materials so succeeding attackers might succeed. Brutal. No wonder sieges were often tried.

    Oh April, I wish I could return & view castles with the knowledge I’ve garnered from you! Sadly, I’m so arthritic, it’s impossible. All the more reason to treasure your writings!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Ethan Lee

    Thank you for this, April. Like a lot of people here I was struggling with the distinctions between gatehouses and barbicans and defensive walls. Very informative and the picture from Prudhoe in particular hits the nail on the head!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Stephanie O'Connell

    Thanks for that. A barbican that no longer exists is central to a chapter I’m writing and I’ve spent too much time trying to understand them. This has helped.

    Liked by 1 person

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