There is, in my opinion, little to beat a moat for dramatic interest in a castle. The hero of one of my early novels swam a moat to get to his lady, an act which I now think would more likely lead to pneumonia than a happy ever after ending.
Failing pneumonia, he might have caught something else, since any latrines in the castle emptied into the moat. Castle wells had to be lined with lead to stop the contents of a moat seeping into them. In retrospect, having him come into contact with the moat at all seems like a bad idea.
Moats came in all shapes, sizes and locations: some are round; some are square; some are filled with water; some are empty; some are within the outer walls and some are outside the walls.
This is probably the most famous moat in England. It’s Bodiam Castle in East Sussex. On a still day the castle is reflected in the moat, reminding the visitor that Bodiam wasn’t built for defensive purposes, but simply to be beautiful.
Most moats added to the castle’s defences. It was almost impossible to storm a castle with a moat. They made it difficult to get siege engines close. Although few moats were as wide as Bodiam’s, you could see that there would be no chance of soldiers getting close to the walls in any kind of siege tower. There’s nowhere to rest a ladder for soldiers to climb to the top of the walls. Even more important, the towers couldn’t be mined.
Mining was the process by which the besieging army dug underground until they were beneath a corner of a tower. Once there they would set a fire which caused part of the wall to collapse. The army would then enter the castle through the damaged wall.
The moat at Old Sarum is empty, but the sides of the hill on which the castle was built are very steep. Although the moat encircles the walls, the castle’s outer bailey is on the other side of the moat. In the photograph below the outer bailey is where there are people walking.
Attacking from below was never a great option for a medieval soldier and attacking up a steep hill was even worse. It was easy for people above to throw things down on them and there was little they could do to protect themselves.
Here’s another photograph from Old Sarum down into the valley. You can see how high and steep the hill is.
Portchester Castle is one that has a water moat. It’s not terribly impressive these days. As you can see in the picture below, part of it is within the outer walls and there are people having their lunch in the outer bailey. That part of the outer bailey alone is large enough to host a cricket match. What you can’t see from the photograph is that the moat goes outside the outer walls as well.
You’ll remember from last week’s post that Portchester Castle is on the edge of a harbour, so there’s plenty of water about for the moat. In the Middle Ages the moat would have been deeper and wider and much more of an obstacle to anyone who wanted to storm the castle.
Bodiam had a fairly large moat, but Kenilworth Castle’s moat was huge. It was created by damming two rivers, and the castle was effectively surrounded by a lake. These water defences were partly responsible for the longest siege in England in the Middle Ages. For six months in 1266 the castle held out against Henry III and his army. Attempts to storm the castle by water failed. His stone-throwing weapons did not have the range of those within the castle walls. In the end, the inhabitants of the castle surrendered because they were running out of food.
Castle – Marc Morris
Portchester Castle – John Goodall