In many ways, a castle is just like any other medieval house with more than a couple of rooms. Houses and castles usually have a hall: a large room for meals and receiving visitors. As a result, they were the largest enclosed space in the building. They were also where the servants slept.
In a castle, a hall is obviously much larger than it would be in a house and more grandly decorated. There are some other differences. John of Gaunt’s Great Hall at Kenilworth Castle, pictured above, is very large. It also has huge and intricate windows. The hall was so impressive that it’s the only part of the castle left untouched by the Earl of Leicester when he took over Kenilworth two hundred years later.
Somewhat unusually, the hall had six fireplaces. You can see one of them in the photograph below, which also shows the vaulting of the cellars below the hall. The wall above the fireplace was probably covered by a tapestry. These were very expensive and displaying them was a way of showing how wealthy someone was.
The walls would also have been painted and would have been colourful even when the tapestries were taken down.
Halls were usually on the first floors of castles, unlike in houses, where they were at ground level.
As you can see from the photograph of Richard II’s Great Hall at Portchester Castle above, the hall is close to the kitchen, allowing food to be served easily. This hall also had large windows in the wall facing the inner bailey. The wall facing the outer bailey has no windows at all for reasons of security. Halls in houses rarely had large windows. When your only source of heat was a fire in the middle of the floor and windows were usually unglazed, your windows would be quite small in order to retain as much heat as possible during the long, dark winter nights.
Richard II’s windows at Portchester were glazed. It’s recorded that the glass was decorated with coats of arms and heraldic devices. Richard also had a large collection of tapestries, some of which would have been hung on the walls when he visited the palace.
When a visitor to either of these halls entered the door at the top of the steps, they were still not in the hall. They would find themselves in a screened area, mainly used by the servants. An invitation to enter the hall itself was a great honour.
This is a photograph of one of the two halls at Wolvesey Castle, one of the palaces of the medieval bishops of Winchester.
The palace had a private hall and a larger, more public hall. The latter (the one in the photograph) was used for ceremonial occasions or when more space was needed. Originally the hall was on ground level, but it was remodelled and raised to the first floor about twenty years later.
Like the rest of the castle, the hall was used to impress upon the visitor the importance, wealth and power of the man who owned it.
Kenilworth Castle – Richard K. Morris
Portchester Castle – John Goodall