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During the Medieval Period why was it important for nobles to build castles

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In the early medieval period England wasn’t governed as it is today. Power was spread over the land and into principalities with lords controlling the local area. Towards the end of the ninth century, strong lords began to build castles. Built to defend against attack, take control of the surrounding area, as a show of power and to provide an area of political stability in times of worry. However, these castles were relatively small and there were few of them. It was not until around the Norman invasion that castles started appearing in any great number.

Castles were a rare site in England up until just before the invasion at 1066 by William Duke of Normandy. This was when at Pevensy, a motte and bailey fort was being built in the walls of an old Roman fort, by castle-builders sent by William, readying for the landing invasion. The locals at Pevensey had seen nothing like this before and had no word in their own language to describe it, and used the builders’ word for it, castellum (the Latin) or castle. The reason castles were sure a rare site for the British was that there simply hadn’t been any there.

The Normans had them, however. In the ninth century there was a general disintegration of power around France, Northern Italy and Germany, so powerful lords were building castles to assert their power over the land in their immediate vicinity. This collapse of order was due to constant raids from barbarians like Seb and the Vikings, who were extremely powerful at the time and had been raping and pillaging their way around much of Europe, especially Northern France. So the nobles also built their castles to protect themselves and their land from these raids.

Eventually, however, the Vikings settled in the northern regions of France and spread throughout, originally settling in what is now called Normandy (hence the name) and becoming so embedded in Gaul that eventually the collective name for them became Norse-men, or Normans. The castle wasn’t seen in England because they didn’t have the same problem. There was no power struggle in Britain, so when the Vikings came to raid, the Earls of Wessex eventually drove them out under the lead of Alfred the Great.

Splitting up the land into separate states and regions, and the way in which they were governed, lead to the idea of feudalism. This is where the most powerful men; being counts, dukes, earls and kings, had control over their one estate, but would often give control to other lords, keeping a part of the land for themselves. In return for this, the lord promised to provide knights for his overlord’s wars and for the protection of his castles. A lord’s allegiance was supposed to always be to their overlord, but there were always battles for land and wealth and soon a lord could rival the power of his superior.

This is what happened to William Duke of Normandy, who, after many years of war had become almost as powerful as his overlord, the King of France. It was in 1066 that he invaded because he had been promised the throne by Edward the Confessor, and had it snatched from him by Harold. So when in 1066 William the Conqueror did invade, he brought their knowledge of castles with them, which they definitely needed, as he brought a relatively small force of roughly 7,000 men, William needed to assert his power over the land as quickly as possible.

Trying to seize power of a country was not something to be taken on lightly and William would need all the help he could get, and castles really gave him that edge. He needed something that could be erected relatively quickly and would provide a good base of operations and somewhere safe for his armies to be billeted and garrisoned. This is where the construction of motte-and-bailey forts came in. We know he used them as much of the earth-works from them survive today, and in the tapestry commissioned by Bishop Odo of Bayeux, William’s half brother, the erecting of a motte-and-bailey fort is shown (source 1).

William used the motte-and-bailey fort to protect from his army from attack and launch raids on villages a day’s ride away, making it effective to a radius of 30 miles. The motte of the motte-and-bailey was a broad mound of earth piled about 20 feet high, with a large wooden tower or donjon built on top, surrounded by a wooden palisade. The tower, in case of attack, could be used to rain arrows down on the attacker and hold off the attack. Below the motte was a much larger, flatter, but lower mound, making the bailey of the motte-and-bailey.

This was also fenced in with a wooden palisade and housed what was, more or less, a small village. In this way, a motte and bailey could almost be self sufficient with animal pens and such they could survive for an extended length of time if needs be. The bailey was surrounded by a deep ditch, so that the only way in was over the drawbridge, because the ditch, coupled with the high walls and steep mound, made storming of the forts by cavalry far slower and storming on foot virtually impossible.

Another defence was to make the only entrance to the tower that lay on top of the motte a wooden walkway, called a ‘flying bridge’, that lead up to the berm. This way, in case of an attack it could be easily disassembled and the garrison could defend the tower until reinforcements could arrive. When William had gained a foothold in England, and furthermore, when he became king, the great number of motte and bailey’s he had built came into greater effect as, he now had time to add to them and modify them. In his reign he had commissioned the building of 86 castles over Britain.

Many of these were improved, either by adding onto the motte and bailey design or building up on the same site, using the power base that had been created there to his advantage. When he became King of England on Christmas day of 1066, William claimed all the land as his own but gave grants of land (fiefdoms) to the Norman lords and generals who provided him with military assistance during the invasion. Cleverly, he stopped any one of them amassing their power and taking his throne, by giving them separate estates spread across his kingdom.

In order to protect and control their new lands the lords built castles on each of their estates. It was from on this groundwork that we begin to see how castles became so powerful an invention and how the beginning of the evolution of the castle in Britain came about. Evolution of the Castle After the turbulence of the Invasion had settled, there was time to build up castles and improve them. Castles changed, as there was call for this change to occur. Motte and bailey forts were used because they were what was best for the job and fitted the situation.

Everything that was added to design of a castle had a spark that caused it, showing how castles, in their very nature, are designed for functionality and have to be as robust as possible. The first changes to a standard motte and bailey would, if still in a useful position to its owner, have a wooden tower replaced with a stone keep, wooden palisade replaced with stone wall, possibly with circular towers. This didn’t happen very early on however, unless the castle was in an extremely useful and strategic position, as it warranted the hiring of highly skilled castle-builder, was extremely expensive and were very slow to put up.

They wouldn’t take quite as long if the entirety of the walls were put up in one go, however, this was not done as it made for weaker walls. For a wall to stay up, you had to build about a metre and let it settle for a few months before you could build the next layer. Considering that the walls of an inner building like the donjon could be metres thick, you can see how it could take decades to completely erect a stone castle and for this reason, such a decision was not taken lightly.

In a typical concentric castle (see source_ DK Castle) there would be around fifty blacksmiths, several hundred masons, and well over a thousand labourers. Cities who needed something professionally built in this period, would have to compete with barons who needed a new castle and had taken up all the skilled builders. Some castles still used the old motte and bailey design, with the keep built on a motte, with the rest of the castle buildings on a motte, sometimes multiple mottes, all with stone walls around the outside.

As time went on, and castles were tested more from years of warfare, the designs of certain parts of castles changed subtly. For instance palisade walls would have wooden hoardings (see source_p. 29 DK castle book) built into them, which were overhanging structure built off the ramparts above doors and weaknesses in the building, which allowed defenders to drop stones and missiles onto woule-be attackers.

Wooden hoardings soon became stone machiolations (see source_ p. 9 &35 DK castle), which jutted out from the battlements and were supported on stone corbels. Large windows on outer walls were quickly changed in favour of small, open slits with very wide angles cut into the walls on the inside, allowed defenders to easily shoot out, with a wider range of fire, but made it harder for an attacker to shoot arrows in. As the keeps got bigger and heavier, the motte couldn’t support it without collapsing in on itself, to the mound on which the keep sat, became shallower but much wider, but was still higher than the bailey.

Eventually, all walls on the outside of the castle had right angled corners were eliminated, as they gave the attackers somewhere to hide and made gave blind-spots to defenders. This lead to most late castle designs to be more hexagonal in shape, giving as a big a field of vision to the defender as possible, and eliminating anywhere for attackers to attempt to destroy walls by chipping at them with pick-axes, usually on a corner, as it’s the weakest part of a wall.

Wall-walks had battlements such as crenellations, which were points at the top of a wall that defenders could hide behind whilst reloading a bow and were added to make fighting off attackers at the base of a wall much more effective. The first, great catalyst for change of castles, however, was the invention of siege weapons, brought back by the crusaders in the 12th century. These forced castle-builders to drastically rethink the design of the castle. This lead to the inception of concentric castles (see source_ DK castle book).

The basic idea of a concentric castle was to push a siege engine as far away from the castle proper as possible. The outer wall was fairly close to, and lower than the inner, sometimes so low that it seemed more like a barrier to siege weapons that an actual wall. But it meant that archers on the inner walls could shoot over the heads of those on the outer, doubling the firepower of the defenders. Also, if attackers broke the outer wall, there was still the inner to breach.

The best castles were those that did as much as possible to avoid direct man-to-man fighting and always kept the enemies siege weapons at a distance. A well designed castle could be defended effectively by a small force and hold out for a long period of time against greater numbers. Defenders didn’t only passively defend, they would have needed to be aggressive in their defence of a castle, looking for any opportunity to perform a quick raid on any force preparing a siege. Destroying one piece of siege equipment could slow an attack by days and make a great dent in the attacker’s morale.

Another important defensive structure was the gatehouse. This was the first obstacle faced by oncoming attackers after getting past a moat, again, used to distance siege weapons from the castle. The gatehouse was an obvious weak-point, so a defensive barbican would be built to guard the approach. The gatehouse, like much else of the castle would have many tricks to deter the attacker. A portcullis, which was an iron grille, attached to a winch in the room above, that could be quickly dropped at the first sign of danger, may be used.

A clever tactic with a portcullis was to have two, but keep the first open, so that if an attack force broke a wall and were through to the gatehouse and were trying to break the portcullis, the first one could be closed on them, trapping them in and allowing that force to be slaughtered with relative ease. Also used would be a drawbridge, which could take several forms, but could always be removed to further slow attackers approach and make them easier for defenders to pick off.

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