Castle Words, Terms, and definitions


Types of Castles- This can sometimes be a bit nebulous but there are some reasonably good guidelines for defining the different types of castles. These definitions change with the types of structures and they also changed with the centuries.

I have more information about the types of castle with included drawings to show the different types of castles right here: The Types of Castles

Motte and Bailey: an early form of castle where a large mound of dirt was built up then a wooden fortification was placed on top. This wooden fortification was in the shape of a timber fence that formed a circle like a crown at the top of the mound. The Mound is the motte, and the timber fence and the space it enclosed is the Bailey.

The Rectangular Keep ( also called a donjon or dungeon) 11th and 12th Centuries

The Rectangular Keep was the early types of castles that we are more familiar with today. They were built of stone and tended to have very high and thick walls. They were an improvement in stone on the Motte and Bailey. But generally they couldn't be constructed on top of a motte because of the tremendous weight of the stone. A couple of interesting design note about these towers was that often the only entrance into it was actually up on the second floor which made it more difficult for enemies to gain entrance. And they were often surrounded by some kind of a curtain wall like the bailey was. Except the curtain wall was stone. The most famous example of the Keep is the Tower of London.

The Shell Keep 13th Century

The Basic structure of a Shell keep was a circular or semi-circular shell of stone wall with various buildings inside it. Sometimes a Motte and Bailey was upgraded into a stone shell keep. The Stockade fence around the keep would be replaced with a stone wall. Restormel Castle in England is a fine example of this type of castle.

The Concentric Castle 13th - 14th Centuries

This type of castle is a combination of the shell keep and the rectangular keep. It is an expression of a very important technique in defense - that of concentric lines of defense. In effect it is a keep surrounded by a wall which in turn is surrounded by another wall. Sometimes there were moats in between these concentric circles or on the very outside. These moats are in themselves further concentric lines of defense.

The Palace or Royal Quarters - 14th -16th Centuries

Technically we could be blurring the line a little bit when we talk about palaces and living quarters as being castles. But they were a natural extension of the traditional fortress castle and many of the fortress style castles were transformed and upgraded into palaces and living quarters.

Gothic Revival Castle - 17th- 18th Centuries

This type of castle was built by people of wealth and power in homage to the castles and fortresses of previous centuries. They were more ornate both in and out and their primary functions were as living quarters and to impress.

Castle Terms and Words

I also have a page with the parts of a medieval castle including a drawing so you can see the various major parts.

Arrow Loops - These were slots in the walls and structures that were used to shoot arrows through. They came in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.

Ashlar - Blocks of smooth square stone. They can be of any kind of stone.

Bailey: This is a courtyard or open space surrounded by walls.The walls that make up the Bailey are also considered to be part of the Bailey. A castle could have several. Sometimes they were called the upper bailey and lower bailey or the west bailey and east bailey.

Barbican: A stone structure that protected the gate of a castle. Think of it as a gatehouse. It usually had a small tower on each side of the gate where guards could stand watch.

Barmkin: A yard surrounded by a defensive wall

Bartizan: A small turret at the corner of a tower or wall. It is usually at the top but not always.

Bastion: A tower or turret projecting from a wall or at the junction of two walls

Battlements: These are the structures at the tops of the walls surrounding a castle. Picture what you have seen in the movies where archers are at the top of the wall and firing arrows between open slots down on the attackers. These shapes at the top (Where the archers position themselves for battle) are called battlements. They are also referred to as crenellations.

Buttress: A masonry projection used as additional support for walls. Notre Dame Cathedral is a good examlple of the use of Buttresses.

Corbel - A stone projection from a wall. It supports the weight of a battlement.

Courtyard - The open area with the curtain walls of a castle.

Curtain Wall - The stone walls around a castle.

Drawbridge - This was a wooden bridge in front of the main gate of the castle. In the early centuries of castles it was moved horizontal to the ground and in the later centuries it was built so it could raise up in a hinged fashion.

Dungeon - A deep dark cell typically underground and underneath a castle. This is a derivative of the word Dunjon.

Donjon - this is an old word for a great tower or a keep.

Embrasure - An opening in a parapet wall.

GateHouse - A strongly built and fortified main entrance to a castle. It often has a guard house and or living quarters.

GongFarmer - This was the person that took care of the human waste in a keep or castle. He would literally stir it up!

Hall or GreatHall - This is the major building inside th walls of a castle.

Hoarding: a covered wooden gallery above a tower the floor had slats or slots to allow defenders to drop object on besiegers. They could also drop liquids and projectiles.

Keep - This definition changed slightly over the centuries of castle building. In the early years of stone castle building the Keep was a standalone structure that could be defended and often square in shape. Over the centuries these structures were improved upon and built around. Thus a castle was made that was a larger and more complex structure. The main tower that this was built around was still called the Keep and it was usually the tallest and strongest structure in the castle. It was also used as the last line of defense during siege or attack.

Machicolations - The openings between the corbels of a parapet. They form areas that stick out along the top of the wall and defenders inside the castle can drop items like boiling oil and rocks onto attackers. I have pictures and more information about machicolations here: About Machicolations

Merlons - The parts of parapet walls between embrasures

Moat: A Body of water surrounding the outer wall of a castle. It was often around 5 to 15 feet deep and it was sometimes within the outer wall -between the outer wall and the inner wall. The primary purpose of the moat wasn't to stop attackers it was to stop tunnelers. Tunneling under a castle was an effective means of collapsing the walls or infiltrating it. A moat would cause any tunnel to collapse.

Motte And Bailey: This isn't part of a castle it is the predecessor to the castle. A Motte and Bailey was an early form of castle where a large mound of dirt was built up then a wooden fortification was placed on top. This wooden fortification was in the shape of a timber fence that formed a circle like a crown at the top of the mound. The Mound is the motte, and the timber fence and the space it enclosed is the Bailey.

Murder Hole: An opening in the roof of a gateway over an entrance. Used to drop projectiles or other things onto the besiegers.

Oubliette: A deep pit reached by a trap door at the top. Prisoners were kept in it.

Palisade: A defenisive fence

Peel Tower - A watch tower or small fortified keep. Many of them were built along the english and scottish borders. I have an example of a Peel Tower here: (Belsay Castle)

Portcullis - This is a metal or wood grate that was dropped vertically just inside the main gate to the castle.

Postern - A small gate at the back of a castle. Often considered to be a "Back Door".

Rampart: Picture the battlements in the previous definition. The battlements are the top sections of the outer wall of the castle. Now to access these battlements the archers would stand on a walk way that was a wall in it's own right. This walkway is built right up against the outer wall and is called the Rampart.

Shouldered Arch - This is a doorway or entranceway with a arch. But the arch has cut out shoulders on it. I have a picture of a shouldered arch at Aydon Castle on this page.

Tracery Window -

Ward - The area inside the walls of a castle. Often also called the Court yard.

Yett: Iron gates at the entrance of a castle


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