How to Make Sense of a British Castle

Castle Acre in Norfolk
Last Refuge/robertharding/Getty Images

Castles - Britain has hundreds. The very word conjures up magic, glamour, and fantasy. But what exactly was a castle, really? Understand the lingo and you'll get the picture.

The Castles scattered across the landscape in England, Scotland and Wales weren't built for fairy princesses (unless they were being held prisoner). They were fearsome places - first and foremost, fortresses, designed to either intimidate and subdue the local population (like Edward I's castles in Wales) or to defend it.

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Some, like the nameless castle in the Norfolk village of Castle Acre are little more than crumbled ruins or, like Maiden Castle, mounds of earth where settlements once stood. Others, like Harlech Castle or Caernarvon,  have towers, turrets, and battlements galore, enough to feed any romantic day dream.

But What Does It All Mean?

When you visit castles, a lot of mysterious terms are bandied about as if everyone knows what they mean. You mean you don't know what a motte and bailey is? And you thought a donjon was the same thing as a dungeon? 

Without some basic info, touring the most romantic castle can seem like a trudge around a pile of rocks. But, once you learn a few castle terms it all makes sense. These key words and phrases will have you talking "castle" with the best of them in no time and understanding how these military strongholds really worked.

  1. Motte and Bailey - The first castles were made of wood and placed on naturally high places or on large, man made mounds. That mound was called a motte. It was usually surrounded by a ditch and then an expanse of level ground inside a stone wall or a palisade (a fence made of sharpened sticks, pointed end up). That level ground was the bailey. Sometimes the wall that surrounded it was also called a bailey. Though there are no pure motte and bailey castles left, there is plenty of evidence of them. The iconic round tower, Windsor Castle's most familiar feature, stands on the castle's original motte, an artificial 50 ft mound made of chalk excavated from the ditch that surrounds it.
  1. The Ward - In large castles such as Windsor, with more than one bailey or defended courtyard area surrounded by a wall, each area would be called a ward. When you visit a castle, you may see areas described as the upper ward and lower ward, for example. This probably has little to do with their physical height but may describe how close or far away they are in relation to the castle keep.
  1. Bastion - I always thought that bastion was just another word for a stronghold. But when you are speaking "castle", bastion is used to specifically describe the towers, round or angled, at the intersection of two walls. Archers were usually stationed at arrow slits or loops from where they would defend the rest of the castle.
  2. The Keep - This was the fortified residence that was the strongest part of the castle. It might be located in the middle of the castle's bailey or on high ground overlooking it but wherever the keep was located, it was chosen because it was best-defended spot. In a battle, if the keep fell, the castle was taken. At Orford Castle, built in the 12th century, all that remains is the keep.
  3. The Donjon - In Norman castles, the keep was usually called the donjon - not a dungeon at all, but the heavily defended residence and refuge. It was also the main tower within the castle walls.
  4. Barbican - This was the last defense of the castle keep. If attackers managed to penetrate the castle gates they would be forced to fight their way toward the keep through a funnel shaped passage enclosed by high walls known as the barbican. Once enemy forces entered a barbican, they could be showered from above with arrows, burning oil and other weapons while being slowed down by various obstacles put in their way. It's interesting that a barbican was a kind of obstacle course - London's Barbican Centre is one of the most confusing and impenetrable places to navigate in the City.
  1. Curtain Wall - This is the defensive wall that surrounds the bailey. It can also be the wall that connects the bastions or towers, if these are separate from the keep itself. Larger castles often had two curtain walls - an outer wall that had to be breached before the inner curtain wall, defended by the bastions, could be attacked.
  2. The Solar - This was the private quarters of the lord's family. A large castle would have a Great Hall on the ground floor that was open to all members of the household. Guest accommodations might be located in the tower walls off this hall and the day to day entertaining, political negotiations and castle intrigue took place here. It was what would later be defined as "the court." The Solar, on the other hand, was above the ground floor and was the private living and sleeping quarters of the family. The word solar, by the way, has nothing to do with the sun. It was, in fact, derived from the Norman French for alone, seule.
  1. The Oubliette - Medieval castles rarely had true dungeons because keeping prisoners was uncommon. You would have been much more likely to be killed or exiled for a crime than have been imprisoned at the lord's expense. But sometimes it was necessary to hide someone away - perhaps forever. In that case, they might be thrown in the Oubliette, a deep pit, usually at the bottom of a bastion and reached only through a trap door. Sometimes an oubliette was located high in the tower so that the prisoner could hear and smell the life going on around him but have no means of escape. The word oubliette comes from the French for forgotten place. It was used as more than punishment but as a kind of torture. The prisoner was thrown away and left to die forgotten.
  2. The Garderobe - Even the Middle Ages people used euphemisms for the toilet. No the garderobe was not the place where clothing was stored, though that's what the French word means. It was the privy, the loo, the jakes, the john, the toilet. The word probably gave rise to the British use of the term WC or water closet for the lavatory, and the (also British) use of the words cloak room to describe a downstairs loo. Given the lack of running water, it might have made sense to position this important, functional room somewhere out of doors. But as I said at the start of this piece, a castle was, first and foremost, a military fortress. It made sense for knights to stay within its protection when performing vulnerable bodily functions. The garderobe was usually located within one of the towers or within a thicker castle wall and separated from the other rooms by a chicane like the arrangement of walls. The room had chutes that - if the servants were lucky - emptied into a river or a moat. If they were unlucky, one of the castle servants would have had the task of emptying the bottom of the chutes.