Posted by: Jodi | October 13, 2010

Medieval Castle Anatomy 101

For those of you writing epic or swords and sorcery fantasy, or anything set in Medieval times, this post is for you.  Chances are that somewhere in your story there will be a castle and you will need to be familiar with some basic terminology.  Most castles are very similar in their layout.
Inner ward –  large inner courtyard, usually surrounding the keep

Inner curtain – A high wall surrounding the inner ward

Tower – a square or round structure built as part of the wall

Inner gate – gate leading to the inner ward

Outer gate – gate in the inner curtain, part of a gatehouse

Moat – pit around the castle, often filled with water.

Drum Tower – a short round tower built to support the wall

Outer curtain – the outermost wall defending the outer ward

Keep – the central most defensible part of a castle, where the defenders could make a last stand.  It is generally the largest and tallest structure to allow visibility of the surrounding area.  Living quarters are located here.

Arrow slits – also called arrow loops, can be shaped as slits, keyholes, or crosses.  From the inside the slits widen so an archer can turn side to side and stay protected.

Gatehouse – Structure consisting of two large towers that support the gate.  They were often large enough to house a standing guard and are considered the strongest defensive positions in the castle.

Donjon – developed into the keep of the castle

Barbican – a structure used to help defend the gateway, usually consisting of towers and walls built at right angles to the gatehouse.

Inner and Outer Bailey – In the picture it shows the baileys as walls but they are actually the courtyards or wards.  These were used as exercise yards, parade grounds, and occasionally corrals.

Battlements – fighting position on the top of towers and along the wall, with crenelated walls to protect the defenders.

Drawbridge – a heavy timber platform between the gatehouse and surrounding land that could be raised to protect the door.  There is also a turning bridge that pivoted in the middle to prevent entrance.

Portcullis – a heavy timber or metal grill that could be dropped to protect the main entrance.  It was occasionally used to trap attackers inside the barbican.

Other features:

Chapel – Many castles had their own chapel built as part of the keep.

Stables – The horses do have to be kept somewhere!  Generally they were located between the two walls, but this varied greatly between structures.

Secret passages – a castle wouldn’t be complete if there weren’t secret doors and passages to help protect the occupants.  Some of these led to other locations in the keep and some led to escape routes.

There are literally hundreds of other special terms but these should cover most all writing needs.  If there is something that I’ve neglected to mention here are some helpful links:

Basic Castle Parts
Advanced Castle Parts
Life in a castle

Happy Writing!

Check out the sequel posts:

Medieval Castles 101 – Defensive Measures

Sword Anatomy 101



  1. Love castles. We visited several in the Loire Valley in France ~ Chenenceaux, Chambord, Versaille (more of a palace) and love seeing them on Travel Shows.

    Thanks, Jo.

    • Me too! Would love to visit Wales and France just to do castle tours.

  2. It’s amazing how much of a castle’s construction was purely for defense. Tough times, those medieval days.

    • What I included wasn’t the half of it, I could do a whole separate post on defensive measures and features found in castles. Maybe I will…

  3. Cool layouts, although I didn’t see the Lord’s living quarters in the first one.

    And, who’da thunk it? Castle is one of my favorite shows on TV. (grin)

    • It’s in the keep – perhaps I’ll do a different post on castle keep interiors as well. Yay, love ideas for new posts.

  4. That’s not a castle, it’s a zombie fortress!

    • To keep them in or to keep them out?

      • Is an outer bailey the land around the castle?

  5. […] For Medieval Castle basics, click here […]

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