Medieval Castles 101 – Defensive Measures

When it comes to defensive measures, medieval castles are a treasure trove of nasty surprises for any invading force.  Every aspect of the castle was built purely for defense.  A well designed castle could withstand all but the greatest of attacks, ensuring the safety of the local nobility and the local peasantry.   Here are some of the highlights:

The Curtain Wall

The best defense a castle could have was a strong and tall curtain wall, the outermost wall in the structure.  These walls were tall and thick and had parapets, or a place for the defenders, along the top.  The average height was around 30 feet and they could range from 7 – 20 feet thick.   Along the base it was common for the wall to slope away like in the above picture, this not only made it harder for the wall to be penetrated but the defenders could drop things like stones or boiling oil and it would bounce into the attackers faces.

On the top of the wall surrounding the parapets is a crennelated wall.  The merlons are the parts that stick up like teeth and the crennels are the valleys.  These provided the defenders places they could duck behind to protect them from arrows and other flying objects.  Some castles have arrow loops in the merlons to give the defender even more options for attack.

Arrow loops or slits are usually found in the towers on the corners of the walls, but they can be placed wherever needed.  As you can see from the picture they splay out, giving the defender room to turn from side to side and up and down.

Outside the curtain wall or occasionally between the outer and inner curtain walls there would often be a moat to further discourage attackers.  More often than not this moat was also part of the castle sewage system as well to make it even less than appealing to swim in.

The Gatehouse

No attack would be complete without an assault on the gatehouse.  Literally, the gatehouse housed the main outer gate and created a choke point for invaders to enter.  The gate could be quickly raised and lowered to ward off the initial attack (or riot) while the rest of the defenses were set in place.  The gatehouse also often protected the drawbridge when present.

Inside the gatehouse there were often holes in the ceiling for defenders upstairs to fire arrows or thrust lances through.  These were referred to, unsurprisingly, as murderholes.  Also it wasn’t unheard of for the gatehouse to be set in an “L” shape that would slow the attackers passage and give defenders a greater opportunity to repeal them.

Within the Walls

If invaders happened to make it past the outer defenses they would then encounter the killing grounds, large areas where defenders would be waiting.  In times of peace these are referred to as the inner and outer wards.  In better designed castles the gatehouse would be offset from the inner gate with hopes that the attackers would be pushed down into a dead-end created by the inner and outer walls.

For a defender a well-designed castle made the difference between survival and death.  For an attacker it was a gruesome and grueling task to penetrate one of these fortresses.  But if successful it would be another territory gained by the victor.

For Medieval Castle basics, click here


About Jodi

Jodi L. Milner is a writer, mandala enthusiast, and educator. Her epic fantasy novel, Stonebearer’s Betrayal, was published in November 2018 and rereleased in Jan 2020. She has been published in several anthologies. When not writing, she can be found folding children and feeding the laundry, occasionally in that order.
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8 Responses to Medieval Castles 101 – Defensive Measures

  1. Michael Knudsen says:

    Love castles. Especially the tradition of pouring boiling oil on your attackers. To me the ultimate castle is Mervyn Peake’s sprawling Gormenghast, grown so large over centuries of construction that no one knows where it ends.

  2. An insightful–and very useful–look at castles in general. Didn’t you do something on this nearly a year ago? Good post.

    • tsuchigari says:

      I did a castle basics post a few months ago – seems like years with all of the NaNoWriMo excitement. That post is still getting lots of hits so I thought it a good idea to do a follow up.

  3. oldancestor says:

    Castles are also great for surviving a zombie apocalypse. You can use the couryard (inner ward?) for raising crops and maybe keep some chickens in the outer ward.

    All you need to do is survice until winter, when the zombies freeze.

    • tsuchigari says:

      They did use the wards for all sorts of things in peace times which would make it even more ideal for an apocalypse – food stores are already in place. Although I’m not sure the locals would have viewed it the same way.

  4. Pingback: Medieval Castle Anatomy 101 « My Literary Quest

  5. Pingback: The Great Weekly Article Hunt #1 | World Building School

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