Misconceptions We All Have About Castles

Thanks to the entertainment industry, many of us have a very skewed perspective of what castles were really like in their hey-day. We often picture dungeons where enemies were kept captive, croc-filled moats to keep them away and great halls for feasting. But this is often far from the truth. The list below will help shed light on some of the misconceptions that most of us have about castles.

1. They Had Dungeons

No one can fault you for thinking that all medieval castles had dungeons. In reality, early medieval castle dwellers hardly ever locked people as punishment. And when they did, they were usually wealthy prisoners who were kept captive in a great tower, the room that was the easiest to guard and the hardest to escape. Dungeons or don-jons as they were known back then, didn’t appear until much later on when prisoners were taken to the darkest, grossest parts of the castle, such as the floor or tower.

2. They Were Surrounded by Moats

Close your eyes and picture a medieval castle in your mind. If it’s got a moat that’s filled with water and savage crocodiles, then you’re like most people. Sorry to burst your bubble but castles with moats were exceedingly rare, and the ones with water were usually hard to maintain. Dry moats were much more common and some used rivers as a partial moat that forced attackers to approach from a different direction. Mostly, though, moats were generally unnecessary given that castles were built at the top of hills and had amazing vantage points.

3. The Great Hall Was for Feasting

While it’s true that castles did have great halls, they weren’t used the way many of us expected. Rather than gathering there for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the great hall was a sort of giant, makeshift bedroom where everyone, including soldiers, staff, the lord and his family, communed together. In the earlier years, the lord and his family often slept at the far end of the hall behind a curtain. Today, we’d find this strange but it wasn’t uncommon back then for people to sleep in one large room.

4. They Had Large Garrisons

In case you don’t know what garrisons are, they’re the troops stationed at the castle to defend it from enemies. We often imagine castles to be heavily guarded with hundreds of soldiers but according to a 1545 manuscript from the Wark Castle, most garrisons consisted of no more than 200 men at a time, typically with 10 gunners and 26 horsemen. Even relatively small garrisons were capable of holding the castle for months by shutting the door and manning the towers with their bows. They were also tasked with performing duties outside the castle walls.

5. Lords Could Build Them Where They Wanted

Any lord looking forward to building a castle had to jump through a few hoops first. Sure, they had the money to do so, but monarchs ensured that not just anyone could do it. The lords had to apply for a “license to crenellate,” similar to obtaining planning permission for a housing extension. Only a handful were issued every year, so it was a big deal applying for one as it took a really long time to be qualified. It also had to be issued personally to the king and then go through the scrutinizing eyes of the royal administration. Once given the greenlight, they were free to build their castles.


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