Basic elements of a medieval castle design

A moat, a hill, a gate, walls and towers - these are the basic elements of the design of a medieval castle Средневековый замок среднего феодала элементы конструкции средневекового замка

The medieval castle is a symbol of an entire era. Unfortunately, there are almost none of them preserved on our territory, but in Europe they are at almost every turn. In each country, and even in each region, they were built with local characteristics, but they always performed one function – protective.

And don’t think that since feudal lords and landowners lived in castles, there were fabulously rich interiors and comfort inside. How sad it is, it’s quite the opposite! The medieval feudal lord was a military man, and his home was more of a defensive line than a palace in the understanding of a person of the 19th or 21st centuries. And castles were built for themselves not only by feudal lords, but also by small landowners and knights, who had even fewer resources. Only kings could afford to live in wealth, and not all of them.

The castle was characterized by eternal dampness and omnipresent cold. Thick tapestries on the walls helped with the dampness, but even the fireplaces did not help with the cold. It’s certainly warm near the fireplace, but they won’t heat the entire room. There were also a lot of rodents, but it was impossible to cope with them in the conditions of thick walls and spacious basements.

And with the richness of room decorations, everything is complicated. So why equip and decorate rooms in which no one has lived for years? All the furniture will simply rot in this dampness. That is why, for example, Philip IV the Fair (1268-1314), moving between his castles, carried furniture and tapestries with him. As they say, I arrived, settled into my usual surroundings, lived, got ready and moved on.

Средневековый замок среднего феодала
Medieval castle of a feudal lord (knight)

After all, the main task of the castle was not the comfort of the inhabitants, but their safety. Once you have a clearer understanding of the purpose of the lock, you can discuss its main elements. After all, it was these design features that helped the castle to be truly impregnable. For example, let’s take a castle from the 13th – 14th centuries (High Middle Ages), when stone construction had already become dominant in Europe, and the general plan of castles had become established and became more or less universal.

Hill and moat of a medieval castle

The story about the castle, like about any architectural object, must begin with the foundation. And the foundations of the castles were made with practicality and simplicity typical of the Middle Ages.

If the castle was located in a place convenient for defense – on an island or peninsula, or covered a mountain pass (gorge) – then there was no need for special construction of the foundation. After all, the rocky base of the castle served as an excellent basis for stone walls. But there were few good natural places from the point of view of defense, and there were thousands of small feudal lords in the Middle Ages, so they had to create a convenient landscape for their castles manually.

If the castle was located on a plain, then to facilitate its defense, a ditch was dug at the first stage. What to do with the earth and rubble that formed huge piles during digging? Taking it away from the construction site is expensive and stupid, leaving it outside the ditch is dangerous; the besiegers will simply push the embankment into the ditch and bury it back. So the decision came to form a motte from these dumps – a man-made hill in the middle of the castle, on which the citadel was then built.

рукотворный холм в основании средневекового замка касл мэн
An example of a man-made hill at the base of a medieval castle

The castle built on a motte, firstly, was additionally raised above the moat and the surrounding area, which made defense easier, and secondly, it received a firmly compacted bulk foundation, which did not allow the stone walls to fall into the ground.

Over time, castles became more complex and earthen foundations gave way to stone underground pillows and basements. But if we talk about donjons, then until the very end of the era of castle construction they were placed on a motte.

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As for the structure of the fortress moat, here each feudal lord designed it to his own taste – the ditches could be dry or filled with water, lined with stone or simply dug in the ground. The main task of the ditch was not even to stop the advancing infantry, but to prevent siege engines from rolling up directly to the wall. A pleasant bonus was that it is much more difficult to make a mine – digging under a fortress wall with the aim of collapsing it – if there is a ditch: the defenders will see from which side the underground work is going on and prepare.

Мейдерслот ров замка касл мэн каслмэн
Muiderslot Castle, Netherlands (ca. 1200-1280)

Castle Gate

Approaching the castle, we must see the gate – the easiest way to overcome the walls and moat. As a rule, initially all castles with moats were equipped with drawbridges, but over time they were abandoned in many cases due to the complexity of the design and insignificant benefit in terms of defensive capability. The stone bridge is also difficult to storm, but moving across it both in peacetime and during forays is much more convenient.

Ворота шотландского замка. Видны деревянные проклепанные створки, подъемная железная решетка и узкий проход во внутренний двор.
Scottish castle gates (have wooden doors, a lifting iron grille and a narrow passage to the courtyard

What really helped defend the castle gates was the gate tower. After all, the weakest point of the castle’s defense is the gate. After all, wooden gate leaves or metal bars are much less durable than stone or wooden walls. In order to correct this weak element necessary in the design, a tendency very quickly arose to build additional defensive galleries above the gates, which over time turned into gate towers.

Ворота замка каслмэн
Gate tower of the Rhodes Fortress (reconstruction of the 19th century)

On the one hand, the towers made it possible to more effectively protect the gates from the advancing enemy and organize defense even if the gates were broken through, and on the other hand, this was a checkpoint at the entrance to the castle. Through it you can easily control who came and what they brought.

That is why the gate tower very quickly becomes a key element in the design of a medieval castle. According to archaeological research, at the turn of the 12th – 13th centuries, when most of the wooden castles began to be rebuilt into stone ones, it was the gate tower that was rebuilt in stone first!


The most ancient element of a medieval castle is the Donjon, which is a free-standing tower that served as a citadel. In many cases, castles began with dungeons. A separate tower was quite easy to defend with small forces; both the feudal lord and his family and their warriors were located in its premises, and storerooms and service rooms were located in the basements.

It was this tower that the defenders of the castle had to defend in the final moments of the assault, when the walls and moat fell and the invaders made their way into the courtyard. But the increased defense capability had to be paid for with convenience – narrow windows provided little light, fireplaces were located only in separate rooms, and all floors were connected by narrow spiral staircases. That is why donjons were used for living only at the beginning of the Middle Ages, when feudal lords lived in constant readiness for a surprise attack. And in those days there was something to be afraid of; a neighbor could always come to visit and take away the unaffordable property.

Donjon of Bragança Castle (13th century, Portugal)

The interesting fate of the citadel can also be traced from the etymology of the words: initially the word donjon came from the corrupted Latin dominionus or master’s tower, and then transformed into dunjeon or dungeon, meaning a prison with terrible underground cells. That is why, in the calmer periods of the High Middle Ages, feudal lords preferred to live in estates or palaces, and moved to castles only when there was a threat of war.

The general elements of the castle do not end there. After all, we can discuss for a long time the structure and layout of the walls and corner towers, which allow us to obtain maximum protection for the courtyard, talk about the battlements on the fortress wall, loopholes and other fortification elements, but the task of this article is to look at the architectural ensemble of the castle as a whole, see in it not a miracle of the engineering genius of the Middle Ages, but a work of architectural art.

This concludes our story about what were the basic elements of the construction of a medieval castle.

Additionally, through this link, you can find a wealth of fascinating information about the Middle Ages and medieval castles.