The Sunday Section: Snippets of ... Medieval Castles and War

This was the result of research for another story, which was more to do with castles and the nobility …

Bodiam Castle


  • could be a nobleman’s home, or a base for his soldiers
  • the best location being a commanding position, from which a well-travelled road or a river crossing could be controlled
  • afforded a safe haven for the owners to live off the produce of their estate without fear of being attacked.
  • a secure place to launch an attack, and to retreat to in case of defeat

The weakest part of the castle wall was its gate, which was often part of a solidly built tower called the gatehouse.  

Bodiam Castle

A good description of a strongly fortified gatehouse (unfortunately I didn’t make a note of the castle) – flanked by 2 large round towers, with the walls splayed at the base and thicker masonry to protect them against mining; the wooden lifting bridge was over deep, dry ditches which would hinder attackers when the bridge was lifted.

The gatehouse could be closed off with a solid wall of wood, behind which was the portcullis, a wooden gate which could also be iron-clad.

Portcullis, Bodiam Castle

Murder holes were built into the stone ceiling of the gatehouse, which allowed people to pour boiling water or oil onto attackers.

Murder holes, Bodiam Castle

Embrasure – a narrow opening, or ‘loophole’ in the wall to the outside, which allowed those in the castle to look out and shoot at the enemy without showing themselves.

Embrasure, Tower of London

Battlement or Crenellation – gap-toothed wall tops built around the top of a castle, which allowed archers to stand safely behind, and fire arrows through the gaps.

Bodiam Castle

Most castles comprised the great hall, the most important part of the castle, where all meals were had and daily business was carried out; also the kitchen, a chapel, armourer’s workshop, smithy, stables, kennels and pens for animals, and large storerooms to keep the castle well stocked.

A reliable water supply, preferably a well, was vital, which could be used in times of a siege.

Richer people might use chamber pots for convenience, but most castles often had lavatories built into the walls; this basically comprised a seat which was connected to a chute, which opened directly onto the outside of the castle wall.

The LADY of the castle ruled the domestic areas, the kitchens and living quarters.  Even though she could delegate, it was her responsibility to check the accounts and agree to any expenses.  The lady’s main role in medieval society was to provide heirs, which made children very important.  She would be well-educated, able to read, write, understand Latin, and, more often than not, be able to speak foreign languages.  Often married by the age of 14, her marriage having been arranged by her family, a woman’s inheritance passed to her husband.  But, in truth, she was her husband’s equal, providing support for him and able to take responsibility for the castle when he was away.  If the castle was besieged in his absence, she would have to defend it and hold it against their enemies. 

The CHIVALRIC CODE, the knightly code of conduct that gained popularity in the 12th century, with a particular emphasis on treating women well …

Although men of war, knights who embraced the chivalric code were expected to behave in a courteous and civil way when dealing with their enemies.

The Church, especially, liked the idea of the high standards that were part of the code, and made the knighting ceremony a religious one, with a church vigil and a purifying bath.  However, in reality, this placed a huge burden on the knight, and many found it difficult to live up to the ideal.

At every English coronation, from Elizabeth I to George IV in 1821, a royal champion has ridden, fully armed, into the hall and hurled his gauntlet to the ground to defy anyone who wished to question the monarch’s right to rule.

'God Speed' - Edmund Blair Leighton

Into Battle:

A disciplined charge by mounted knights was a fearsome sight; starting at a walk, then a trot and finally spurring their horses into a gallop as they neared the enemy.  As the first line made contact, those following behind would keep their lances raised, before lowering them to meet their opponents.  But infantry wasn’t powerless against the cavalry – staying in close formation and forming a ‘hedge’ of spears, they could hold off mounted knights, who were never happy about forcing their horses against spears.  Archers would then be called upon to try and break the infantry formations.

Archers wore, either, various pieces of defensive armour, or a simple padded doublet. 

  • The longbow was usually made of a yew wood, about the height of the archer, fitted with horn nocks at the tips to take the hemp string; war bows probably needed a pull of at least 80lb or more.  A leather bracer, strapped on the inside of the lower arm just above the wrist, protected the arms from a slap from the string; while a leather tab protected the archer’s fingers.  Archers needed to constantly practice to keep in condition and maintain their skills.
  • Each archer carried 24 arrows, known as a sheaf.  When these were used up, more were brought from supply wagons.  Many archers didn’t use quivers, but carried their arrows pushed through their belt.  When it came time to shoot, they would stick the arrows in the ground in front of them, significantly shortening the time it took to reload; a skilled archer could release 12 arrows per minute.  But an unintended side effect of sticking the arrows in the ground – a dirtied arrowhead was more likely to cause infection.
  • Arrows shot from a longbow could reach a distance of 1000ft.  This was done by shooting the arrows upwards; a ‘creeping barrage’ of arrows could be dropped on an advancing army.
  • Fletchings or feather flights – usually goose feathers – are three, sometimes four, matched half-feathers that are attached, equally spaced, near the back of the arrow; they make the arrow spin for a truer flight.

Even though the rules of chivalry stated that knights show courtesy to defeated enemies, this was not always the case, especially when they were in desperate circumstances, and facing death.  Knights, having little respect for the common foot soldier, showed them no mercy, cruelly cutting them down in pursuit.  Pursuers often did not hesitate to strike men in the back; once a man was down, the blows continued to make sure he didn’t rise again.  Even if those struck down were only slightly wounded, they were liable to be trampled by enemy horses, or even horses of their own knights.

Caltrops, made of iron and only a few cm high, had spikes pointing in various directions, so that whichever way they fell, they always landed with one spike pointing upwards.  Scattered on the ground, they could easily lame the enemy’s horses, or even men.

Having mounted knights in the army was no guarantee of success.  Examples of knights being defeated by foot soldiers:

  • English axe-men at Hastings cut down Norman knights in 1066
  • Flemish foot soldiers with clubs defeated French horsemen at Courtrai in 1302
  • Scottish spear formations stopped cavalry charges at Bannockburn in 1314
  • English longbow-men broke up cavalry charges by French knights at Crécy in  1346, and, Again, at Agincourt in 1415

After a battle, dead knights and prisoners were stripped of their armour.

Thought this might be of interest also, it’s more about medieval warfare before the Normans invaded in 1066.  Medieval hunting wasn’t just about hunting, it was also seen as preparation for war as it kept both, horse and rider, fit.  More importantly, it enhanced the camaraderie of the warriors.

King Athelstan was the first to establish an oath of allegiance, which was sworn by every boy when he turned 12 – “In the first place, all shall swear in the name of the Lord, before whom every holy thing is holy, that they will be faithful to the king.”  The oath was administered by the king’s shire reeve, who visited every community every year.

The significant part of the oath changed the seemingly impersonal duty of obeying rules into a matter of personal loyalty – “Even as it behoves a man to be faithful to his lord, without dispute or dissension … from the day on which this oath shall be rendered, no one shall conceal the breach of it on the part of a brother or family relation, any more than in a stranger.”

This oath, which became known as the ‘frank pledge’, was part of what was becoming an organised system of government.  Shires were subdivided into ‘hundreds’ (groupings of, more or less, 100 households), which were in turn subdivided into smaller, local ‘frank pledge’ groups of about 10 households; each member was held accountable for the good behaviour of family and neighbours.

Warriors, including kings as leaders of the war band, were essentially thugs.  That was the basic qualification that was required as all great societies owe their success to military triumph.  At the turn of the 11th century, the military elite of every European country was a force that had been trained to kill.  Nobility had nothing to do with upholding the ideals of honour and respect … it was more to do with wearing a sword and throwing your weight around.

The primary rule of warfare at the start of that century was to avoid battle, with opposing armies spending weeks manoeuvring to avoid one another.  Distinguishing liveries and coats of arms had yet to be developed; with both sides wearing, more or less, the same colours, the only way to distinguish friend from foe was to look your opponent in the face.  As most armies were small, it was possible to recognise your fellow soldier on sight.  Because of this, the soldier stood less chance of being killed compared to modern, mechanised warfare; but if a soldier was wounded, even if it was a small wound, the chances of dying were greater in the absence of proper medical care.

When the armies lined up, facing each other, the front line would consist of the youngest, strongest warriors – the equivalent of cannon fodder.  They would form a defensive row with their shields held chest high before them, touching or overlapping – this was known as the ‘shield-wall’ or ‘war hedge’ – with their spears protruding from the chinks in this ‘wall’.  Behind them would be the second rank – more lightly armed, more mobile, whose job it was to cover holes in the ‘shield-wall’, and act as liaison between the front line and the leader, who would be directly behind them.  The leader, on foot, would be armed and armoured like his men, and surrounded by his ‘house-carls’ or hearth companions, his own personal bodyguard.  Hostilities would begin with both sides throwing spears and loosing arrows, probably accompanied by jeering and shouting to psych themselves up.

Apart from his bow and arrows, the foot soldier would also bring his own throwing spear, and sword and shield.  The Anglo-Saxon army, consisting of the multi-function warrior, was the last army in Western Europe to fight as one identical host.  Unlike the Normans, whose army was divided into cavalry, infantry and bowmen – one of the reasons why the Normans won at Hastings.

Another major advantage the Normans had over the Anglo-Saxons was that they rode horses, while the English fought on foot.  The English army did ride horses, but once they reached the battlefield, they dismounted and the horses were led away.  The animals were not used in combat, but for, either, a speedy withdrawal or the pursuit of a fleeing foe.  Riding their muscular, nimble horses, specially bred for battle, made the Normans the most formidable fighting force in Europe. 

While we’re on the subject of the Normans, here’s an interesting snippet – to stop the Vikings, led by Rollo, raiding his territory in northern France, King Charles the Simple agreed to give them some land in 911, in return for Rollo’s allegiance.  Their new home, in the north-western corner of France, was called Normandy (Land of the Northmen).  Although the Vikings fought on foot, once they had established themselves in their new home, these Vikings, now called Normans, copied the French use of mounted knights, and became fearsome fighters.