Home > Uncategorized > The Castle–Part One: Purpose

The Castle–Part One: Purpose

Rather than make a single exceedingly long post, I’ve decided to break this up over a few of them, posted over a few days.

To begin I need to establish what a castle is, and what it isn’t. Without that knowledge many, if not most, people would lump several distinct structures together.

1. Walled settlements – These are not castles in any sense of the word. A walled city or village is a civil creation, not a military one. Yes, such walls have important military consequences, but the more important reasons are crime and transportation control and sometimes quarantine. They are purely defensive structures, much like you might put a fence around your property or install a steel front door.

2. Monastery Walls – This is somewhat along the lines of a walled settlement, but typically have shorter walls and are meant less for defense they are to control access to the facility within. It wasn’t uncommon for there a wall but no gate. It wasn’t uncommon for the church or cathedral to have it’s front doors open outside the wall to further reduce the presence of the laity in the monastery close. It should be kept in mind that not all monasteries had walls.

3. Castles – These are what I’m talking about. A self contained structure, sometimes, but not always, associated with a walled or un-walled settlement. Castles are military structures, with few exceptions. They provide refuge as well as storage, and usually have a garrison of men-at-arms in-residence. They would also typically be major administrative and judicial hubs. The most often used definition defines castles as fortified residences, that doesn’t mean a king or other noble must live there full time, or ever, but many nobles owned more than just a single castle, and the King of England owned a few dozen castles, kept by an appointed person on an others behalf.

So why are castles built? We have a romantic vision of castles being places of last refuge from armies and generally being constructed for the benefit of the local populace. While not universal, sometimes it was true. More often castles in England and elsewhere were built not to defend a locale, but to subjugate and oppress nearby inhabitants. This means many castles were terror weapons rather than sanctuaries.

It’s actually quite easy to determine whether a fortification was benevolent or tyrannical if you survey local politics and location. Castles having a walled city nearby are likely to have been built as the seat of government and refuge in time of war.

On the other hand, castles that were built seemingly in the middle of nowhere were almost always built for military staging, “border control”, and/or oppression of the locals. Again, this isn’t absolute, some were built to project power and control into the accompanying settlement, but that is an exception, not the rule.

One such fortification was the Anatonia Fortress where Pontius Pilate lived and worked. That fortress was wholly contained within the walled city of Jerusalem, and right next to the 2nd Jewish Temple, complete with a passage leading into the Temple, in case the romans ever felt the need to put down rebellions and riots. This castle was truly a tool, a method of forcing submission and compliance with roman edicts.

There are many excellent examples of the rural castles built for oppression in the Welsh Marches. Specifically to keep the Welsh “in their place”. Some of these were massive, while others quite small, but all served the purpose of intimidation and submission.

I mentioned that you need to look at location and local politics when determining the main purpose. Because castles do not often get up and move, it stands to reason that since political and military realities evolve and change with time, new castles are built to reflect those changes. This explains why some castles still exist and others have fallen into ruin. Old castles could often be bought at bargain basement prices once no longer needed for strategic purposes, quite a few were converted to residences and remain in that capacity even today. Other times, castles were “mined” for the resources used in constructing them, not unlike the roman aqueducts which, after the empires fall, were quarried and enormous amounts of stone reclaimed. Perhaps the worlds first large scale recycling effort.

The traditional castle was eventually rendered obsolete, by technological advancements such as gunpowder. The castles most people picture were never designed to ward off cannonballs or many other new weapons and tactics. Using a little common sense you should see that a direct hit, square on to a wall, is going to cause more damage, more often than the less powerful catapult’s and trebuchet’s. All this in part because of these radically, and rapidly, changing military realities. Castle building stopped almost overnight with the widespread use of black powder and not long after, the basic concept of star forts was developed. Unfortunately for castle owners, by building a better mouse trap, the mice began developing more powerful, more accurate, lighter, and cheaper firearms, even the star fortress fell in the pages of history.

Next: Part 2 – Design and Evolution

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