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Castle Glossary

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A castle.

A visit to a castle can be a very rewarding day out as it can enable you to get back in touch with the past - possibly even your local history. Yet, over the centuries a large number of words associated with castles have developed - some medieval in origin, others French or Latin, and many of them confusing. It's all very well reading that 'This castle has some of the finest machicolations in the country' in the guidebook, but if you do not know what that means then you are unlikely to be able to fully appreciate them.

Knowing what these words mean helps enlighten the history and craft of castle-building, can encourage a more thorough appreciation of the castle, and when visiting with friends, also means that you can appear to be knowledgeable and informative. For example, should you accidentally fall over whilst climbing the spiral staircase, save face by explaining that it was a trip stair and you were merely demonstrating its effectiveness. So, if you don't know your moat from your motte, your bastion from your bartizan or your machicolation from your crenallation, this is the article for you!

Types Of Castles

AdulterineUnlicensed castle built without the Crown's permission - especially during The Chaos.
BlockhouseA small artillery fort defending a river.
BrochA small, round dry stone tower found in Scotland.
ConcentricA castle with two parallel sets of walls enabling defenders on the taller inner wall to support those on the smaller outer. Especially found in the castles of North Wales.
Counter CastleA structure built by the attackers near the castle to attack the castle or protect the attackers. Also known as a siege castle.
Courtyard CastleA rectangular castle built around a central square courtyard. All the castle's buildings are built into the castle's four walls, known as ranges. Examples of courtyard castles include Bolton Castle and Bodiam Castle.
EnceinteA castle defended only by walls and towers without a central keep.
Gatehouse KeepA castle whose keep also functioned as the castle's gatehouse.
Great TowerA tower keep castle. Examples include the Tower of London, Rochester and Scarborough.
Hall KeepA castle whose keep - unlike the tall, many-storeyed tower keeps - is squat, normally only two-storeyed, long and rectangular. Instead of the keep having its principle rooms above each other, the keep was built with its rooms next to each other. An example of a hall keep castle is Middleham.
HenricianCoastal castles designed as artillery fortifications to protect against the threat of French invasion during the reign of Henry VIII. Many were built around the Isle of Wight and Kent.
Hermit CrabA medieval castle built inside the remains of an earlier castle or fortification - such as Portchester Castle, whose Norman keep was built inside Roman walls.
HillfortAn earthwork-defended fortification dating from Britain's pre-Roman Celtic period.
Motte and BaileyA castle consisting of a large earth mound (motte) and a defended ward. Motte and bailey castles were originally built in wood but many were later converted to stone.
Peel/Pele TowerA tower house castle consisting of a large, isolated keep-like tower and often a hall - these are found in Northern England, Scotland and Ireland.
RingworkAn earthwork castle defended not by a motte, but by one or more ditches that surround the castle. Helmsley Castle is an example.
Sham CastleA building built to look like a castle, but in which all the military and defensive features are merely decorative.
Shell KeepA castle with a shell keep - a normally circular, squat stone keep on top of the motte replacing the simple wooden wall originally built there. York Castle and Carisbrooke Castle are good examples of shell keep castles.
Siege CastleA counter-castle.
StronghouseA house built to be hard for raiders and outlaws to break into, but unable to withstand a military attack.
Tower HouseOtherwise undefended manor houses which have a defensive tower attached to the house or nearby. Also known as peel or pele towers.
Tower KeepA castle whose main strongpoint is a donjon tower - also known as a great tower castle.

Parts Of The Castle

AllureA wall-walk.
ArcadeA row of arches supported by columns.
Arrow LoopA narrow slit in a castle wall or tower that allowed archers to shoot arrows at attackers.
AshlarA worked stone, normally rectangular, with a flat surface.
ApseRounded end of a building, normally a chapel.
BaileyA castle courtyard enclosed by a wall, pallisade or earthworks. Also the defended area below the motte in motte-and-bailey castles. Also known as a ward.
BalustradeA row of pillars supporting a parapet.
BarbicanA defensive feature outside the castle, normally a small mini-castle defending the passage to the castle's main gate.
Barrel-VaultA semi-cylindrical arched vault, often seen in cellars and store rooms.
BarmkinThe small walled yard attached to peel towers.
BartizanA small tower projecting outside a castle wall or on the corner of towers built above ground level.
BastionA gun platform, normally at a corner, that exposes attackers approaching the walls to criss-crossing flanking fire between it and other bastions nearby.
BatterA castle wall reinforced at the bottom. As the wall increases in thickness it slopes outwards.
BatteryA concentrated area of the castle containing a number of artillery guns.
BattlementsParapet and wall-walk around the castle defended by crenallations.
BermThe flat area of ground outside the castle's walls between the castle moat and wall.
BratticeA timber tower built over the castle wall, used to defend the castle walls below. Also known as a hoarding.
Burh/BurghA defended Saxon town. Normally defended with earthworks, ditches or palisade.
ButtressA stone support for a stone wall, projecting beyond the wall.
CapitalThe often-decorated top of a column.
CastellanOfficer in charge of a castle in the lord's absence.
ChamferA corner of a wall which, instead of ending in a right angle, has been cut across at a diagonal 45-degree angle.
Chemin-de-rondeA wall-walk that runs uninterrupted around the whole castle.
ConstableAnother name for a castellan.
CorbelA stone block projecting from a wall used as a support for other structures.
CountermineA tunnel dug by the defenders during a siege in order to find and attack a mine built by the attackers.
CrenelThe space or embrasure between merlons on a battlemented wall.
CrenellationThe arrangement on a battlemented wall containing crenels and merlons.
Cross-WallAn internal wall dividing a great tower from top to bottom.
CupolaA small dome on castle towers.
Curtain wallA wall surrounding the castle between the castle's towers.
DitchA dry moat.
DonjonThe keep, especially a great tower.
DrawbridgeWooden bridge across a moat leading to the castle's gate that can be raised in times of siege.
DressingWorked stone used for angles, doorways and windows.
Drum TowerLarge, low round tower.
DungeonCastle jail - normally the bottom floor of the castle's donjon - from which the word evolved.
EarthworkDefences literally worked from earth, such as ditches, banks. Also, walls reinforced with earth in order to withstand artillery fire.
EmbattledA wall or building provided with battlements.
EmbrasureA crenel. Also a splayed space in a wall or merlon enabling a defender to fire on the enemy - such as an arrow loop.
EnceinteA circuit of outer walls.
EscaladeAttacking a castle using ladders to mount the walls.
Flying ButtressA free-standing buttress joined to the wall it supports by means of an arch.
ForebuildingA building attached to the keep guarding the keep's entrance. It normally houses the staircase to the first floor and often a small chapel. The keep equivalent of a barbican.
GalleryA passage running through the thickness of the keep's outer wall, opening onto the Great Hall. This was normally a storey above the hall's floor and often used by the minstrels who provided entertainment, but were not worthy to enter the great hall itself.
GarderobeA latrine. Also used as a storeroom, especially for clothes, as it was believed the toilet smell kept moths away. The word 'wardrobe' originated from garderobe.
GatehouseTower or towers defending the castle's main entrance.
GargoyleA grotesque figure carved on castle walls, often used as a water-spout.
Great HallThe main room in early medieval castles, used for feasting, holding court, and so on.
GunportAn opening in a wall or tower designed to enable guns to be fired through it.
HessionA wooden wall of stakes - name comes from the French word for 'hedgehog.' Also known as a palisade.
HoardingA wooden shed-like building projecting outside the castle walls enabling a defender to better protect the walls. Also known as a brattice.
HonourA castle's honour was the area of land belonging to the lord of the castle.
HornworkOuter earthwork defences helping to protect the castle's vulnerable parts.
KeepThe main building in a castle, and its strongest point. A keep was designed to be able to hold out in a siege even if the rest of the castle had been captured.
KeystoneThe central stone in an arch.
LancetA tall, narrow pointed window.
Loop/LoopholeA slit in a wall through which a defender could fire arrow-loops.
MachicolationA stone equivalent of a hoarding. A parapet or gallery projecting over the castle walls or towers from which a defender could drop missiles on approaching attackers.
MerlonThe upper parts of wall defending defenders on a crenellated battlement.
MeurtriereA murder-hole.
MineA tunnel dug by attackers under the castle wall specifically to weaken the castle wall and cause it to collapse.
MoatA defensive castle ditch - often one containing water.
MotteA large earth mound on which the wooden towers of early motte-and-bailey castles stood, later used by shell-keep castles, such as Carisbrooke.
MullionThe vertical dividing-bar between two halves of a window.
Murder-holesOpenings in the ceiling, normally in gatehouse passageways, enabling defenders above to drop missiles on attackers below.
NewelThe central pillar in a spiral staircase.
OrielA window projecting from the wall.
OublietteA below-ground dungeon reached only by a trapdoor, often in the bottom of donjon towers.
PalisadeA wooden wall made of interconnecting stakes.
ParapetA battlemented rampart.
PierA non-round column.
PilasterA shallow flattened pier used to buttress a wall. Often used to form strip-like decorations.
PiscinaA shallow basin carved into a chapel wall used to contain holy water.
PlinthThe projecting base of wall, often battered or stepped.
PortcullisA wooden or metal gate that can be dropped down or raised from above along vertical grooves to bar or allow entry.
PosternA small, normally secret, exit from the castle used as an emergency back-door.
Priest HoleA small hidden room in the castle where priests (for example) could hide from searchers. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, it was illegal to be, or to harbour, a Catholic priest in England.
PrivyA latrine.
QuoinDressed stone used on the corners of a wall.
RampartThe earth defences or often battlemented stone wall that surrounds the castle.
RangeThe wing of domestic buildings built against, or as part of, the castle's walls, especially in courtyard castles.
RevetmentA retaining wall. Normally one holding other defences, such as an earth bank, in place.
SallyportA postern gate from which defenders can sally forth to attack those besieging the castle.
SiegeThe attempt to capture a castle.
SlightingDemolishing a castle in order to prevent its further defensive use. Parliament slighted several castles in England during the Civil War.
SolarThe private inner rooms of a castle reserved for the lord of the castle. Normally on an upper floor of the castle and positioned to fully enjoy the sun.
SquintAn observation hole in a wall or room.
Trip StairAn uneven staircase consisting of trip stairs had irregularly-sized stairs designed to trip up anyone who was unfamiliar with the staircase. Attackers would fall over on the staircase, giving defenders the advantage.
TurretA small tower, often on top of towers or built on a castle wall.
VassalMan who owes his lord homage in exchange for land, protection etc.
VaultAn arched stone roof or ceiling,
ViceA spiral staircase.
Wall-walkA walkway on top of a wall, normally protected by a parapet.
WardA castle courtyard enclosed by the castle's wall. Also known as bailey.
WellA deep hole in the ground with water at the bottom. Normally the castle's only water supply.
YettA hinged iron grille used to strengthen gates in tower-houses and peel towers.

Siege Weapons

BallistaA large crossbow used as a siege weapon.
Battering RamA wooden, often metal-tipped, log used to pound at castle's gates and walls in an attempt to break in.
BelfryA large, wooden siege tower used by besiegers. It could be wheeled to the castle walls and it contained a drawbridge at the top which the attackers could use to gain access to the castle wall.
CatA mobile shed used by besiegers to approach the castle wall or gate, defending them from arrows above. The cat often contained a battering ram. Also known as a penthouse.
MangonelA torsion-powered catapult.
PenthouseAnother name for a cat.
TrebuchetAn often large, counterpoise-powered catapult developed during the middle ages. Its counterweight system was more effective than the smaller, more primitive mangonel.

Historic Events

Norman Invasion

The invasion of England by the Normans under William The Bastard, including the Battle of Hastings in 1066. England's Saxon rulers were defeated and castles were built in order for the new Norman conquerors to establish control.

Harrying Of The North

After a rebellion in the North of England in 1069, William The Bastard ordered the land in Yorkshire, Shropshire, Cheshire, Staffordshire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Derbyshire and Durham to be destroyed, all buildings pulled down and all animals slaughtered. This led to over 100,000 deaths across the North of England.

Domesday Book

Book written in 1086 on the instruction of William The Bastard. It catalogued the entire population of England.

The Chaos

The period of Civil War when King Stephen and Empress Matilda fought for the throne from 1135 - 1154, following the death of Henry I. It was eventually agreed that Stephen would remain king for life, but on his death Matilda's son, Henry II, would inherit.

Wars Of The Roses

The Wars Of The Roses was a period of Civil War in England from 1455 - 1485 between two branches of the royal family descended from Edward III - the House of York, descended from Edward III's third and fifth sons, and the House of Lancaster, descended by Edward III's fourth son.

The Civil War

War fought in Britain between Royalists and Parliament from 1642 - 1648. The guns used during the Civil War demonstrated that many castles in England were obsolete.

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