The reason for my exploration of castles is, as mentioned a few blogs ago, that one book in my Intergalactic Dating Agency series deals with time travel to the Middle Ages. Also, as a fellow Merlinian, it’s rather fun to explore the innards and origins of places like Castle Pierrefonds. However, I think my fascination with castles goes far deeper than that.
Growing up in the ancient, once immensely powerful city-state of Lübeck (founders of the Hanseatic League in 1296), seems to have instilled a natural affinity with medieval knights in me. I understand their desire to protect their lands, to keep their families safe and to impress the neighbourhood with their wealth.
Germany, just like France, is littered with castles from different centuries.
While King Arthur’s and Queen Guinevere’s domestic arrangements are lost in the mists of Avalon, because the 6th century remains largely a mystery to us, the later Middle Ages (11th century onwards) are far better documented and we can glean a lot from the records nobles and the clergy kept.
The general plan for constructing a stronghold remains very much the same.
You might dress it up with lots more towers and plaster battlements everywhere, but essentially the layout is this:
Firstly, find a hill or elevated plot of land with unobstructed views and bash everyone living there over the head to drive them out. Secondly, recruit your work force.
From the latter part of the 12th century onwards having a paid service was far more common, although the serfs and servants would still be expected to rush to their lord’s rescue on an unpaid basis, if the castle was attacked. Having a paid service had a number of advantages for the general nobility.
An army of sorts could be mobilized in just a few days; its framework allowed nobles to spread orders for an assembly either by messenger riders or letters to the most important men in their realm or via public announcements in villages, towns and cities, where specialists such as carpenters, masons, woodcutters and blacksmiths could be requisitioned.
This workforce would be paid a pittance each and would work under the supervision of bailiffs, provosts, sheriffs and similar local administrators. In May and June 1282 Edward I did just that and scraped together a 3,000 strong workforce to construct ten castles in Wales.
Now that you’ve got your workforce, you need to firstly built a bailey and keep, which is the high tower roughly located at the heart of your castle.
The keep needs battlements on top from where you can survey your lands and hurl missiles at your neighbours, should they pop round to demand the immediate return of their plot of land.
Below the tower you construct the bailey, which is broader in design than the tower because
a) it forms the sturdy foundation for your high-rise battlements and
b) allows you to keep a merry band of guards in a chamber below the keep.
The next most important part of your castle is the palas or great hall (see previous blog), which is the public part of your castle as well as the place where the noble owner and family dwells.
In close distance to the great hall, you’ll need to construct some animal pens, where you keep various livestock mainly for milk and egg production, but also for meat and, of course, to keep your horses in stables right next to the pen in case you need to make a quick get-away – your homeless neighbours might turn up with their own cavalry!
Next your workforce needs to construct some domestic buildings for kitchens, servants and comfortable apartments for your guests.
Next to that, if you’re Christian, you’ll have to build a chapel, without no discerning noble would deem his castle to be complete.
The higher up you were in the medieval pecking order, the more exclusive your designated chapel area became.
At Nürnberg Castle (in Germany) the nobles and their immediate family had their own staircase leading up to a small area within the chapel that overlooked all the other praying heads below…making sure, everyone at court knew exactly, who was the top dog, every morning when they went to mass!
Joining the very entertaining castle tour is a great way to get a feel for what it must have been like living in such a place – and Nürnberg Castle also boasts great views over the city.
If I remember correctly, at Nürnberg Castle the “allure”, a covered walkway that leads from one of the corner towers to the other, was a reconstruction, but your castle definitely needs one of those. The aforementioned Comburg in Schwäbisch Hall seems to have an original allure, which must have been a good place for a secret tryst or assignation between knights and their ladies.
The battered revetment forms part of the walled defences and has domestic quarters built on top. The chapel and domestic quarters were usually built between a couple of towers or near the gatehouse for safety reasons. The corner towers were mainly for defence and only became part of the domestic buildings in later centuries. Here the garrison or men protecting the castle would have lived.
Finally, build your curtain wall, or fortifications, which run between the towers and around the remainder of the castle’s buildings. A great castle may have several of these as a layered defence system. Don’t forget to insert a gatehouse into your curtain wall, or no handsome knights and ladies will be able to get in.
The southwest of Germany has more castles littering the landscape than Wales has sheep. If you happen to travel to Stuttgart in Baden Württemberg, head for a place called Oberstenfeld, located north of the city, where Lichtenberg Castle was built.
It is one of the few medieval castles in Germany that has been preserved complete. Even the stonemasons’ marks still show today (proclaiming proudly the castle was built around 1220).
To medieval people the height of the castle and its towers stood in direct relationship to their owner’s wealth and power. Castles were the focus of medieval courtly life, the powerhouses, where governmental decisions were made. Heidelberg Castle demonstrates that very well.
It overlooks an important river as well as the town – rivers were the motorways of the medieval traveller, so the castle controlled even people’s ability to leave a town and see the world.
Do remember that, when you pick the location for your own stronghold…residents of Schleswig Holstein and Ostfriesland in Germany as well as the Benelux countries are at a distinct disadvantage in this respect.
In a landscape that’s as flat as a pancake even a hovel stands out, making a castle look rather less imposing – besides, finding a hill or rocky outcrop in Holland would even be a challenge to modern travel agents composing blurb for their package holiday brochures.
Around all these lovely castles, initially isolated on their lofty hillock positions, eventually towns sprung up – but that’s another blog…
(source of animation: heathersanimations.com)