Myths and Misconceptions About Castles


In the modern age, everyone is familiar with the look of a castle and the general idea of how one worked. Unfortunately, most of this knowledge stems from pop culture. We know castles because we saw Jon Snow or Aragorn defending them. The real life castles are more foreign to us and some of their inner workings are subject to myth and misconceptions.

10. Most Castles Didn’t Have Dungeons

The average person in the modern age, when tasked with naming parts of a castle, could likely come up with a handful of names. The great hall, portcullis, ramparts, towers, and so on. It’s likely a dungeon would come up as well. However, in reality, a dungeon was an infrequent addition to any castle design. More often than not, what might be considered a dungeon today was just a cellar of some kind back then. And while it could hold prisoners, they did not design it for that. 

One of the most famous dungeons in British history was actually the Tower of London, located high above the ground rather than below. Medieval castles typically didn’t have dungeons because holding people prisoner was just not a common thing to do. 

9. Not Every Castle Was Stone

If there’s one thing everyone knows about castles, it’s that they were big, stone buildings with greater towers and walls and defenses. Except when they weren’t. Early castles were often earthwork and timber, meaning they were made with built up earth to create walls and baileys, or just buildings made from wood.

We only consider castles made of stone these days because they were the ones that survived. Over the centuries, earthwork and wooden castles fell into disrepair and essentially vanished. 

Timber castles were actually pre-built around the time of the Norman invasion. The timber would be cut to size and bolts were made to assemble everything. The castle parts could be easily transported to wherever they were needed and it could be erected wherever it was needed. This was the reason why builders were a part of the invasion forces. They may not have been as strong as a stone castle, but they offered reasonable defense and, given the speed with which they could be assembled, they were a valuable asset.

8. They Were Cleaner Than Many People Think

The idea of a castle as a cold, clammy, dirty and uncomfortable thing seems to be well-ingrained in modern thinking. How could a stone edifice in medieval Europe be anything else?

While they were likely very cold in certain parts during the winter, the large and well-spaced fireplaces as well as wall tapestries would have done a decent job of warming and insulating the parts in which people were living. But when it came to cleanliness, a castle was actually fairly well appointed. 

Castle bathrooms were very similar to an outhouse in that there would have been a wooden seat over a hole. That hole was built in such a way that it was pushed out from the wall of a castle, and anything that fell into that hole would have fallen out and away from the castle.

Obviously this means that the moat or the ground outside of the castle was not remotely clean. But the castle itself would have been fairly hygienic since people were essentially tossing all of their waste beyond the walls. 

7. Staircases Were Not All Clockwise

One of the “facts” you’ll read very often about medieval castles is how the staircase spiraled up clockwise. The story goes that since most archers and defenders would be right handed, a clockwise staircase made it easier for them to fight attackers and also draw and fire arrows from the windows.

It sounds like a reasonable story and an ingenious design feature when it’s explained that way, but the problem is the number of castles that were built with counterclockwise staircases. They built the White Tower in the Tower of London back in 1070 and it features both clockwise and counterclockwise stairs. There are dozens of examples of staircases in both directions built from the year 1000 through the 1500s. 

The theory that the staircase design was a military feature really has no documented basis. Looking back, it makes sense in theory, but this has never been factually established as a reason. Combined with the prevalence of counterclockwise staircases and it seems like perhaps it was just an aesthetic choice and nothing more.

6. Many Ruined Castles Were Fakes

A quick Google search of castle ruins will show you plenty of relics from a bygone era. Half walls and overgrown towers and parapets. The problem is that not all of those ruins are actually the real deal. Some of the castle ruins that exist today were designed specifically to be ruins.

In the 18th century, there was an architectural movement that was obsessed with the idea of creating ruins from scratch rather than waiting for buildings to fall apart on their own. In Ireland, a ruin known as the Jealous Wall, depicts a fractured staircase and a broken abbey that looks like it was once a large, splendid medieval castle. In reality, it was designed by Robert Rochfort in the 18th century as a ready-made ruin

These fake ruins, or ruin follies, were just the coolest trend for a period of time with high society types. A landowner at Scotney Castle in Kent apparently built himself an entirely new house just to smash his old one and make it look like ruins.

5. Sieges Were Not Very Easy

One of the most popular images we have of castle warfare involves an army outside the walls building catapults or trebuchets to hurl boulders at the walls and tear them asunder. Siege weapons and artillery seemed like the bane of any castle. But that wasn’t actually the case.

Artillery weapons were notoriously hard to aim well, but they were best used for hitting only certain spots in the fortifications. Entrances like doors were obviously the most vulnerable. Walls were not ideal however, as they could range from six feet to over 20 feet thick

Military sieges could last for months, and this was the reason why. In a movie a catapult may make short work of a castle, but in reality they were maybe useful for hitting buildings inside the castle walls but not gaining access to the castle itself. Oftentimes a siege would only work if they waited the defenders out by limiting their supply lines and starving them out. But the same risk was faced by the attackers, who were in an unfamiliar land and could end up starving and exhausted as well.

Siege weapons were difficult to work with and would be built onsite with local materials. It was too difficult to drag them across the countryside, and finding ammunition could also be a problem. Attacking armies would only engage in siege warfare as a last result because of the time and costs involved in doing so.

4. Secret Passages Were Rare or Late Additions

The idea that they built castles upon a network of secret passages and escape routes seems plausible, and it was also true in some cases. That said, these were not nearly as prevalent as things like movies make us think.

Interestingly enough, a lot of tunnels that do exist were not part of the original designs. Instead, these were renovations added at a later date. Ashby de le Zouch Castle in Leicestershire has a tunnel that was added in later years as a supply route between the tower and the kitchen.

Nottingham Castle and Knaresborough castle, both had tunnels that may or may not have been used for escape purposes, but they did have secret tunnels of some kind. In general, however, they were not the standard procedure. In fact, when attackers were looking to break into castles they would sometimes bust in through the garderobe, which was basically a toilet hole and as close to a secret passage as you could get. 

3. Murder Holes Didn’t Do a Lot of Murder

Murder holes, more properly called machiolations, were sort of like reverse balconies inside castle walls. Defenders could position themselves above these holes and look down below. This may allow them the chance to drop things like rocks onto attackers below.

The earliest believed use for this was less about murder and more about preservation. Because the door to any castle was subject to being damaged by fire, murder holes above the doors were an ideal place for defenders to drop water to quench the flames. 

It was clear that dropping rocks or other heavy objects would also be useful in defending the castle. That said, the common belief that boiling oil was dropped down here was far fetched at best. Which isn’t to say no one ever used cooking oil, as there is evidence someone tried it at the siege of Orleans. It was just impractical to heat so much oil because it has to get up to 200 degrees Celsius, or twice the temperature of boiling water. Likewise, it would have been a bigger fire risk inside the castle than as a weapon against those outside.

Some murder holes were entirely decorative, a bit of performative architecture meant to look either authentic or prestigious rather than practical. The murder holes at Tattershall Castle were over the castle’s Inner Ward, rather than the outside.

2. Torches Were Not Widely Used

Thanks to pop culture, one of the most prevalent images most people have in their minds of a medieval castle is a stony passageway lined with torches. When moving about at night, you grab hold of one and navigate the dark passages.

The thing about torches as a light source is that it is not practical for any realistic, long-term applications. The idea that castle walls would have sconces full of flaming torches makes no sense. 

Depending on how a torch was made, you could expect that it would burn for between 20 minutes and two hours. A long burning torch would have to be soaked in tar or pitch to last for over an hour, which would produce thick smoke and noxious fumes. In a castle, with walls lined in them, this would be impractical and dangerous. A short burning torch would make no sense to keep lit. They could be available to burn in the moment as needed, but keeping them lit just for ambient lighting made no sense.

Most lights in castles would be from lamps or candles. These burned longer and more safely. The cost and time of production for things like candles would likely be more manageable than something like torches as well. 

1. Moats Weren’t Just Water

Not every castle had a moat around it. This was just an impractical idea for any number of reasons, not the least of which was that the number of castles built on highland in rocks and hilltops made it impossible. But when a castle did have a moat, it could have taken more than one form.

Dry moats, those without water, existed and served as a way to slow down the progress of enemies. But most of us likely imagine a water-filled moat when we think of the term. And a number of castles did have these.

Wet moats were typically created by redirecting the flow of a rover long enough to flood the area around a castle’s base. That meant you had a stagnant pond that would inevitably be filled with sewage at some point. 

Aside from the stink, a moat was a good defense against invaders because it could prevent several kinds of direct assaults. Enemies could not reach the walls, so even siege weapons had to be placed away from the castle.Likewise, it prevented tunnels from going under the walls.  

Cesky Krumlov castle in the Czech Republic was a unique castle in that its moat was full of bears. In the 16th century, bears started being held and raised within the castle walls, and by 1707 they had taken up residence in the moat. The moat still holds bears today, and they invite tourists to come and see them if they are in town. They have upgraded it to be a safe home for the animals and it is now more of a zoo than a castle.

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