Motte and Bailey castles were the ‘original castle design’. They probably originated in about 950, and were brought to Great Britain by the Normans, from 1066 onwards.
Most surviving examples of this type of castle can be seen in England, Wales, North France, and parts of Northern Europe (including Denmark).
Motte and Bailey castles were an attractive design for many reasons. They could be built extremely quickly, and only needed basic materials for their construction (such as earth, and wood).
This meant that they were very cheap to make. Despite being a little rough and ready, they still had excellent defensive capabilities.
For these reasons, the Normans were huge advocates of Motte and Bailey castles designs. This is why you can still see so many Motte and Bailey mounds scattered around England and Wales!
In addition, many of the most impressive castles which remain to today were originally built on Motte and Bailey foundations.
What did Motte and Bailey castles look like?
The simple design of Motte and Bailey castles was the key to their success.
Fundamentally, these castles included three main elements.
The first of these elements was a large earthen mound (the ‘Motte’), with a ditch surrounding its base (rather like a primitive moat).
As for the second, a raised area alongside the Motte was flattened, forming an even yard, which was the “Bailey”. Buildings (or even small villages!) could be built on this Bailey – it was typically the centre of domestic life within the castle, and was surrounded by palisade fencing for defence.
The third – and most important defensive element – was the Keep.
Castle Keeps were built in many different designs. Commonly, timber was used to build towers, which could be used to shoot arrows at intruders. Where time and money allowed, stone buildings were built over pre-existing wooden towers.
These stone buildings offered much greater protection and defensive capability – albeit it at significant cost and effort.
A great example of an impressive stone keep upon a Motte is Tamworth Castle, again in the UK.
Of course, no two Motte and Baileys were exactly the same – although they all had those three elements in common. Some Motte and Bailey castles, such as Ellesmere in Shropshire, UK, had three different Baileys which nestled against each other, on top of one huge Motte.
In Lewes, Sussex, UK, the Motte was shaped like a lozenge, and there was small Bailey at each corner. Fundamentally, the design of each castle adapted to its natural surroundings.
It’s very hard to find good surviving examples of Motte and Bailey castles. Often, the Motte and Bailey castles in the most desirable locations – including Windsor Castle, in the UK – were developed into huge stone fortresses. The castles in less auspicious locations fell to eventual ruin – and the wooden keeps just rotted away.
Nowadays, the only remnants of many Motte and Bailey castles are mounds of earth that you’d probably mistake to be hills!
Why Were Motte and Baileys built?
When the Normans invaded England in 1066, they knew that Motte and Bailey castles were fundamental to conquering the country.
The Normans were ferocious fighters, and had captured huge swathes of land across Northern Europe – and Motte and Bailey castles had been extremely important in their previous successes.
These castles had significant advantages for an army seeking to seize control of a foreign country, as this table explains.
At a glance: advantages of Motte and Bailey castles
- Cheap and easy to build – you could even use an existing mound or hill for foundations
- Didn’t require and specialist materials – earth and timber were always nearby
- Didn’t need any time to plan a design too carefully – could be built with unskilled men who’d never even seen a castle before
- Could be built quickly – allowing the conquerors to move onto the next town
- Surprisingly hard to capture – the height and ditch gave quite a big advantage against attackers
I can’t over-exaggerate the importance of these castles in the Normans’ successful conquest of the British Isles.
As the Normans marched deeper into England, they could quickly and cheaply build a Motte and Bailey in each of the towns or district that they captured. In each castle, they would install a noble who was sympathetic to William the Conqueror- and would then proceed forwards to capture new territories.
In this way, each little castle held power over a little area of Britain – consolidating the Normans’ successful conquest. As long as the noble in each castle remained loyal to William (as the vast majority did – William was not a man to be messed with!), Norman power radiated successfully throughout the UK.
As a marker of their success, upwards of 1,000 Motte and Bailey castles were built in England, then Wales, and then Scotland.
Some larger castles could take months to build, while men piled hundreds of tonnes of earth to create the Motte mound (the earth used for the mound was generally obtained from digging the ditch).
Other castles used natural hillocks for their base – sometimes flattening the hill-top so that Keeps, houses and buildings could be built.
However, by about 1170, this design of castle was falling out of favour for more ‘modern’ designs. Here’s why this type of castle quickly dropped in the popularity stakes.
At a glance: disadvantages of Motte and Bailey castles
- Timber burns easily -and attackers quickly learned that firing flaming arrows could defeat the castle
- Timber rots, to0 – castles quickly ran into disrepair, and often became abandoned by their owners
- Mottes often had a broad base. This often made defense tricky, as enemies could climb the hill from many different directions
- Building a large Motte was a disproportionately difficult task – larger hills require much more piled earth than smaller hills – it’s disproportionately hard to build a large castle
- Although the base of the hill may have been large, the bailey at the top was often quite small. This meant that the living quarters for the noble were quite small – and didn’t have much grandeur.
After such a sustained period of castle building, it’s almost no surprise that the Motte and Bailey model quickly fell from favour.
The proliferation of this design across the UK and Northern Europe meant that strategies to seize these castles became increasingly common knowledge – and sophisticated fire-launching techniques (aiming to burn down the castle) were common-place.
Castle design naturally developed to keep out attackers. To avoid the perils of fire, castle keeps increasingly came to be made of stone.
This stone castle design was naturally more defensive, as attackers had to somehow scale the walls or breakdown the towers, and rendered the Motte element redundant (building on a Motte would also dramatically increase manpower, lugging all the stone up an unnecessary hill).
For these reasons, the Motte design faded from favour as stone castles became more common.
Why did Motte and Bailey Castles herald an era of social change?
Although Motte and Bailey castles didn’t bring feudalism to England, you could argue that they helped this social system to flourish.
Feudalism was the system where lands where held by a noble (a vassal of the king), and the fields were tilled by his poor subjects, who paid him dues for the ability to work on the land.
Motte and Baileys certainly didn’t create this system, but they helped to cement this system into English life by providing a grandiose residence for the local noble – helping him to secure his power over the local lands.
Where’s the best place to see Motte and Bailey castles today?
The vast majority of Motte and Bailey castles were built in the Norman times, and so are constrained to the lands the Normans successfully conquered.
They can be found primarily in Northern France, England, Wales and Scotland – but the influence of these designs spread too to Denmark, Germany, Belgium, and other spots in Northern Europe.
The crucial point to remember when studying castles is that every single castle developed over time. Resultantly, many Motte and Bailey castles are now invisible – they’re used as foundations or sites for more impressive stone castles.
This is true for so many sites, including Windsor Castle in the UK, and Cardiff Castle, Wales – as pictured below.
What’s happened to those Motte and Baileys which weren’t used as foundations for larger, stone castles?
Those with wooden keeps have long since rotted away – the mottes now just look like odd hills, scattering the countryside. Others with stone keeps still survive, however – and Tamworth Castle in the UK is an impressive example.
You might also like to read more about Lewes Castle – a great example of a Motte and Bailey fortress. Or discover the blood-stained story of the 1066 Battle of Hastings.