Stone Castles: A Defensive Development in Castle Design
Stone castles were an evolution of the early 'Motte and Bailey' castle design.
The simple Motte and Bailey was brought to England by the Normans in 1066, and the design consisted of a defensive mound with buildings on the flat-top.
The Motte and Bailey was quick to construct, but was generally made of wood. This made it extremely vulnerable to fire-flinging attacks - and quite temporary, too.
Consequently, as Norman control over England became more secure, new stone castles began to be built, or wooden Motte and Bailey castles were rebuilt in stone.
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A Stone Castle Building Spree
The first - and most famous - stone castle was the White Tower of the Tower of London.
This stone tower was begun in 1070, and marked the start of a stone-castle building spree. By the time William the Conqueror died in 1087, 86 of these had been built in the UK.
Castles made of stone continued to be built (alongside traditional, timber Motte and Bailey castles) throughout the 1100s.
However, by the late 1100s, traditional wooden Motte and Baileys had firmly fallen from fashion, as nobles sought to demonstrate their influence from within mighty stone buildings.
What was special about Stone Castles?
These castles were an evolution of the Motte and Bailey design. They tended to be more defensive, more permanent, and more grand than their predecessors.
Generally, they were built of sandstone or limestone, but the whole castle wouldn't have been made of stone - it was expensive and unwieldy. Costs would have been cut by using wooden roofs, partitions, and supports.
At a glance: advantages of Stone Castles
- Could survive attacks using fire - although some elements (such as roofs) were made of wood
- Stone walls and towers were much stronger against catapults and siege engines (although they certainly weren't impenetrable!)
- Stone buildings would last for centuries, whereas wood lasted just years
- Stone buildings could be much larger and grander simple wooden designs - befitting the important nobles who lived in them.
The first innovation in the development of castles made of stone was the central castle tower of stone - also known as the 'castle Keep' or the 'Donjon'.
Don't confuse the word 'donjon' with 'dungeon' - it just means a rectangular tower, and the word comes from a French term. This stone tower tended to sit at the highest point of the castle. It would usually have been the wooden tower of a Motte and Bailey castle which was re-rendered in stone.The Stone Keep of Goodrich Castle, England. It's the rectangular building, with a greyer coloured stone.
The stone Keep satisfied two purposes. Firstly, it provided much more luxurious accommodation for nobles. Their chambers could be larger, and better protected from the rain, and from the cold.
In addition (and for obvious reasons!) stone Keeps could include grand fireplaces for heat and for comfort - whereas old timber buildings would have been restricted to much smaller fires.
The second function of the stone Keep was for defence. Tall stone Keeps provided an excellent viewpoint for archers defending the castle.
Additionally, stone Keeps were almost always taller than the wooden-climbing frames that pillagers would wheel to castles. This meant that besiegers' intentions to climb moveable wooden scaffolding onto the top of a tower would be thwarted.
In addition to the fearsome size of the stone Keep, the sheer thickness of the stone walls served as defence against missiles and weapons pelted at the castle.The view onto the old Great Hall of Goodrich Castle, England, from the top of the Keep.
The Keep would have been at the heart of any stone castle - and would be likely to have been the first part that was built. Radiating out from the Keep, you'd discover the other crucial parts of the castle.
Many castles included numerous domestic buildings upon the Bailey. These would have included kitchens, butteries, great halls and quarters for the domestic workers - all dependent on the size of the castle, of course! Discover more about the different rooms and areas of a Medieval castle.
It's important to emphasise that each stone castle was truly unique, and often took advantage of its particular site - some castles perched upon rocky outcrops (such as Goodrich Castle in England); and the sides of other castles were protected by sheer cliffs - such as Dunnottar Castle in Scotland.Spectacular Dunnottar Castle in Scotland. Credit: Amanda Geck Alvarez, WikiMedia Commons (CC-BY-2.0).
Nowadays, the only remnants of many Motte and Bailey castles are mounds of earth that you'd probably mistake to be hills!
The most important defensive aspect of the stone castle would have been the curtain wall. This wall wrapped around the entire castle, and enclosed both the Keep and the domestic buildings.
It may have been studded with arrow-holes for archers to shoot their bows, but the fundamental purpose was it was thick, heavy, and was intended to keep intruders out.
The curtain walls of many castles could be thicker than 1.5 metres, and would often be solid all the way through (as rubble at the centre of the walls made them harder to demolish).
At a glance: disadvantages of Stone Castles
- Extremely expensive - by the late 1100s, only the King and the richest nobles could afford to build these castles
- Time consuming to build - a medium sized castle would have taken a minimum of five years to build, more like 10. It was a phenomenal project to undertake
- Expensive to maintain - large, cold and frequently leaky, these castles were a burden to look after
- Designs quickly became vulnerable to attack. Every innovation (ie, a rectangular Keep) was soon overcome by attackers (in this case, they burrowed under the corners to collapse the tower)
- Financial ruin if the castle was lost. Should a castle be destroyed, the noble owner would probably have been financially ruined for the rest of his life.
Evidently, despite the perceived advantages of stone castle designs, there were some pretty significant drawbacks to this style of castle construction.
However, this didn't do anything to dampen their desirability. The sheer expense and cost of these castles meant that those able to afford them would command huge respect in Medieval society.
How much did it cost to build Castles of Stone?
Stone castles were extremely expensive to build. This was due to the cost of the raw materials, and the amount of labour involved in the construction.
Whereas simple Motte and Bailey mounds could be constructed in a matter of weeks or months, it took years or even decades to complete a castle made of stone. In addition to manpower costs, the price of the stone itself was significant. Stone was a relatively expensive material due to mining and transportation costs.Dover Castle was one of the most expensive stone castles built in Britain, due to its prestige. In the 1250s, Henry II lavished £6,440 on Dover - a huge sum, when he only spent single-digit figures on other castles
To give you context on the amount of money spent on castles made from stone, you should consider that King Henry II, in the 1200s, had an annual income from England of about £20,000 a year.
In the 1250s, he spent £6,440 on refurbishing Dover Castle (not even building it afresh) - about a third of his annual income!
However, Dover was an exceptionally important castle. Smaller sites, like the castle tower at Newcastle, seemed to cost around £1,000 to build. It's estimated that a standard size castle of stone, in around 1200, would have cost about £7,500 to build over five to 10 years.
However, this gives you an indication of just how expensive these castles were - one castle was equivalent to about 40% of the King's annual income. No wonder most nobles couldn't afford to build their own large castles!
Where are the best remaining examples of Stone Castles today?
Everywhere! You'll be spoiled for choice in finding impressive stone castles.
Some 'best in the bunch' picks include:
- The red sandstone of Goodrich Castle in England;
- The mighty bulk of Dover Castle, 'defender of England';
- The dramatic cliff-top setting of Dunnottar, Scotland.
Discover more cunning plots, dusty legends, and tales of England's most beautiful castles...
What lurks in the bedrock beneath Dover Castle?
Where might you find a surviving Round Table, and what happened to 'King Arthur's Corpse' at Tintagel?
What exactly was so terrifying about Medieval machicolations?
And was it a terrible accident, or was Lady Amy Dudley murdered?
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