Thoughts on building a castle

The following is a discussion about a proposed castle building project.

So you want to build a castle, eh.
The first thing that must be established is, just what is a castle and why own one anyway. When you mention the word castle to most people and ask them to define a castle and describe what a castle means to them, you may get several different answers. Perhaps widely differing in nature and sometimes very vague.
This discussion on building a castle will deal primarily with building a castle that is patterned after medieval German castles which can be found today in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. In addition, Liechtenstein, Luxemburg, and former German speaking lands in Europe have fine examples of medieval castles for our consideration.

So just what is a castle. For this answer, we turn to our trusted friends, books. When a dictionary is sought for the meaning of the word castle, We find that the word castle is derived from the Latin castellum: fortress, a diminutive of castrum: a forified place. Therefore, a true castle is a fortress or at least a fortified place. However, any fortified place isn't always a castle. For example, history shows that entire cities were walled and fortified to one degree or another, but were rarely referred to as a castle. Although a fortress sometimes stood guard protecting the walled city. And then some buildings or places are called a castle but aren't at all fortified. So how can we decide.
However, when we stay with the text book description of a castle, we will have to discuss primarily those buildings or perhaps a group of buildings that are truely fortified.
Next, we have to define what a fortress, or a fortified place, is. And here we find that there are two basic types of fortified structures or places. These are either military or domestic in nature. But here it becomes easier because remember we as indivuals want to build a castle. We will leave military fortified places sometimes called a Citadel (Der Festung) or a Fortress to the military. This is because we want to build a castle that is more practical for us. Therefore we will build a castle for domestic purposes, with a great deal of fortification. We will carefully select and build the type of castle that combines military features with domestic features and requirements. An added advantage of this choice is that there are thousands of surviving medieval castles and castle ruins for us to use as a starting point. They offer outstanding models to follow. These castles were used primarily as a personal residence and were fortified. In fact it is these very fortification characteristics that sets a true castle apart from a palace, mansion, schloss, or perhaps large residences sometimes called a castle.
We will use these medieval castles for a blueprint or guideline in the selection of the building site, design, and construction of our own castle. These castles have a specific name and in German they are called die Burg.

Castle ownership is definitly not for everyone. There are three main reasons for owning a castle. First, castles are a unique style of building, a carefully designed and well built castle stands out wherever it is. The second reason is pride of ownership. Castle ownership truely makes a bold statement. And the third reason is that a castle provides it's owner with a safe, comfortable and secure home.

To fully understand the type of castle that we will build we must have an understanding as to why and how this type of building was developed. To answer that question, we must go back in time, to the very early historical record. This record is written in ancient manuscripts and in the thousands of existing castles and castle ruins scattered all over the world. Without going into details it is surfice to say that buildings refered to as castles were built and written about several centuries B. C. However, we are concerned with a specific type of castle, with the greatest number and concentration of these castles being located in Europe.
During the Middle Ages in Western Europe the forerunner or predecessor of the medieval castle as we know it today was being born. The place was the Frankish Empire under the rule of Karl the Great or Charlemagne. This period of history was a time of great social unrest, wars, and great struggles to control people and land. And people felt the need for a safe place to live and work, and to maintain control over their land. And a fortified place called a castle that was being developed and refined over the years provided this relativly safe place.
This castle's humble beginnings started with The Motte and Bailey which was basically a manmade or enhanced natural hill with a wooden stockage or fortificatiion built on top. This early type of earth and wooden castle called the Motte and Bailey (Hochmotte und Vorburg) and was effectively used by the Franks and the Saxons. From this early beginning the castle was developed slowly over time into the stout masonry castle with much more effective defensives.
Thus over the years and with many trails and errors, the basic medieval castle as we know it today was slowly being developed. The timber castles were replaced with castles made from stone or brick. Although timber was still used in the construction of structural parts of the castles, stones or bricks were essentially the main building material. Stone and brick castles took longer to construct and were generally more expensive to build than timber castles. However, they were more durable and were much harder to destroy by burning.
Over the years the castle underwent many changes, in size, design and construction. These changes were largely determined by the changes required to defend against attack and siege tactics. However, the primary purpose of the castle remained the same. That was to defend and protect it's owner and other inhabitants from harm and allow the owner to carry on his business.

The early medieval Gernan castles were called Hochmotte und Vorburg, or Motte and Bailey in English. None are known to have survived intact today. Surviving medieval German castles can be classified into one of two types, the Burg or the Schloss. The Burg was generally the earlier castle built and many are still in use. The Schloss was developed much later and usually did not have the architecture and fortress nature of the Burg.
Both castle types are still present today and fortunately for us, have stood for hundreds of years. This allows us an excellant opportunity to examine them first hand to determine how they were built.

This castle was essentialy a fortified home with military and domestic architectural features. These fortified homes typically have high thick sturdy stone walls surrounding the primary house, keep, and all the other important parts of the medieval castle. These parts includes the guest house, armory, horse stables, blacksmith and other workshops, storehouse, water well, and court yards. In addition, several guard and watch towers, battlements, sturdy heavily built wooden gates, garrison halls and sometimes gatehouses with portcullis and sometimes double gates, and strong drawbridges, would complete the basic castle structures.
These fortified places provided a great degree of safety. Strong castles relied primarily upon a passive means of defense to defend themselves when danger threatens. These defensive measures were to severly restrict or prevent unwanted access to the inside of the castle walls by unwanted visitors. This was primarily accomplished by the strategic placement, design and construction of the castle. However, when necessary, an active means of defense was readily used as well. Then active defensive measures included plenty of hand weapons, such as the long bow and plenty of arrows, crossbows and bolts, battle axes, spears, Greeks fire, knights and other warriors, men-at-arms, peasant conscripts, commoners, and many fist-sized rocks. In addition siege weapons such as the bolt-firing Ballista and the rock-hurling Catapult were sometimes utitilzed as defensive weapons during an attack or a siege.
And somewhere in the scheme of things the castle defenders would have had to plan for possibility of a starvation siege or a blockade. This is because some castles could not be overtaken by any other means. And several strongly built and properly defended castles have never been defeated in battle.
Medieval castles were usually built on a hill top with steep approches and a commanding view, a mountain crag or another easily defended and somewhat inaccessible site. However, some fine castles were built on flat land with a surrounding protective water moat. This is because where they had to be constructed the land was nearly level and water was abundant.

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This page was first published March 14, 2001.
This page was last reviewed August 06, 2007.