Castles & knights

Castles and knights

Attackers break into a castle.Attackers break into a castle. The Middle Ages, also known as medieval times, lasted from around 600 to 1500. In those days, the most powerful person in the kingdom was, of course, the king. But even he had to rely on barons, the most important noblemen, to help him fight wars against his enemies. In the Middle Ages, power and wealth came from the ownership of land. So, in return for the promise of an army of knights and footsoldiers to fight for him, the king granted the barons land. To control their lands, the barons built castles on them. Most castles had a moat or ditch, a strong outer wall and a gatehouse with a drawbridge and portcullis. For extra protection, the outer wall had jagged tops, called battlements or crenellations.


A castle under siegeA castle under siegeWars could break out between barons, often over control of land, and especially when the king was weak. The castle, the home of the lord, his family and his followers, was a base from which he and his army could launch attacks on his enemies—or a stronghold to which he could retreat if he himself came under attack. Castles needed to be strong enough to withstand the weapons likely to pitted against them, anything from arrows or crossbow bolts to boulders hurled by giant catapults.

Inside the castle gatehouseInside the castle gatehouse

Castle defences

A heavily fortified gatehouse was built at the castle’s weakest point: its entrance. The gateway was flanked by two rounded towers, from which guards could shoot down at enemy soldiers. The entrance was also protected by one or more portcullises (heavy wood or iron grilles). The outer walls were usually topped with crenellations, allowing defenders to fire arrows while remaining under cover. There were also narrow slits in the walls through which archers fired. The castle was often surrounded by a ditch or a water-filled moat. A drawbridge across the moat could be pulled up if the castle was attacked.


A castle with a square keepA castle with a square keepThe strong tower inside the walls was called the keep. This was where the lord, his family and his followers lived. It was the stronghold of the castle—the safest place to be if the castle ever came under attack. The stone walls were several metres thick. There were look-out towers on each of the four corners. The keep was surrounded by a high stone wall called a curtain wall. From the late 1200s, castles were designed without keeps: all the main rooms were inside the towers or housed in separate buildings inside the walls.

Knights on horseback set off for battle. Knights on horseback set off for battle.


Knights were fighting men who promised loyalty to a baron and who served in battle as mounted soldiers. They were expected to follow a code of chivalry. During the Middle Ages, knights became a separate class of people, below the nobility in the feudal system, but above the merchants and craftworkers. Knights underwent years of training to learn fighting skills.

Consultant: Philip Parker

See also in History

A castle is the fortified residence of a noble lord. A palace is a residence of a nobleman, but which is not fortified. A fortress is fortified, but not the private residence for a nobleman.

The word "castle" comes from the Latin castellum, which means "little fortified place". The French word ch√Ęteau, Spanish castillo and Italian castello all come from the same Latin word.

"Motte", a small mound, and "moat", a ditch, both come from same Old French word. This is because the excavation of earth to build the mound left a ditch around it, which provided an additional defence.

It is often thought that murder holes, openings in the gatehouse ceiling, were used to pour boiling oil on enemy soldiers. But oil was far too expensive to be used in this way. Instead, guards would have tipped hot sand or hurled boulders down on troops breaking through the main gate.

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