Medieval Castles > Life in Medieval Castles > Fortification


A complete system of fortification existed in antiquity, beginning in the East; but the true castle builders came from the North. As far back as the time when the barbarians hung up in their huts the spoils of Varro's legions we can find the germinal idea of the feudal domain in the assertion of Tacitus that the Teutons loved to dwell apart, and even in villages kept wide spaces between their houses. When the frontiers of the Roman Empire disappeared like a new Jericho before the trumpets of the Barbarians, the Frank watching the sack of Soissons, or the Saxon riding into Silchester or York, looked with curious interest at the Roman villas, and found them well suited to his purpose. Thus the first feudal chateau or castle became not a Roman castellum, but, as Viollet-le-Due says, rather "a villa provided with defences" the wooden dwelling of the lord arose in the centre, neither very high nor very large, and about it clustered the dependents in low out-buildings behind the general stockade. The Clovises and Canutes sat upon the marble tribunes of Roman basilicas or palaces, and Charlemagne laid hands on the columns at Ravenna and brought them to his palace ; but the greatest counts and jarls, when they built upon their domains, set up low thatch-roofed manors. At about the second half of the tenth century the true castle building epoch commenced; and even while Charlemagne was admiring the Greek ornaments of his Ingelheim palace, the fathers of the mightiest makers of strongholds were pushing out their narrow boats from the Norwegian fjords and sailing up the Seine and the Loire.

Every man's hand was against these pirates, and the Normans took up sword and mattock at once to defend their positions and to keep the rivers, the natural inlets of France, open to their oncoming northern brethren.

Solidarity was their only safety; and unlike the Frankish fortresses, built for individual defence and differing greatly from each other, their castles depended upon a general system of fortification, where the same kind of natural position (notably the river) was defended in the same way, a whole province being guarded instead of a domain.

By the end of the tenth century the Norman, whose mind was as acute as his conical helmet and kite-shaped shield, had pried with his sharp double-edged sword into the affairs of East and South, had served the Emperor of Constantinople in his capital and beaten him in Sicily, had learned the lesson of his civilization, and become school-master to France in matters of military architecture. He built now with stone; and by 1040 from the ramparts of the great castle of Arques he looked greedily out upon the Channel toward the green island whose earls had only wood and earth to oppose to his masonry. Wood and earth indeed had been the materials of the successors of Charlemagne and Rollo and Alfred, but by the second half of the tenth century the Normans began to use more solid materials. For a long time the keep or donjon, the house of the Dominus, was the only portion strongly fortified. There lived the lord and lady, and there the garrison retreated as soon as a serious attack had carried the stockade or outer wall. The keep had an interior courtyard, was high, thick-walled, gloomy, and provisioned for a siege. Throughout the Middle Ages it was the dominant mass of the castle, like the knight sitting on horseback among his men; but its relative importance gradually diminished till it was only a part of a general system of defence, and was surrounded by a brotherhood of towers, little less mighty than itself.

William the Conqueror covered England with castles; but he had only time to raise the donjon keeps, with slight outworks, for in that wasps' nest of Saxons and Danes fighting for life and liberty, he was in haste to get his Normans and Angevins behind thick walls and in safety from their stings, and the weapons of the natives were but little else against his masonry. So Newcastle frowned upon Tyne, Rochester upon Medway, the White Tower on Thames; and scores of others rose, each one a visible seal of slavery, a great shacklebolt in the chain of the Norman. By the time of William's grandsons, the keep was but the principal member of a group of towers. "How fair she is, my year-old daughter," said Richard Plantagenet, looking upon his famous Chateau-Gaillard, whose ruins are still reflected in the Seine near Rouen, and which, though built almost by ruse and in mortal haste against his rival, Philip Augustus, proves the King to have been much more than the knight errant of the "Talisman;" showing him rather a far-seeing strategist and great military architect, "perhaps the first to subordinate mere thickness of wall to the importance of flanking towers."