The majority of castles have a curtain wall high enough to make it hard for attackers to climb over and usually only one entrance defended by gatehouse. As the gatehouse was the only way to enter the castle, attackers would have concentrated their efforts on capturing this entrance. During the construction of a castle the gatehouse and the curtain walls were usually the first parts to be completed. This was because the castle builders were probably building in an area where they were in danger of being attacked. In earlier times the gatehouse could have been the strongest part of the castle, but the majority of them were built of wood and at risk from fire. If the owner of the castle was rich enough or there was a local supply of rocks, the gatehouse could have been built of stone.
Key part of a gatehouse
Some gatehouses are simple rectangular structures with a passage running its length, but many have two large towers, one each side of the passage and rooms above as well. The towers are strongly constructed and several stories high. In those castles where the gatehouse was the strongest part, the towers were the primary residence of the castle's owner, containing halls, sleeping chambers and even chapels.
The gatehouse passage runs down the centre of the gatehouse. The passage is not very wide, probably just wide enough for a horse and cart to pass through. But this is a defensive design as any attackers who managed to get into the passage would be concentrated into a small area where they would be easy targets from defenders above.
The gatehouse passage is not normally directly accessible at ground level and is either raised above ground level or has a ditch (moat) directly in front of it. A bridge was built to provide access to the castle and the drawbridge forms part of that bridge. Commonly pivoted on the castle-side, the drawbridge, normally made of wood, can be raised up cutting off the gatehouse from the rest of the bridge. Not all drawbridges were pivoted. Some moved on rollers and could be rolled inside the gatehouse.
A portcullis is a sliding gate in the form of a lattice made from vertical and horizontal strips of wood or metal or a combination of both. It slides within groves set in the two sides of the gatehouse walls and is lowered to create a strong barrier. The portcullis is raised into a room above the gatehouse passage when open. Some gatehouse passages have multiple portcullises.
Defenders had the ability to drop missiles or boiling oil from rooms above the gatehouse passage. The holes through which they launched their attacks are called murder-holes.
Large wooden gates also formed part of the defences. Attackers would find gates that opened outwards harder to overcome. A gatehouse passage could have several gates along its length.
Arrow loops are small slits in the walls designed to allow defenders to fire arrows from the side chambers of the passage at attackers.
The constable was the person in charge of the castle's defence and had chambers within the gatehouse. All those visiting the castle would be checked by the constable or castle guard before entering. When the lord was not in residence it only took a small number of guards to protect the castle.
Explore Beaumaris Castle
The inner bailey gatehouse at Beaumaris Castle is an excellent example of strong construction. Explore this virtual reality reconstruction to see what defences it has.
Explore a virtual siege
Explore a landscape showing different kinds of siege engine, including the trebuchet, siege tower and battering ram.
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Types of castles
Types of castles