Castles of England/Domestic Area Design

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This chapter describes the main features of a castle that served its domestic purpose. All true castles would have all of these features, albeit of varying size and style.

Above Ground[edit]

Warkworth Castle, showing the location of the major rooms

The main domestic areas of the castle were on the upper floors of the castle away from the noise (and smells!) of the more public areas below. The plan to the right shows the layout of the principal rooms in a typical castle:

  1. The vestibule
  2. The hall
  3. The chapel
  4. The great chamber
  5. The kitchens
  6. The pantry and buttery


The Vestibule[edit]

A vestibule is a room or space between the doorway and the first proper room of the castle. It provides an "airlock" between the outside and the inner areas of the castle.

The Hall[edit]

The Great Hall of Durham Castle. Durham Castle is of Norman design, although the hall was not added until the 14thcentury, the large 19th century window being more typical of this period. The ceiling is 14m high and the hall 30m long.

The hall (or great hall if there was more than one hall in the castle) was the main room of the castle. The hall was used for eating, sleeping and conducting the business of the castle and its estates.

The usual design was a rectangular room with a high ceiling. One end of the hall would have had a dais where the castle owner and family would have dined. The great chamber was commonly located directly behind or above the dais. Originally the hall was used by both the owner, his household and the servants for eating and sleeping, but in later castles the servants made use of a subsidiary hall and the owner had moved to the great chamber.

The hall was usually on the first or second floor of the keep, with the space below used for cellars. The hall usually occupied two "floors" of the keep, having a double height ceiling. The upper level would sometimes have a mural gallery, a walkway through the wall. Windows would be place high up to provide light - the later the design of the castle, the bigger the windows.

The size of the hall meant that sometimes the span of the ceiling was too great to be supported by the side walls alone. In these cases a supporting wall bisecting the hall might have been built.

The hall was the place where the owner entertained his guests, so it was as splendidly decorated as he could afford. The walls would have been plastered or whitewashed then decorated. The very rich would have had decorated glass windows, although unlike today these were made to be removable so the owner could take them with him on his travels round his estates as they were extremely expensive.

The Chapel[edit]

The chapel of Carisbrooke Castle

Religion permeated every aspect of medieval life, so the chapel was an integral and important part of every castle. Most castles would have had at least two chapels - a private one, near the hall or great chamber, for the use of the owner, and another for the rest of the castle's population. The public chapels were typically located in the bailey.

A chapel would have been aligned with the altar to the east and the entrance to the west, the normal practice for Christian churches. Also like churches of the period, the chapel would have been richly decorated, perhaps with tapestries covering the walls.

As well as conducting religious ceremonies, the chaplain would have been involved in the administrative work of the castle. This was due to the chaplain being one of the few people in the castle who was likely to be able to read and write.

The Great Chamber[edit]

The great chamber was the private room of the castle's owner and, sometimes, his immediate family. It allowed him to sleep and eat separately from the rest of the household. The use and design of the chamber evolved over time. As the castle became more of a home than a defensive fortification, the chamber increased in importance. Eventually it would develop into a suite of rooms. In early designs, the chamber would have been heated by braziers, later designs incorporating fireplaces.

The chamber also served as a treasury, so it had to be in a secure location. In Norman castles the chamber is usually placed next to the hall and in later designs directly above the hall, accessed by a stairway. The Chamberlain was responsible for the treasury.

Furniture was comparatively rare in early castles. However, the chamber would have a four-poster bed, with curtains to reduce the draughts, chests, chairs and, possibly, a free standing wooden bath or wash stand.

The Kitchens[edit]

A typical castle kitchen, although this is from Doune Castle in Scotland.

The castle kitchen was usually in a separate building rather than the main keep, albeit joined by a covered passageway to allow food to carried quickly and easily to the hall. The calorie intake of a typical man in medieval times was likely to be much higher than today. Almost regardless of their profession, they would have been involved in hard physical labour. This meant that the production of vast quantities of food was essential in a castle, meaning a large kitchen.

The main feature of the kitchen would have been its fireplaces. These would have given off an enormous amount of heat making the kitchen very uncomfortable to work in. The fires were the reason the kitchen was usually in a different building - there was a very good chance that the building could be burnt to the ground. The kitchen would either have a well or the well would be nearby outside to provide a supply of clean water for cooking.

The kitchen floor would probably have been kept covered with straw or a similar material to soak up spillages. At the end of each day these would have been swept down a waste chute into the moat or collected up if no chute was provided.

Ovens to bake bread would usually be located next to the fireplaces. The oven was heated by filling it with burning wood until the bricks were heated right through. Then the oven was swept clean and the food put inside - the retained heat in the bricks cooking the food.

The Pantry, Larder and Buttery[edit]

The pantry was the storage and preparation room for general provisions that were not being prepared in the kitchen. The name derives from the French word for bread, pain. The pantler was responsible for the pantry.

The larder was under the control of the larderer and was used to store meat and fish.

The buttery was for the storage of "butts" of ale and other alcohol. It was the responsibility of the butler. As the storage and control of alcohol was very important, the most trustworthy servant was put in charge. This lead to the butler taking the role of head of the domestic household.

It was fairly typical for the buttery and pantry to be built at the opposite end of the hall to the great chamber. For storing expensive goods, like spices, an ambury (a cupboard built into the wall) was used.

The Brewery[edit]

Water was not usually drunk as it was generally unsafe, particularly near a castle where the watercourses were likely to be contaminated with disease pathogens from sewage and other waste. The brewing process removes impurities and destroys harmful bacteria, making ale safe to drink. As such it was the drink of choice for all but those who couldn't afford it. Later, ale was flavoured with hops producing beer. Given the high demand for ale and beer every major castle would have had its own brewery to provide for the residents.

Dovecotes[edit]

The dovecote from Newark Castle, in Scotland

Castles would have kept doves for the food from the birds themselves, their eggs and for carrying messages. The earliest known evidence of dove keeping in an English castle was in the Norman period (around the 12th century) with Rochester Castle having nest-holes in the keep. The first identifiable dovecote is somewhat later, around the 14th century.

Below Ground[edit]

The Cellars[edit]

The castle cellars were usually under the great hall (which was on the first or second floor of the keep). It was used for general storage as well as those things normally expected in a castle - weapons, armour and other military supplies. The castle designers would have tried to ensure the cellar was fireproof as its destruction, with its large supplies of food, could have lead to the quick defeat of the castle garrison.

The Dungeons[edit]

It may be surprising, but actually very few castles were built with a dungeon. The underground areas seen in castles and castle ruins today were nearly always cellars or other storage areas. The reason there were no dungeons was because there were no prisoners. The criminal justice system of the period tended to lead to people being found not guilty, or being hung. Cells or dungeons were only required if for some reason a suspected criminal needed to be held pending trial, but this was rather rare.

Later, as the criminal justice system developed, underground areas of castles were sometimes turned into prisons. These cellars were no longer required for their original purpose as the castle was not required to hold stores against a long siege. So they made convenient places to hold criminals.

Design Features[edit]

Garderobes[edit]

A garderobe, this one is in Chirk Castle, Wales

A garderobe was the medieval equivalent of a lavatory. There was usually one or more in each of the main castle rooms. Typically they would be positioned next to or within the castle walls. If the castle walls weren't thick enough to contain the garderobe, it would be built on brackets outside the wall, hanging directly over the ditch or moat. The approach to a garderobe was dog-legged to reduce the amount of odour escaping back into the castle. There was little sophistication to a garderobe - it was just a hole, covered with a wooden bench that either opened directly to the outside or to a chute. Regardless of the method of disposal, the deposits had to be regularly cleared away - possibly the most unpleasant job in a castle.

Staircases[edit]

A typical castle staircase in turnpike design, this one is at Foulksrath Castle

As castles are usually built on several levels, staircases are an important component of the design. The defensive strength of a castle can be significantly affected by the design and positioning of the staircase. Where a staircase is inside the castle wall, it creates a weak point that can be targeted by siege engines. To avoid creating a thinner wall, staircases were sometimes built outside the tower or keep.

A second consideration was the direction of a spiral staircase. Once an enemy had entered the castle, the staircases could be made easier to defend by making them spiral. In what is known as a "turnpike" arrangement, the stairs spiral so that a defender higher up the staircase is free to use his sword arm while the attacker has restricted movement.

Finally, staircases may be placed on alternate sides of the structure (for example, from ground to first floor the staircase is on the north side, from first to second floor, it is on the south side). This arrangement means the attackers have to fight their way across the floor to reach the next staircase. In some designs, the rooms would be split in half with a wall and doorway creating an extra defensive point.

Fireplaces[edit]

In early castles, heat was provided by free-standing braziers and central hearth fires. The fireplace was developed in around 1100 and began to be incorporated in castle design from that point onwards. The fireplace lead to a major change inside the castle as it removed the central fires, creating a wider, open space and reducing the amount of smoke and soot. This in turn lead to the increasing decoration of the important rooms, like the hall and great chamber.

Wells[edit]

A donkey wheel operated well at Carisbrooke Castle

It is a fundamental design tenet or a castle that it needs to be able to survive a prolonged siege. The provision of a reliable source of drinking water inside the castle is therefore essential. The well would have to be positioned so it could not be captured while other areas of the castle continued to resist the attackers. This means that at least one well would normally be inside the keep itself. An additional well would often be placed near the kitchen.

However, provision of wells was a significant problem for many castles. A castle was typically built on high, often rocky, ground, making it difficult to sink a well. Also the well had to be deep enough so that it couldn't be contaminated by sewage or waste from the castle. In some designs, the upper parts of the well were stone lined to try and prevent contamination and many would have had a cover for when they were not in use.

When the well was particularly deep, lifting sufficient water for the castle population would have been a back-breaking task. To mitigate this, donkey wheels were sometimes installed to provide power for the lifting mechanism.