Castles. Camelot. Soaring stone towers. Damsels in distress. Jousting. Or if you are a gloomy soul; prisons, torture chambers, oppressive hulking grey monsters on the skyline. Well, both have elements of truth but most castles were much more humble. In England the vast majority of castles were in fact, for the longest time, wood. Simple motte and bailey castles, that dated from the period immediately after the Norman Conquest in some cases persisted as wooden castles into the latter half of the 13th century.
These were not the soaring stone castles of fantasy fiction, or even the later medieval period, but basic wood and earth structures, very similar to the wooden palisades and ditches of the Saxons and Vikings. This is not surprising since these castles originated in Normandy, the land of the Northmen, i.e. Vikings.
The motte and bailey castle had a fairly simple and largely common layout. The motte, an artificial mound, or enhanced hill, was surrounded by a deep ditch, often crossed by a small draw bridge. On top of the motte would be a wooden tower, a defensive structure that doubled as the castle owner’s home. The motte was not simply a pile of earth thrown up from the spoil created in digging the ditches but was often, though not always, a quite sophisticated structure of layers of earth, rubble and timber piles that provided the stability needed to carry the weight of the building above and hold a steeper than natural slope – as shown in the Bayeux Tapestry.
The bailey was an enclosed outer area that housed the functional buildings of the castle e.g. stables, bakehouse, maybe a forge and sometimes a domestic hall or accomodation. Essentially a village that supported the life of the castle.
These castles were then far more modest than the later constructions, or even the contemporary White Tower in London. They lacked the means to defend against large organised forces and were susceptible to attack by fire – though the tower might be protected with dampened hides during a siege. They were, however, perfectly adequate against small raiding parties or rebellious subjects without siege engines or training in siege warfare.
A fun day trip out is the reconstruction of a wooden Norman Castle at Stansted in Essex.