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Medieval Motte and Bailey Castle

Medieval life and Times

What is a Medieval Motte and Bailey Castle?
A Medieval Motte and Bailey Castle is a term used to describe the castles which were introduced to England by the Normans. The Normans used the Motte and Bailey castle as a base for controlling the native English population. The Medieval Motte and Bailey Castle Layout consisted of several major elements:

  • The Castle foundations or mounds - Two mounds of earth were built consisting of a high and extremely steep mound which was called the Motte. The Motte had very steep sides and a Tower was built on the top of it. A much shallower mound was also built which served as the foundations of the bailey.

  • The Motte and Bailey castle ditch - The process of excavating the earth to build the mounds created a highly convenient defensive ditch at the base of the motte which surrounding the whole of the bailey. a ditch which was often filled with water - the earliest form of the castle moat
  • The Bailey was a defended yard, surrounded by the ditch, which contained barracks, stables, livestock and other buildings for storing food, weapons and equipment.
  • The entrance to the Bailey was through a large wooden gate. Some of these gates had Guardhouses which were built either side of the gate  
  • The Motte varied in size from 50 to 120 feet in height and 50 to 300 feet in diameter
  • The Tower - The Tower or Castle Keep - The motte was crowned with a wooden Tower which served as a look-out, an elevated fighting point and provided accommodation for the lord or knight. These wooden towers were later replaced with stone and were called 'Keeps'. The Tower, or keep, usually consisted of two or three storeys. The Ground Floor typically housed a kitchen and storeroom. The First Floor sometimes housed the Great Hall and the Top floor of the tower, or keep, housed the lord's apartments
  • The Rampart and Palisades - The base of Medieval Motte and Bailey Castle tower, or keep, was surrounded by a rampart and palisades - A fence of pales forming a defence barrier or fortification ( a pale was a fence, or timber wall, made with a stake or pointed stick which enclosed the area)
  • A fortified gate was built as part of the tower fence
  • The Crenellations - On the top of the Palisades were 'Crenellations' form which the soldiers fired arrows
  • Some Motte and Bailey castles had a parapet - a low wall along the top of the rampart
  • A bridge between the Bailey and the tower on top of the Motte - A wooden bridge afforded access to the Tower gate during time of peace. In time of a siege the bridge was completely removed

When the timber Medieval Motte and Bailey Castles were completed many were covered in white plaster - which made them look as if they were made of stone.

When was the first Medieval Motte and Bailey Castle built?
The first Medieval Motte and Bailey Castle was built at Mont Glonme on the River Loire in France in 990 - so the Normans were used to using the castle to dominate their tenants under the feudal system. The Normans also brought feudalism to England. Prior to the Norman invasion in 1066 led by William the Conqueror there were hardly any castles in England and the ones that did exist were built by Norman lords who were friends of King Edward the Confessor.

Medieval Motte and Bailey Castle - first built in timber and then in Stone
The earliest Motte and Bailey castles were simply a wooden blockhouse placed on a mound and surrounded by a stockade hence the term of Motte and Bailey castles. The rapid construction of the Motte and Bailey castles enabled the Normans to control and subjugate the conquered English. Norman soldiers manned the Motte and Bailey castles and were able to take on any attackers. The wooden Norman Castle was also used to safely store supplies and equipment together with their horses. Soon the Norman lords and knights began to build in stone, which would better resist fire and the assaults of English rebels. The stone castle consisted at first of a single tower called a Keep, square or round, with thick walls, few windows, and often with only one room to each story.

The location chosen for a Medieval Motte and Bailey Castle
The location chosen for a Motte and Bailey Castle was extremely important. Great care was taken when deciding the site of a Medieval Motte and Bailey Castle:

  • Motte and Bailey Castles were built on the highest ground in the area
  • Motte and Bailey Castles often adjoined Rivers
  • Motte and Bailey Castles often overlooked Towns and harbours
  • Motte and Bailey Castles made use of existing sites of Roman or Saxon forts and Burhs

The Medieval Motte and Bailey Castle and Feudalism
The outward mark of feudalism was the castle, where the lord or knight resided and from where he ruled his fief, or estate. Feudalism was based on the exchange of land for military service. The Norman lords were given English land by their Norman overlord William the Conqueror as a reward for helping him to conquer the English. Under the Feudal system the Norman vassals ( the knights and lords) who were awarded land in England swore an Oath of Fealty to their lord and provided fully equipped soldiers under the Feudal Levy. Serfs in Medieval Times were peasants who worked his lord's land and paid him certain dues in return for the use of land.  When the land changed owners the peasants or serfs were obliged to work for the new owners - the Normans. The Normans used the Motte and Bailey castle to intimidate the local population. These great castles on high mounds must have easily intimidated the English. The Motte and Bailey castles gave the Normans a home and a power base and enabled them to introduce Norman feudalism to England. As many as 1000 Motte and Bailey castles were built in England by the Normans.

  • The Motte and Bailey Castles provide a base where men, provisions and horses could be housed
  • The Motte and Bailey Castles were built to overawe and frighten the indigenous population
  • The Motte and Bailey Castles provided a site from which the Normans could govern the surrounding district as required under the Feudal system
  • The Motte and Bailey Castles acted as a fortified post to house cavalry
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