Medieval fortifications, like many medieval buildings were multi-functional. They were also highly symbolic. Simple definitions of a castle, such as ‘a fortified dwelling of a lord’, do not in anyway explain the vast range of forms and functions of medieval ‘castles’ and the associated types of buildings. The different site types in this listing, which are based on the descriptions given by various authorities, are crude (as are all such categories). There are many questions and areas of discussion regarding medieval fortifications which need to be addressed.
The boundary between a castle and a fortified manor house is a difficult one to define. Basically virtually all such sites are manor houses with fortifications, the larger, higher status, more flamboyantly fortified buildings are castles. The smaller lower status and more clearly domestic houses are ‘fortified manor houses’ but some very modest status sites of early date in the Welsh Marches are routinely called castles (see Minor Castles). There are also high status but less fortified buildings called ‘palaces’ (some grand buildings, others very modest timber houses). The existence of the word ‘castle’ in a site or building name is not a reliable indication of the form or function of that building.
The more military minded castle authorities looked at defining castles in terms of strength of defences and strategic considerations whereas the more social minded historians of more recent times tend to define castles in term of social status and function. For the military minded a castle is basically defined as a private residences of a lord with fortifications which make it capable of withstanding, at least for a while, an assault by a contemporary army of a likely enemy. The minimum defence would be a continuous parapet (A wall-walk around the entire site) but most would also have at least one tower and a gatehouse (in stone or earthworks and timber – the motte is basically an earthwork ‘tower’). For such authors landscape, where considered, is about tactical consideration as to protection from attack, strategic consideration such as protecting passes and river crossings and, occasionally, some consideration for domestic accessibility and civil administration. For the more socially minded castles are manorial centres, that is centres of local administration, built in a fortified style but not necessarily a military building. A number of castles have been found to been built on, or very near to, the site of existing Saxon manorial centres and show a continuity of function and status. For such minded historians the most important function of all castles was as symbols of lordly status and power to the local inhabitants, near neighbours and the lords peer group (Put byLucy Marten-Holden as “the concept of dominion, not military domination”). For such authors landscape is often about elite pleasures and pursuits and the presence of deer parks, fish ponds, religious foundations, market boroughs and other such are important considerations.
Charles Coulson has shown that medieval people used the term castle in various, different and nuanced ways and medieval documentary reference to castles should not be automatically taken to refer to fortified residences. (see Castles in Medieval Societyand also Abigail Wheatley’s The Idea of the Castle.)
The truth is that castles are complex both individually, in having many functions, and across the group, in being very diverse in form and in the balance of functions. Some were certainly military garrisons but most used a military architectural style to show the status of their owners in a time where warriors were seen to be the ‘natural’ ruling elite. There may well be no such thing as a ‘castle’ but a variety of many building forms and functions which go under this title, not always consistently. There may have been considerable difference between the number and variety of castles and fortified buildings in different areas and at different times over the 600 years covered in the listing in this web site.
Surprisingly few castle sites, particularly the smaller sites, have been properly or fully excavated. Some of these will undoubtedly be discovered to have been masonry castles if they ever are excavated whilst others will be discovered to have never been castles. Equally earthworks now considered to be tumuli or mill mounds could be discovered to have been castles. Many prehistoric tumuli could have had some medieval reuse, far from all of these will have been identified as such. Identification of the age of sites on the bases of a few scant pottery shards has been a practice in the past but is now, hopefully, subject to more sophisticated critical assessment. Many smaller mottes were quite low mounds and could have readily been converted and modified into fashionable square moated manor houses in the 13th or 14th century. How many of such moated manors started out as mottes may never been known. Unrealistic expectations of what a ‘castle’ is supposed to look like prevents some people from recognising some sites as castles. A simplistic belief that castle are military fortifications and that military fortification should be on high ground (both untrue) leads to much misidentification.
The understanding of the castle is a complex and evolving aspect of serious study and reference should be made to texts such as those listed in the bibliography of this site. The paradigm of the castle, which includes an understanding of the politico-social environment, is an even more debatable field of study as looking at works on the subject of feudalism, a core component of the model of the castle in former times, will show. It should be be clearly understood that the idea of the castle was always highly charged with symbolic and psychological meaning and that some seemingly serious textbooks about castles, and most popular castle books, are written to serve the psychological needs of some modern readers–sometimes by authors who are naive and don’t recognise their own motivations and sometimes by authors who are fairly cynical in exploiting a popular market. For further comment on the psychology of castle studies see Crenellating the Ego.
The existing definitions for the various forms of medieval fortifications have problems (click here for further information and discussion), some monuments of identical social status and function (i.e. Mottes and Ringworks) are spilt into many different subgroups whereas some monuments of very different social status and function are lumped together in one group (The termTowerhouse includes small gentry status Pele Towers with only residential function with high status baronial Tower Houses that had legal and administrative as well as residential functions.)