This is Why Norman Castle Builders Were Literal Geniuses

Yeah, sure, we had castles in England in Saxon times. But after William the Conqueror was crowned king there was a real rush in defensive castle building with some estimating that hundreds emerged into the English skyline during his reign. 

Some of these early castles were built in wood, but soon afterwards Norman builders opted for stone, incorporating some lethal components to keep powerful people safe inside - and hostile invaders out. 

Want to attack a Norman Castle? Good luck with that. 

Swirly Staircases
I've been up and down a few 1,000 year old spiral staircases in my time, and it's always struck me that going down them is always much easier than going up. This is because staircases were narrowly built going up clockwise, with the outer wall to your left. Imagine then, your right arm getting pushed towards the central pillar of the spiral as you ascend, trying to attack with a sword. Whereas coming down, the sword-wielder has more room to attack because their sword has space to swipe downwards along the outer side of the wall. Another thing: The curve of the staircase ascending makes it difficult to see upwards because the centre of the staircase is in the way of your view - but coming down the defenders have a much better view of your panicky face as you try not to trip on the wonky cheese wedge-shaped steps while realising you can't actually see where you're going.  

Castle Rising, Norfolk. Photo by Pauline Bernfeld on Unsplash

Uneven Steps
You think, as you're puffing and panting your way up an ancient, twisty Medieval staircase, that the stairs have been worn down with age and become uneven over centuries of use. But not necessarily so. The Normans built staircases to be deliberately uneven, so those running up them would trip up and fall to the bottom - worst still, causing a domino-effect as one chain-mail, sword and shield-wielding soldier clanks and clatters his way down the steps taking the rest of his unit down with him. I remembered on a recent tour of one castle that our guide advised us to take care navigating the steps, because, they said, with a cheery smile: "these steps are literally made to try and kill you." 

Hills, mounds, cliffs... they're all perfect sites for castle building for a number of reasons. Firstly, you can see a long way away, preparing for any invaders in plenty of time before they actually get to you. Secondly, hills are exhausting to climb, wear out your enemy and give those inside the castle more time to raise weapons to see you off. For examples, look up Clifford's Tower in York (built 1068-69) and Bramber Castle in Sussex (built 1073). The motte and bailey castle emerged at this time too - with a central mound and a (usually) flooded ditch all around it. And you didn't want to be swimming around in the moat - that was where the human waste ended up. 

Clifford's Tower. Photo by Ray Harrington on Unsplash

It's no good building a great big defensive castle on a hill and just adding some dodgy steps. The structure itself needed to be impenetrable, too. So they built the cold, stone walls really thick. Castles like those in Rochester and Oxford have walls that are as thick as 9-10 feet (around 3 metres) in places. This would have made it almost impossible to push, knock or force down the walls to take whatever (or whoever) you needed that was inside. It also, of course, helped keep anyone you needed locked up in there firmly inside. 

Is that an archer peeking out up there? Rochester Castle. Photo by Ryan Storrier on Unsplash

Somewhere to Hide
Those crenellated tops on the walls and towers of castles like Richmond Castle in North Yorkshire or Rochester Castle in Kent aren't just there to look nice. They serve a deadly purpose. They're the ideal size and shape for an archer to set himself down into the lower part of the gap and aim a lethal shot at you as you run towards the castle. Then, he can quickly nip behind the higher part of the crenellation to avoid being shot at from the ground, before peeking out and taking aim again. 

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