Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Building a Castle: Gatehouses

Chepstow Castle
The most vulnerable point in a castle's defences was the gate. No need to smash down the walls or climb over them if you can capture the gate. Some castles were built with a tower gatehouse, but  in about 1190 William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, remodelled Chepstow Castle based on his extensive experience fighting in France and the Crusades, and had the gatehouse built with twin towers.
Arrow loop or slit
The towers stand forward of the arched gateway and had defensive arrow loops on two levels. The gateway passage also has a machicolation slot – an opening in the roof for dropping missiles. There were also two portcullises with a pair of gates between. This was a pioneering design – the first in England and Wales with rounded twin gate towers.

Gu├ędelon Castle
The castle at Gu├ędelon will also have twin rounded gate towers with a diameter of 8m (26ft) rising to a height of 15m (almost 50ft).

Lines of Attack and Defence
Entrance to Dinefwr Castle
At Richard I’s Chateau Gaillard, the gatehouse was not positioned along the main approach to the castle, but in a side wall, causing attacking armies to have to ride along the north-east wall under fire from bowmen in order to reach the gate. Dinefwr Castle in Carmarthenshire has a passageway leading to the gate, restricting and attacking force to a narrow way with attackers above.

The gatehouse often included the accommodation for the Constable, who ran the castle, on the uppermost floor. Also rooms for captured knights and noblemen waiting to be ransomed. By contrast, the dungeons were also often below the gatehouse. Some noblemen built the chapel into the gatehouse in the hope that it would keep away evil.

Even when castles ceased to be defensive in the 14th and 15th centuries, they were still built with gatehouses, more for their symmetrical and aesthetic qualities than for their defensive capabilities.

[adapted from The Medieval Castle Haynes Manual by Charles Phillips and The World of the Castle website]

Ann Marie Thomas is the author of four medieval history books, a surprisingly cheerful poetry collection about her 2010 stroke, and the science fiction series Flight of the Kestrel. Book one, Intruders, and book two Alien Secrets, are out now. Follow her at

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