Thursday, 11 April 2019

Building a Castle: The Curtain Wall

Harlech Castle
The fortifications surrounding the castle were called the enceinte, and the curtain wall was a key part of this. The shape of the walls depended on the site, with many castles built on hilltops, cliffs or rocky promontories. Harlech Castle was built on a near-vertical cliff, making it impregnable from every angle.
Swansea Castle from Castle Bailey Street
The area inside the wall was called the bailey. There is a street in Swansea that runs today in front of the castle ruins, called Castle Bailey Street. The ruins are the remains of the 'New Castle' built in a corner of the old castle which was damaged by Welsh attacks, and towers had been sold to raise money. Castle Bailey Street used to run across the bailey of the much larger original castle.

In early castles the curtain wall was very high, but later castles were built with lower curtain walls with a bastion fort or higher secondary walls inside. Towers were placed at the vulnerable corners of the curtain wall and anywhere else which needed extra defences. They also stabilised the wall.
Putlog holes Barcut Biserica evanghelica
As the walls grew, scaffolding was needed. This was supported on putlogs inserted into holes built into the wall. Masons would use a piece of wood to mark the hole, and build the masonry around it. Later the carpenters would insert the putlogs into the holes and lay planks between them for the masons to stand on.

Teams of masons would work with plumb line and mason’s level to build the walls straight and every block level. They used a trowel to apply the mortar, not just between the stones, but between the stones and the rubble infill. Castle building took many years and the site would shut down in winter. A layer of mortar was laid to cover the unfinished top of the wall to protect it. Next season it would be removed and building continued.

[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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