What Makes a Castle a Castle?

Sometimes a castle may be hard to define, but like the courts with obscenity, you know it when you see it. Or rather, you know it when you do not see it.

I have a pet peeve about people calling non-castles castles. Some people think you can put stone on the outside of something and call it a castle, or if it has a turret it is a castle, or if it has crenelated detail on the roof it is a castle. These things are not the case. It might be a chateau, a manor house, a Victorian someone defaced with stone, but it isn’t a castle. Crenelated battlements were kept as architectural details long after they ceased being functionally used on castles, and not every building with crenelations is such a castle. Likewise, stone doesn’t make a castle either, nor does having a round “tower” or turret like you see on many Victorian homes.

I am building an actual castle, well as close to actual as I can. Real castles had walls up to 20 feet thick, this will not be the case for me, but the exterior will look like an actual castle. What makes a castle a castle is that it looks like a defensible structure, and the easiest way to achieve that look is by limiting windows, especially those close to the ground.

That, for instance, is not a castle. Can anyone for see that standing up to an assault? The windows are too large and low to the ground, it is only two stories tall, and the crenelations at the top are too small to be anything but merely decorative.

It is a nice house and they have done some nice architectural details, but I would call it a classic manor house, not a castle. Wikipedia has a a nice page on manor houses that explains why they aren’t castles.

On a trip from Michigan to our building site in Tennessee I drive by this “castle” in Ohio called Bonnyconnellan Castle this also is not a castle. This building is fairly ugly, built by a rich guy with more money than style. It looks like he took a Victorian, added a second turret, put in ugly windows, and an ugly and non-functional crenelations on the top. It is not a castle, I wouldn’t even honor it with the manor house title, to me it is an eye-sore.

So there are small but important details that make a castle a castle, things you may not notice until they are pointed out, but are definitely necessary for that castle feel.

In additional to there being limited windows, the windows should be narrow. Many years ago they did not have the technology to do large glass panes, and of course you didn’t want attackers crawling in through windows, so they were made small. No one likes a dark home, and in the modern era we have building codes for egress windows, but windows do need to be minimized, especially on the front of the building, and low to the ground. When you need to make a larger window you should at least use simulated divided lights so that it appears period correct.

Another feature often overlooked is a splayed base.

The above tower is almost a perfect example of castle architecture, one thing it has is a splayed base, where the base flares outward like a pair of bell bottoms.  Splayed bases exist for a few reason. One reason is that they did not have heavy equipment or poured concrete wall technology when building castles, so to make a stable foundation they simply mounded up stone and rubble, until it formed a stable base, on which they would build vertical walls. The need to do this depending on geography and you see it more on mountain castles  with irregular terrain than those in flatter areas, but it is one of those features you only notice when it is missing. The splayed base however also serves two important defensive purposes. The first is that it will deflect rocks or other dropped projectiles outward at attacking troops when dropped from the top of the wall, allowing the defenders an advantage in defense. The second has to do with the physics of projectiles. There is a reason modern tanks have angled side walls, bullets cannot hit with nearly as much energy when they hit an angled surface, a projectile hits with the most force when exactly perpendicular to the surface it strikes. If you undermine a castle’s foundation it will fall, and if you destroy the bottom of the wall the top of the wall will fall. Cannons, fired from the ground, if aimed straight, will hit a wall perpendicularly… unless it has a splayed base, and of course if the cannon is angled up then it’ll hit the higher straight wall at an angle as well. Catapults and other earlier siege equipment have to deal with the same physics.

Another thing often forgotten or missed on people building reproductions are the machicolations The battlements are built wider than the tower they sit on, they are supported by corbels made of stone as in this tower, and the gaps between the corbels are the machicolations. Traditionally these had holes from the tower roof floor so that defenders could again drop rocks directly down on attackers without exposing themselves. The whole purpose of making the battlement wider was to create these machicolations for defensive purposes. As the years progressed and warfare lessened and people started building chateaus and manor homes this feature was one of the first to go. They walls would go straight up to crenels and merlons, but it the battlement would not flare out to provide the space for machicolations.

Finally the tower is a very good example of crenels and merlons, also know as crenelations. The crenel is the gap, the merlon is the tooth. These were not merely decorative. The idea was for a defender to hide behind the merlon, duck to the crenel to attack (arrows, rocks, boiling oil), and duck back to the merlon. If they are not big enough to hide a person as such I would call them decorative and the building not really a castle.

So, when I say I’m building a castle, I mean a castle. It should look like it was originally built for defense. Like this one, Butron Castle, from spain, defensible, but still livable with windows higher up.

Comments

  1. Sanna Febin says:

    Hey! I’m not sure if you’ll get this, but your page is awesome! I’ve always wanted to build a castle, and one fine day maybe I’ll have the funds to do it. I appreciate your attention to detail and serious approach to your construction project. How far have you gotten? Would LOVe to see any pics, if you ever feel like sending any… I’ll be happy to give you my personal email. I check it daily. THankxx

    sanna

  2. Ishmael says:

    HI Sanna, We have the land, architectural plans are almost done. I hope to be able to share portions of the plans soon.

  3. Kairon says:

    I was wondering what the difference between a mansion and a castle was and now I know.
    I noticed that your last comment was pretty much last year and I would also like to see pictures.

  4. Scott says:

    Hi,
    love the idea of building a castle, if i ever have the cash………
    I feel the need to say though, that a castle is the fortified house of a lord or noble, yourself and I may only attain a fortress, or mock castle if it has the appropriate Gothic revival architecture.

  5. George says:

    I live in Ohio right around the corner from Bonnyconnellan Castle, and I think you are wrong about it’s looks. I think it is a beautiful old building. Now yes it was not built to be an actual castle, but it was designed after the Bonnyconnellan Castle in Cork Ireland which is an actual castle. It was built in 1886 by Irishman John D. Loughlin. As for it being defensible, it sits on top of a hill looking down on the center of town so that it could be a position that could defend the town at the time it was built. Yes it does not have a defense wall around it, but it does have two (2) eight (8) foot tall rod iron fences around it that did completely surround it when it was built. The front fascia of it is made of granite that could be what the complete structure could have been made of, but it was not which is a shame. I think that you saying that it is an eyesore is completely wrong.

  6. Johnny says:

    I concur with George. I live near Sidney and the Bonnyconnellan Castle is the first great residence of the county in which it sits, overlooking the city’s downtown. It is rich in history, housing many wealthy and notable inhabitants in years past. Calling it an eyesore and not a castle based on your personal criteria and taste is not reasonable. Though built on a smaller scale, it’s modeled from an actual castle in Westmeath County in Ireland; a castle built in 1639 with (large windows on the ground floor) and uneven turrets on either side with bases that are (not splayed). The fact that it stands today, showing very little age on the 2 foot thick stone walls and brick that make up its facade is a testament to the craftsmanship of the builders of that time. They built things to last then, not like today. It’s structural integrity and long history make it more of a castle in my book than a modern and poorly constructed Disneyland castle.

  7. Ishmael says:

    They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I understand you have some sort of home team-like support for this place, but really, it isn’t a castle, and it is an eye sore to the unaffiliated, it has a face only a mother could love. The windows are completely out of proportion, from the outside they look like vinyl doublehungs, which are of course not historical in any sense. Perhaps originally it had better windows, but the window sizes are still out of proportion. They’re also set flush with the exterior walls, making the walls seem thin. I don’t know how thick those walls are, but castles had thick walls, and when you set a window flush like that visually it makes the walls seem quite thin, if it does indeed have 2 foot thick walls you’d never know it. The crenelations at the top are ridiculously out of scale as well. You know when a child draws a picture of a person and all the body parts are out of proportion, the legs are too short, the hands and head too big? That essentially is what the architect (if there was one) did here. In a child its cute, but in an adult pretending at being a professional its just sad. Assuming you mean it was inspired by “Clonyn Castle” I don’t really see the resemblance. Clonwyn does have more accurate proportions, though I also would not call it a castle even. It is obviously a manor house. You can tell both because of the date when it was built, but also because of the windows, which as you note are at ground level. Calling it a castle is probably forgivable though, it is certainly not ugly. There are manor houses all over Europe that are called castles, that is very typical. This one in Ohio though, would not pass my muster.

  8. Dale says:

    Hey I wanted to say you have a great site. I just recently but some land and we plan on building a castle as well. We have a few design ideas for our castle but we want to use stone for to build it. Our land is within driving distance to a quarry so I am hoping that will bring the cost down. Our land is in Arkansas.

  9. Bruce says:

    I am hoping to build a castle b&b with & rooms , a great hall, and a court yard around entire building to accommodate an artisan fair on every other weekend.Like you I get the strangest looks when I talk about the financial end of things. Any tips you could offer in the construction end will be greatly welcome< as I am getting a presentable packet together. Thanks in advance, I love your initiative.

  10. Ishmael says:

    Well Bruce, check out this one:

    http://www.ravenwoodcastle.com/

    It was built more recently with the idea of being an event center, they did it all much cheaper. Mostly two stories, and they used those rough face CMU blocks as a building material, removing the need for any finish on the exterior. It wouldn’t all have been my choice, but its a cheaper way to do it if you aren’t picky about appearance. I tell you what, price your wall. A big courtyard needs a big wall around it, and well, they get expensive fast.

    • bruce says:

      Ishmael, thank you for the web site. I am an historical reinactor and want the castle to look more original, with modern concerts. I enjoy reading your site, and look forward to the finished castle. You have renewed a dream that others said was impossible. Your site has shown me the impossible is just a matter of opinion. I wish you the best, as always in service to the dream.

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