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Author Topic:   Define 'castle'
posted 10-22-2007 09:02 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Ricky     Edit/Delete Message
This is inspired by a post I saw on here while browsing that appeared to class several 17th / 18th Century houses as 'castles'. I can be a little dogmatic about what actually defines a castle (as opposed to a fort or a manor house), so I thought we should maybe have a discussion about what actually constitutes a castle. If nothing else, this can be an interesting debate.

My opening statement is that a Castle is basically a fortified building that is also the permanent residence of the/a local bigwig (when he is in the area).

A standard house with fortifications around it is a fortified house, not a castle.

A simple fortified location is a fort.

A community fortification (like a burh, or a walled town) is not a castle.

A country mansion built in a 'castle style' does not even count as a fortified house!

I fully realise that this site is about more than just castles, and that manor houses, fortified houses, etc, etc, are all included. I also am not intending to disparage the post described above, it just sparked the idea for this post.

posted 10-22-2007 09:31 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Maria   Click Here to Email Maria     Edit/Delete Message
Also, I feel that a castle is first of all a fotified building, intended for defence, and only secondary an object of beauty. Urban renaissance buildings are palaces, not castles.

Senior Member
posted 10-22-2007 10:06 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Merlin   Click Here to Email Merlin     Edit/Delete Message
Oh my god, not again! We had this topic here many times before and we argued and argued without coming to a result... Have to browse the archives to find it.

From my point of view: Don't forget that castles were the backbone of the feudal system. They were economic centres and, most of all, had to represent the social status of their owner.

Senior Member
posted 10-22-2007 10:15 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Merlin   Click Here to Email Merlin     Edit/Delete Message
Ok, here's the link to the longest discussion on this topic so far:

Aiken Drum
Senior Member
posted 10-22-2007 04:53 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Aiken Drum     Edit/Delete Message
Ok, time to light the blue touch paper and retire!
I've said this elsewhere before, so this is the abridged version.
Marc Morris in 'Castle', the book based on the TV series sorts this issue out in his chapter on Bodiam. This is one of the most admired castles in the UK, it has international reknown as illustrated by the posts in these forums, and yet, despite having a licence to crenellate, has very little serious defensive intent. When the weaponry of the day is considered, Bodiam could not have withstood a serious assault.
Morris (successfully in my view) argues that if you build something, and both you and your peers recognise it as a castle, then it must be.
This is why even in serious architectural tomes we find references to the Scottish castles of the Victorian era without dispute of that term. No one doubts that Bodiam is a castle, but defensively it is seriously lacking. It's a showpiece, a display of wealth, many of the middling sort had mansions,manors, estates etc, but to own a castle put one in the higher eschelons of society. Yes it may have provided a centre for the administration of an estate, yes it could have a military function, or even a judicial one but...
The primary function of a castle is as a statement of rank, and when Dallingridge built Bodiam, he made damn sure he got a licence to crenellate it, since that document gave him a King's acknowledgement of his rank in society.
We cannot now determine a definition of 'castle', since it changed over the centuries, and therfore have to provide adjectives to assert which era of castle we are discussing, and/or our area of interest. We cannot similarily dismiss another's notion of what a castle is simply because it does not agree with our own.
That's why our American friends can justifiably discuss the unfortunate brush fires near Malibu, and point to today's destruction of a multi-million dollar castle without having to worry about definitions.
Hey if the man who built it called it a castle, then that's what it is, all we can legitimately do is acknowledge that it is, but not one within our area of interest.

[This message has been edited by Aiken Drum (edited 10-22-2007).]

posted 10-24-2007 10:36 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Ricky     Edit/Delete Message
Sorry to open up an old can of worms...

Aiken Drum's mention of Bodiam and it's defensiveness brings up another interesting slant. There is currently (or at least there was 6 years ago when I was at Uni) a fair bit of interest in the idea of castles being in planned landscapes - planned for show not for defence. Bodiam is a good example of this, but a study has also been done on Norwich. I looked at the castles in Bedfordshire (25 originally) and found that all of them were built with more of an eye for show than defence. For example, many were built in such a position that they were overlooked by high ground within trebuchet range. There is (in my opinion) only 1 castle in the county that was definately built for defence first (Totternhoe), and that was only used for a decade or less.

The reason for this is simple, and has been hinted at before. Castles are functioning administrative centres, as well as homes, and therefore need to be built with an eye to practicality. After all, how often would the defences of the castle actually be tested? In Bedfordshire, out of 25 castles over the last 900 years only 2 actually suffered any attacks (Bedford and Meppershall). And, of course, there is status. My castle has a deerpark, a dovecote and a fishpond. That's nothing, mine has a deerpark, a dovecote, a fishpond and a rabbit warren... And so on. 'Keeping up with the deWarrene's', if you will. Deerparks located next to a castle were a common feature - and a defensive liability. You are giving your opponant both cover and building materials for his siege.

I've kinda lost the thread of my post now, so I'll stop babbling.

regarding 'what is a castle' - I think there is a strict definition, but that it has been loosely applied to any number of 'castle-ish' buildings since. So much so that nobody really cares too much any more.

Aiken Drum
Senior Member
posted 10-25-2007 05:15 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Aiken Drum     Edit/Delete Message
"loosely applied to any number of 'castle-ish' buildings since"
I'm not convinced by that, what has happened is that what constitutes a castle has changed, the concept has developed as it always had, from mottes, to shell keep, castles of enceinte, concentric castles.....right through to large victorian mansions. Yeah ok, the Victorians, particularly in Scotland in response to Victoria and Albert's romantic associations with the highlands, wanted to follow the fashion that they had set when they built Balmoral. If we try to follow a strict definition of what constitutes a castle, then Balmoral isn't there. It's a palatial mansion, but who can say that it's not a castle. A Queen and her consort named it so, every castle gazeteer I know of includes it, and no architectural description of it argues that it is not.
Charles McKean in his book 'The Scottish Chateau' argues that the concept of a castle being a defensive structure died in the mid 16thc in Scotland, and illustrates that even apparently defensive features on many of our best known castles were not functional, and were purely decorative. It was all about status, and using architectural symbolism to illustrate power. You've got gunloops, so you must have guns, that takes money and status. It doesn't matter that they pointed at the sky and would only have been good 'for shooting at seagulls', or that they were not actually open on the internal face of the wall, the fact was that they were there and whoever owned the castle had the money to put them there.
I don't necessarily agree with all of McKean's arguments, but on this point he has found some validity. It is possible to follow the architectural development as he describes through to the purely domestic style known as 'Scots Baronial', which was still in vogue until the early years of the 20thc, and this is the style adopted by many victorian castles here. Towers, turrets, ornamental battlements, crow stepped gables, heraldic stonework and even ornamental gunloops on some continue the theme of 'money and influence live here'.
Personally my interest lies in Scottish castles up to the 'enlightenment', but as with all else in such a broad topic, it has to draw on the development before during and after.

I can be a little dogmatic about what actually defines a castle
I used to be like that.
To me that defines your area of interest, but cannot define what a castle is, because castles, whether we like it or not, changed.

Senior Member
posted 10-25-2007 04:41 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Merlin   Click Here to Email Merlin     Edit/Delete Message
I may also repeat myself, but from a german-speaker's point of view, the thing is a bit less difficult. Because we have more terms then just 'castle' to differentiate the types of buildings you mentioned above.

A forification of earthworks and palisades, built in praehistoric times up to the early middle ages.

Comes from the latin word 'castellum' and means a roman fortress - which may later have been changed into a "Burg".

Built in the middle ages as a residence of a nobleman, fortfied, center to a economic/judicial/military/political or even clerical area, item within the feudal system. The size doesn't matter - it can be only a tower or a very large complex. It can be made out of earthwork, wood and/or stone.

Built from the 16th century onwards as a residence of a nobleman (or just a rich man) without real fortifications. Here, all that counts is representation.

A fortress, built from the 16th century onwards with a clear military function and not necessarily as a residence. (Some of the medieval castles (Burg) were changed into a 'Schloss' or into a 'Festung' over the centuries.)

If today someone builds a castle-like residence, no one of german language would call it a "Burg". But some would call it a "Schloss". As you can perfectly see with Neu-Schwanstein.

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posted 10-28-2007 11:46 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Queuxgropius   Click Here to Email Queuxgropius     Edit/Delete Message
The careful way German differentiates things is extremely useful, but I guess even it can't keep every single case consistent.I've often been puzzled over the years at the exact distinction between 'Schloss' and 'Burg'.I've seen pictures of what appear to be genuinely medieval fortified castles that are titled "schloss"
But the 'festung' word is a handy one.In English one can see castles that would probably not have been centres of feudal power but would have been simple fortresses or even outposts containing a Royal garrison, or one mantained by a great noble.The case that springs to mind is that of Henry the Eighth. His fortifications are still called 'castles' whereas I guess they would probably be better termed 'forts'.

[This message has been edited by Queuxgropius (edited 10-28-2007).]

Aiken Drum
Senior Member
posted 10-28-2007 05:28 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Aiken Drum     Edit/Delete Message
Yes, a useful point, since many of Henry's forts would not have been residences of their lord or feudal in function, but purely military installations.
I think the point to be taken from this is that there is no specific defining line. We are trying to define a group of buildings which display great variation, and to draw a firm line where one 'style' stops and another begins is impossible. In similarity to Burg and Schloss, we have castle and mansion, fort for festung. But where do castles stop, and mansions or forts begin? You cannot identify a single feature which defines the difference. Is it a moat? a gunloop? battlements? the size of window appertures? a portcullis? a yett? or a simple drawbar to prevent entry, which serves the same purpose though not as effectively.
Plantagenet Somerset Fry in his Castles of Great Britain and Ireland questioned the nature of Crookston Castle, since it seemed remarkably devoid of arrow slots. The presence of a single identifiable defensive feature does not define a castle or a burg, and similarly the absence of a single identifiable feature does not put that building into the mansion or schloss category.
If we draw a straight line, and write castle at one end, and mansion at the other, how many would appear along the line rather than at an end. We cannot identify the point at which one stops and the other begins.The structures as individual buildings vary as much as the individual characters who built them, as did the circumstances. Any definition is a generalisation, and 'castles' as a whole defy definition.
This,in the case of Henry's castles, takes me back to Morris's comments.If whoever built it beleived that he was building a castle, and his peers agreed, who are we to disagree?

[This message has been edited by Aiken Drum (edited 10-28-2007).]

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posted 10-29-2007 05:17 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Merlin   Click Here to Email Merlin     Edit/Delete Message
Gordon, I agree with you that it is impossible to define the word in a way that fits for everyone. But it's not correct to set the german and english words in comparision as you did above. Because I don't know an english word that would translate "Burg" correctlty - only describing medieval objects.

It is therefor typical that this kind of discussion pops up every now and then in this forum here. Whereas in the (german) forum of www.burgenwelt.de it never was a point of interest...

Senior Member
posted 10-29-2007 09:04 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Queuxgropius   Click Here to Email Queuxgropius     Edit/Delete Message
Yes, since the German language has these fine distinctions,the room for ambiguity is contracted. 'Castle' itself is a rather broad term, although not as broad as 'Chateau' in French.
Another area for confusion is the words Europeans use to describe fortified structures of a similiar function in non-European lands.Since the equivalent buildings in Japan seem to correspond so well to their European counterparts in function and history,'Castle' seems appropriate there,but an oddity is the way that,in English, the word 'forts' became attached to structures in India that would better described as, if not castles, citadels or fortresses.It would be an interesting exercise to speculate if the word 'castle' is applicable to some other fortified structures in other lands such as the Kremlins of Russia,the Rabats of North Africa and the Ummayad structures of Syria.

[This message has been edited by Queuxgropius (edited 11-10-2007).]

Aiken Drum
Senior Member
posted 10-29-2007 05:16 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Aiken Drum     Edit/Delete Message
Thanks for correcting me Merlin, but in a strange way you have made my point, 'castle' is a legitimate term used for a wide variety of buldings, not simply those of medieval origin.

[This message has been edited by Aiken Drum (edited 10-29-2007).]

posted 11-06-2007 06:56 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Ricky     Edit/Delete Message
"what has happened is that what constitutes a castle has changed"

Well, not really. You yourself gave the example of Queen Victoria naming her Mansion a 'castle' (Victorians and their romantic approach to history!) which supports my view... in my opinion

Basically our view seems to be similar - the term castle began to be applied applied to buildings that are not 'true' castles. I attriute that to the word 'castle' being a fashionable thing. You seem to attribute that to the definition of 'castle' changing.

Personally I usually mentally divide them into 'castles' and 'fake castles' - Deal Castle, for example, was built as a gun fort. Dover Castle was converted into lots of things over its life, but was built as a castle.

Your point about castles evolving (motte & bailey, ringwork, Great Keep, etc) is true, but while the form altered the function remained the same. A mixture of a residence, an administrative centre and a defensive position (see my first post for clarity on this). Later 'fake castles' usually lack 1 or more of these.

Well, I intended to start a debate, and it looks like I succeeded. I do like the German approach, with several clearly defined terms. Latin is worse, with a huge number of terms each quite exacting in their meaning. At that level it just gets confusing.

Aiken Drum
Senior Member
posted 11-07-2007 05:38 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Aiken Drum     Edit/Delete Message
'You seem to attribute that to the definition of 'castle' changing'....
Not quite, since as we are aptly illustrating, we can't define 'castle' to everyones satisfaction.
My view on this has shifted a little over the years, and am now of the view that the function of castles changed, as the need for defensive features diminished. The development of language is dependant upon usage, and not fixed, and essentially what we are discussing here is not just the development of a type of building, but the use of the word. You also have to take into account different forms of language, UK English, being quite different in terms of spelling, pronunciation and usage to American English for instance, or more locally, the Queen's English, and all the local variants throughout these islands.

[This message has been edited by Aiken Drum (edited 11-07-2007).]

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