Medieval Castles Were Smelly, Damp, and Dark

Updated on July 12, 2018
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

I love to travel and explore new places. I hope my articles encourage you to visit them too.

Bodium Castle, Sussex was built as a fortress.
Bodium Castle, Sussex was built as a fortress. | Source

Castles Built For Defence

Castles were designed as defensive structures. They were built from strong materials like stone and slate so that they could withstand attack. They were located overlooking key harbors or at vulnerable entry points on the border between England and its neighbors, Scotland and Wales. For the soldiers stationed within them, they were barracks rather than cosy homes. The security of the people living in and around them was more important than the comfort of the castle’s occupants.

Over the five hundred years of the Middle Ages, there were some periods of relative peace. During these stable times, wealthy landowners and those of noble rank began to employ large numbers of servants rather than soldiers. These household servants worked hard to make the cold, dank castle rooms more comfortable to live in. They tried to soften their surroundings by using rushes on the floors and fabric hangings on the walls.

Surprising as it seems today, these household jobs were considered to be a step up from working as a landless laborer (or serf) in a village. A castle servant’s work was arduous and physically demanding, but at least these workers were fed and clothed, and they had a roof over their heads. The unreliability of harvests and the lack of clean water in the villages made subsistence farming with its disease and malnutrition, an uncomfortable and short life.

Caerphilly Castle, Wales was designed to keep the Welsh at bay.
Caerphilly Castle, Wales was designed to keep the Welsh at bay. | Source

Features of Medieval Castles

Smelly
Damp
Dark
No sewers
Damp walls from rain
No glass for windows
No running water
Damp floors from groundwater
No electricity
Clothes not washed often
Leaking roofs
Defensive slits instead of windows

Castle Life in Medieval Times

Who Lived in a Castle in the Middle Ages?

The Medieval era (or Middle Ages) in England is generally defined as the period between the end of Norman rule (11th century) and the start of the Tudor dynasty (15th century). Life at this time was governed by a feudal system. This was a rigid class system in which each layer of society owed allegiance to the layer above in return for military security. The nobility were given land and favors by the monarch in return for raising a militia in times of war. The tenant farmers grew crops on land they leased from the landowning lord in return for his defending their interests in case of invasion.

Members of the nobility had a retinue of servants who lived with the lord in his castle which doubled as a fort. There were also battalions of soldiers stationed within the fortification. Farmers and other villagers lived on land surrounding the castle but they could shelter inside its strong walls if the settlement was attacked.

Your Ancestors in Medieval Europe

Which would you have been?

See results
Beeston Castle, Cheshire is made from colorful local stone.
Beeston Castle, Cheshire is made from colorful local stone. | Source

Made from Local Stone and Timber

The main purpose of a medieval castle was defensive. It was a fort built strong enough to withstand military attack. Potential attacks could be from fire, gunshot, explosion or even tunneling beneath the castle walls. To minimize such risks, castles were built where it was possible to get a wide (360 degree) view of surrounding countryside.

Castles are at strategic vantage points to prevent enemies approaching unseen and catching residents by surprise. Transporting building materials was difficult and expensive so locally found resources were used in their construction. Any timber structures have long since rotted away and so the castles which remain today are those that were built from hard wearing local stone.

Most castles were built on the top of hills or overlooking natural harbors. Both of these locations tend to suffer from extremes of weather such as high winds and driving rain. The result is that castles are generally cold and damp.

Medieval builders did not understand the benefits of inserting damp proof courses into walls and floors. Many castles are surrounded by moats or natural water courses for defense. So medieval castles suffer with both penetrating damp through the walls and rising dampness through the earth floors.

Kidwelly Castle, Wales was built by Norman invaders.
Kidwelly Castle, Wales was built by Norman invaders. | Source

No Glass in Their Windows and No Flushing Toilets

Castles were dark inside with little natural light. Glass was extremely expensive and was not produced in large quantities until the 17th century. Any gaps in the walls for light had to be small or they let in too much wind and draughty air. The defensive towers of a castle (sometimes referred to as turrets) have narrow slits instead of windows. These have the dual purpose of allowing archers to fire arrows at the enemy, as well as allowing light in. In fact, most castles were not lived in permanently.

There were also other problems with living in a medieval castle, the main one being that there were no sewers or flushing toilets. Often the moat surrounding the castle was used as a sewer. Both the moat and the castle quickly became smelly and dirty. It's said that the kings and queens of England never stayed longer than eight weeks in one of their castles because of the build-up of foul odors. The remaining ten months of the year their castles would remain vacant (apart from minimal security) for Mother Nature to naturally cleanse the building.

When the royals were in residence, however, thick tapestries were hung on the walls and floors. These made the place feel much warmer and absorbed a lot of the dampness from the air. With roaring fires and many people milling about, for a few short weeks, castles could be reasonably comfortable places to live.

Secrets of Ancient Castles

Visit a Real Medieval Castle

There are many medieval castles in the UK that are open to the public. Many are owned by non-profit organizations and they have reasonable entrance prices for family tickets as they want to encourage children to visit and explore history. They often host educational activity days where you can experience for yourself what life was like in medieval times

If you are visiting the UK, check out the following websites for events in castles and other heritage buildings. There are subtle differences in architecture between those built in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland so its worth travelling to all parts of UK to get a comprehensive idea of what life must have been like in a medieval castle.

Cadw (Wales)

English Heritage

Historic Scotland

Discover Northern Ireland

Caerphilly Castle is a Great Location For Photographs

Why Do Castles Have High Narrow Openings in Their Walls?

Medieval castles were built before glass was invented. Castle dwellers needed openings in walls to get natural light into their rooms. They used tallow candles for some illumination, but these were expensive to make and gave relatively little light.

Natural light is free and in summer it lasts almost all the waking hours. However, without glass, openings in walls are draughty and they also pose a security risk. By putting narrow openings high up in the walls, castle builders minimized security risks and maximized available daylight.

Narrow arrow slit window at White Castle, Wales.
Narrow arrow slit window at White Castle, Wales. | Source

Comments

Submit a Comment

No comments yet.

working

This website uses cookies

As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

Show Details
Necessary
HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
Features
Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
Marketing
Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
Statistics
Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)