Staying in a Castle with Children
By Gery de Pierpont
How to stimulate a child’s curiosity and sense of discovery
Of all the old buildings that we can still see around us, none are as expressive and stimulate the imagination more than fortified castles: their walls may be largely empty today but with each architectural element designed for a specific means of defence, they still inspire a sense of drama and adventure. Our imaginations, rich with images of knights on horseback, of long-sung heroes from the Middle Ages, can come to life here, as if these ancient walls subconsciously satisfy our quest for reassurance.
Staying in a fortified castle with children constitutes a fabulous way of “entering into history”, especially if the person who accompanies the child is able to convey a sense of this “living history” and can use the remains or ruins of a castle as a tool for discovery and reflection. Here below you will find a few tips to help you bring this wonderful heritage to life and ideas on how to slip pieces of information into the conversation, in the form of a question, a guessing game or role play.
Why were fortfied castles invented?
Fortified castle were built above all for protection, to house a lord (a ruler of a piece of land) and his family and to keep his most prized possessions out of reach of raids, the rivalry of a neighbouring prince or a revolt by his subjects. The biggest castles also served to provide lodging and the protection for the lord’s private army and his court. Sometimes, the inner part of the castle (the bailey or ward), was big enough to serve as a refuge for the local population when times were hard.
Many of these fortifications were used to control the passage on an important road, navigable river or estuary, which would in turn contribute to safeguarding a piece of territory or to protecting it against the threat of foreign invasion.
Castles also used to have a symbolic mission. Their strategic position gave the occupant a seat of power and a means to express his prestige and wield his power and influence, particularly as military strategy and justice matters (courts, prisons and punishment) were decided here.
Why were castles built in a particular place?
The site chosen for building a castle was essentially a question of strategy. It should be built on a rocky promontory, high ground, coastal ridge or island surrounded by water and therefore easy to defend. Close to the main arteries or routes to be protected. Have access to a source of drinking water (well). Not too far from a stone quarry and a forest (for access to materials for construction). Easily reached by military chariots, merchants’ carts etc. (for food supplies).
Designed essentially for defence
Castles may have served as the living quarters for the lord, his family and his courtiers, but their primary function was to be able to resist an attack or siege. Military architecture required all the imagination that could be mustered to come up with efficient designs and strategic defence mechanisms that could counter increasingly sophisticated attacks from ever better-equipped armies.
Looking at a plan of a typical castle, from the outer defence areas inwards, the moat and the ditches were built outside the castle walls and ensured the immediate defence of the castle. These were reinforced by the ramparts (curtain walls), built in one or two rows several metres thick so as to be able to resist attacks from catapults and cannons. The ramparts would have arrow-slits or loopholes (for bows and arrows) and later larger openings and gun loops (for crossbows and cannons), spaced at intervals along its length. On the tops of the ramparts, there would be a crenellated walkway, known as the battlements, often with brattices added (covered wooden defence balconies placed over the edge of the walls) and interspersed with machicolations or murder-holes (openings between supporting corbels from which to drop stones onto assailants at the bottom of the rampart walls).
The sides of the curtain walls would be reinforced by flanking towers, which were initially built square and later in a circular shape, in an effort to reduce the number of blind corners. The gates were reinforced by the addition of specific defensive mechanisms (a drawbridge, chicane, gun loops, a portcullis, a thick door reinforced with iron, murder holes and so on). Then would come the keep, the largest tower in the castle and often the oldest part, which occupied a central position within the bailey and served as the living quarters and the place to which the lord and his family would retreat if the castle was under siege.
With children: Acting and role play make the best use of the military function of the castle. Drawing and cut-outs can also bring the castle and its fortifications to life. When describing the defence system of the castle, you can include a discussion of the potential weak points of a castle’s defences and determine possible entry points of an invading army (e.g. a nearby rock that is easy to climb so as to be able to scale the walls, the use of the postern gate located at the foot of the ramparts or an unprotected underground entry point or sewer leading to and from a central point inside the castle, or even a poorly-built section of wall etc.)
Only the stone remains…
What we see today inside a castle is very different to what it used to look like, due to the fact that only the stone (used for the defence constructions) has resisted the ravages of time. We have to imagine a number of smaller buildings, either made of wood, brick or wattle and daub and huddled together in the bailey: the stables, built along the rampart walls, the soldiers’ barracks, the workshops, the blacksmith’s smithy, the hay-barns, the cowsheds, the pig-sties and chicken coops, the sheds and outhouses of all types, everything that would support a community living in a castle (and hold out if they were to be surrounded).
With children: Try to find the parts of the bailey where the buildings would have been. How high might they have been built? Sometimes, we can see the holes where the wooden beams would have been placed. Imagine how squashed it must have felt inside a castle!
How to survive a siege?
If the castle came under siege, it had to be able to hold out against the siege machines and assaults by the enemy over long periods of time. The question was whether they could prevent the catapults (trebuchets with slings) and cannonballs from damaging the castle. The defenders would have to fire back with their own heavy artillery (if there was adequate space inside the castle to install such machines); stop the assailants from beating down the main gate with a battering ram (a tree trunk reinforced at one end); or from scaling the walls with their ladders. There was no better way to meet them head on than to send scores of projectiles or pitch over the sides of the walls, if the castle had enough space to store all the ammunition required (arrows, stone blocks, gunpowder, cannonballs etc.).
Moreover, the difficult task of defending against lighted arrows and red-hot cannonballs, heading for the parts of the castle made of wood, would have been to lay freshly-culled animal skins or lead plates onto the roofs or replace the wooden beams with stone masonry. Furthermore, the risk of attack to the foot of the curtain walls (often by digging a system of tunnels) could only be avoided by massively reinforcing the base of the walls (and their foundations).
Despite this, the enemy could still succeed in taking hold of the castle by starving its occupants. Even if the castle had a well that was protected (one that could not be empoisoned), had cellars full of food, enough ammunition and wood for heating and cooking, there always comes a time when the reserves run out.
An on-going building-site
More than many old buildings, fortified castles still hold the traces of different eras because of the constant adaptation they had to undergo to keep up with the successive development of weaponry and armaments. Many of them remained afterwards because they were redesigned into comfortable residences when they no longer served their defensive purpose.
As adaptation proceeded, the holes that were once intended for long-bows were then enlarged to allow crossbows and subsequently widened (and given round openings) to allow the first hand-powered cannons (culverins and muskets). The ramparts were also widened and then progressively buried or lowered (to offer less surface area for bombardment by cannonballs). The battlements were also given a greater width to allow cannons to be installed. The entry points were secured with the addition of a barbican (a narrow, angled gateway before reaching the main gate) and so forth.
From the 17th century onwards, castles no longer afforded the protection required to hold out an artillery attack. When emperors and kings no longer needed their vassals’ network of fortifications, their castles were progressively dismantled, one after the other. Walls would be pierced and windows installed to bring in light; the rooms hitherto occupied by soldiers were transformed into drawing rooms and private apartments; ramparts were removed in huge sections to make way for gardens unless, as sometimes happened, the same fortifications that had once protected their inhabitants from the outside were now reused to provide prisons for individuals who posed a danger to public order and needed to be kept inside.
With children: What are the oldest parts of the castle or, on the contrary, what are the parts that have been inhabited the most recently? How can we tell the difference between the oldest rooms (often renovated) from those that were built or added later? The size of the windows and the width of the walls often give a clue.
What a lot of work!
I am always terribly impressed by the enormous scale of the work needed to build these magnificent buildings, especially as they were erected in places that were quite difficult to reach, whether it was on rocky mountain tops or water-logged plains. They were built using materials that were hard to cut and manage and difficult to move, needing to be hewn and carried from quarries or forests that were often at some distance, without much means of transport or mechanized equipment to pull them; piles of charcoal were needed to turn limestone blocks into lime (for the mortar) or bake the bricks; and the tons of raw bronze, iron and then steel had to be worked by hand.
With children: It is important to take the time to contemplate the lives of thousands of men and women who were set to work (often by force) to build these proud edifices. Each stone tells a story and can share the sweat and tears of the past, if we take the time to observe them and imagine.
An entire community
Imagine the lord seated at the great table in his military costume, his wife seated next to the fire, busy at her embroidery and their children practicing with their swords or playing the spinet (just clichés!). In reality, the castle housed lots of other people, each with their own function. The most important was the steward, the lord’s right-hand man, who looked after the castle and the lands which depended upon it (particularly in the absence of the master). There were of course the soldiers and their chief; and an officer of the police to enforce the law and levy taxes among the population. There was also a priest to say mass in the chapel and supervise the education of the children. There were artisans and craftsmen to look after the maintenance of the buildings and the equipment (the blacksmith, the carpenter, the mason, the cart-wright and so on). There were the domestic servants and the cooks; the civil servants (clerks) to manage the administration of the lord’s lands and possessions. Now and again, the castle would play host to noble visitors, representatives, merchants (for supplies), musicians, travelling acrobats and other performers.
With children: There were plenty of other inhabitants in the castle besides these listed here. There would have been those who took care of the wounded or prepared medicines and cures; courtiers and advisors to the lord, those who minted his money, sewed the soldiers’ tunics or the bed sheets, looked after the horses and so on. Imagine what it might have been like to have been one of these people: take a role and explore all its good aspects; and then have the others draw up a list of all the not so good aspects of your job.
If you have more ideas on how to make a visit to a fortified castle inspiring for children, please share them in the space below!