Featured image of Castle Gatehouse

Castle Gatehouse

Castle gatehouse is primarily the entrance to a medieval castle. A castle gatehouse is constructed as a gate to the main castle so that the premises are safe during an attack or trespass. It is a defence feature of the main palace. The gatehouses were built keeping in mind a lot of defence strategies like arrowslits, gun loops, murder holes, and machicolations. The gatehouse can be understood as a colossal structure protecting the main castle from unwanted attacks and invasions.

Purpose of Castle Gatehouse

The idea of castle gatehouse did not occur in the medieval century but had been in employment since time immemorial. Not just huge palaces, but gatehouses were also constructed to protect the gates to cities and other fortifications. They’re referred to as medieval innovation because they grew to be an integral part of the defence strategy in the middle ages. During the medieval period, castles were not built of wood but stone, and therefore even the gatehouses were constructed of stone. The earliest gatehouses can be traced back to the motte and bailey castles that had simple gatehouses built of wood rather than stone. These were often simple and small structures. Gatehouses evolved into an enormous structure made of stone in the later stages. 

The defence feature of these gatehouses was mainly their composition, their stone structure. The stone feature in itself was enough to drive out all the enemies away since they were almost impenetrable. As the 12th century emerged, the gatehouses became such a common feature of the defence system that massive fortifications developed in front of castles. These fortifications were so massive that they were sometimes confused with the actual castle. These gatehouses did not just serve the military purposes of the castle but also guesthousesrooms for guards and servants, storage space, and a series of gates and portcullises.

Design of Castle Gatehouse

Did you know: Chapels were built near Gatehouses which attacking armies might accidentally destroy. This would make them an enemy of God.

The castle gatehouses had many distinctive features, but the most important was the gate itself, typically composed of wood. Since the wood was weak, the gate was made of many wooden planks arranged at different angles to increase strength. The gatehouses were also duly protected from fire attacks by multiple portcullises that used a combination of the two to create more lines of defence. A portcullis is french for ‘sliding door’, which acts as a lattice grille gate to obstruct the gatehouse passage. A portcullis could be guided by being raised or lowered as per requirement.

Unlike gates, the portcullises weren’t just one in number. They were always two or more, which allowed the invaders to be trapped within them while the soldiers on the other end of the gatehouse could throw missiles or hot liquid on them through murder holes. These holes were one of the most fascinating features of the gatehouse present in the ceiling of the gatehouse passage. These holes were used to ward off the enemies by throwing boiling liquids onto the enemy clan soldiers. Rocks were also thrown, and some murder holes were large enough to fire missile weapons through. Caernarfon Castle in Wales had six portcullises and could not be penetrated by any invader.

UK - Wales - Caernarfon Castle
UK – Wales – Caernarfon Castle”, by Harshil Shah, is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

As compared to gatehouses, portcullises were more efficient, but they always remained a part of the gatehouses and never acted as separate entities. Another feature similar to portcullises was the Drawbridge which became a common feature of medieval castles in the 12th centuryDrawbridges were made up in parallel lines with the portcullis. They consisted of a wooden bridge mounted in a pivot at the base of the gatehouse entrance. They could also be lowered and raised according to the requirement. In the late 14th century, another feature called the wooden beams, also known as gaffs, were inserted in the castle gatehouses. The castle gatehouses had many distinctive features, but the most important was the gate itself, typically composed of wood. Since the wood was weak, the gate was made of many wooden planks arranged at different angles to increase strength.

The gatehouses were decked up with all necessary defence mechanisms to deal with the enemy forces. One of the most outstanding examples of a castle gatehouse is The Harlech Castle in Wales. The castle has a beautiful gatehouse reflecting the castle’s defensive importance. The castle is three-storey high and contains all the essential chambers of King Edward 1, including a small chapel. Harlech Castle is, therefore, an excellent demonstration of how a gatehouse didn’t just act as a defence mechanism but also had other utilities to make it eccentric. 

History of Castle Gatehouse

The idea of a gatehouse to protect the main castle building emerged before the medieval times referred to as antiquity. The age of antiquity is the bronze age and the period of the Roman empire. It was understood in those times that there was a need to protect the most vulnerable part of the castle, which was its entrance. Massive structures were built to protect the main palaces, known as castle gatehouses. The castle gatehouses weren’t just defence structures but later were transformed into guesthouses. The defence feature of these gatehouses was mainly their composition, their stone structure. 

The stone feature in itself was enough to drive out all the enemies away since they were almost impenetrable. As the 12th century emerged, the gatehouses became such a common feature of the defence system that massive fortifications developed in front of castles. These gatehouses did not just serve the military purposes of the castle but also guesthouses, rooms for guards and servants, and storage space.

Borthwick Castle, Gatehouse
Borthwick Castle, Gatehouse”, by DougRM, is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Castle gatehouses were hands down the most excellent feature of the medieval century defence mechanisms. They were one of the most particular features of these castles and the first step to the castle. Today, gatehouses serve as guest rooms, places of interest, and art galleries for visitors to cherish and experience medieval antiquity and pride.

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