Castle Machicolations are the wooden parapets located on the top of the castle. These were hung over the castle top walls and designed to solve the defensive purposes during the medieval period. It used to give a balcony-like appearance located on the top of the castle from the outside, but it used to have holes in the floor, from where the castle’s defenders could throw heavy objects at the enemies below.
The word ‘Machicolations’ is derived from the French word ‘Machier’, which means ‘to crush’ and ‘Col’ means ‘neck’. Collectively, it means Neck Crushers. Additionally, before the 18th century, Machicolations were introduced in France first and were called ‘Machecol’. Later, people started using an English term, i.e. Machicolations, while mentioning it.
Purpose of Castle Machicolations
In early medieval times, the Machicolations of the castle were designed for a slightly different purpose. The fire was used to attack the castles at that time. So, machicolations were utilised to defend castles from setting fire by enemies. Even when the enemies used to try setting fire to the castle, the defenders used to throw sand or water at them through holes to avoid it.
Additionally, the initial machicolations were designed using wood, which was more prone to fire. So, as this defensive part of the castle was on the highest floor, it made it easier for defenders to avoid any mishap due to burning.
Later, the defenders started designing the holes in Castle Machicolations wider to throw big rocks, missiles, or other more prominent attacking objects from there. All things thrown from the holes could kill anyone.
History of Castle Machicolations
Castle Machicolations originated in Syria, but later, when the Crusades returned to Europe, they transplanted the idea into their castles to make themselves more powerful. However, they were only added to the castles in the medieval period, basically during 1066-1485. At that time, the Normans conquered England, and machicolations helped them throw stones through the castle walls at the enemies and fight with them while making themselves safe.
The Castle Machicolations were a floor with openings or holes between the corbels of the battlement (a small wall used to solve defensive purposes). These were also found in many parts of the castle but usually seen near the castle entrance and other commonly attacked areas.
After the medieval period, the attacking techniques upgraded, and defenders started using guns and missiles during wars, causing a significant decrease in the primary usage of machicolations. Later, these became the decorative part of the castle used to enhance its outer appearance. Some castles even started adding fake machicolations in their architectures for the same reason. So, if you now notice the machicolations in the castles constructed after the medieval period, you can easily judge that those are just added for decoration.
Types of Castle Machicolations
Castle Machicolations were of two kinds:
- With Openings in the Roof: It was used for throwing missiles on the encroaching enemies easily from above.
- With Openings between corbels of the parapets of walls and the gate: It was used for shooting or dropping lethal missiles on enemies below.
Castle Machicolations were designed with two common materials- Stone and Wood. Stone Machicolations were stronger and could easily handle the gunshots and arrows from enemies. Wooden Machicolations were quicker and easier to add to the castle and generally used when additional defences were quickly required. Stone Machicolations were comparatively more substantial and feasible, but they used to add more weight to the castle’s structure.
The holes you will notice in the Castle Machicolations are famously known as ‘Murder Holes’. These were basically the sub-type of machicolations, without which they can never serve their defensive purpose. The castle defenders used to throw objects at the enemies below using murder holes.
Machicolations and Murder Holes both were used to serve the same purpose and are interrelated but are not the same thing. The reason behind it is that machicolations were stuck outside at the highest wall or tower of the castle, while murder holes were generally designed into the castle’s existing ceiling.
Famous castles with Castle Machicolations
Many ruined medieval castles still include machicolations. Some most significant examples are:
- Conwy Castle, North Wales
- Lewes Castle, South of England
- French Chateau de Farcheville, Paris
- Kilkenny Castle, Ireland
- Blarney Castle & Garden, Ireland
- Stirling Castle, Scotland
- Powerscourt Estate and Gardens, Ireland
- Chateau Gaillard, France
Why do some Castles have ‘faux’ Castle Machicolations?
The Castle Machicolations lost their purpose in the late medieval period because of weapons and attacking techniques updates. However, it was still imperative for the castles to maintain their structure and appear powerful, stronger, and intense. Also, many people used to purchase castles during that period to show off their wealth and power.
Therefore, you will find many late medieval castles with a section that looks like machicolations from a distance but have no holes in the wall. The ‘faux’ machicolations can be seen in hundreds of castles, like the famous Bodiam Castle, England, which have a mighty appearance but could never survive in an actual siege. Even many castles in Disney World have machicolations-like structures on their exterior.
It’s surprising how a defensive part of the medieval castle became a decorative and aesthetical definition for modern castles.