Most castles constructed from the early Medieval age onwards were grand and luxurious in design, reflecting the high status of the occupying family. Elaborately decorated throne rooms, beautiful gardens, and luxurious bedrooms are some of the common elements that come to mind when one thinks of castles and royalty that occupied them. Several medieval castles also housed another popular component- the castle dungeon.
Usually located in the basement, castle dungeons were areas designated for holding prisoners and torturing them. These dark, dingy, and isolated chambers were designed to inflict mental and physical torture on prisoners, usually to extract confessions.
After the initial years of the Medieval Age, a wave of social and political changes began taking effect across the world. Large parts of present-day Britain were captured by the Normans during the 11th century, eventually leading to a complete changeover of what religious attitudes were tolerated, how the land was governed, and who governed it. From the middle to late phases of the medieval era, wars and rebellion became more common. The origins of taking prisoners for political and religious purposes are also attributed to this period. Kingdoms also changed the way they dealt with prisoners, building new kinds of facilities like dungeons and implementing a variety of torture devices.
History of Castle Dungeons
Prisoners awaiting trial were not always held in the deep and dark dungeons that we visualize when thinking about the Medieval Era. During the initial parts of the medieval age, prisoners would usually be confined in the Castle Keep, which was considered the most secure part of the castle. The Keep is located in the tallest tower on the Castle premises and was previously used as the residential quarters for nobility. Eventually, the nobility who owned these castles began seeking more comfortable and luxurious accommodation in the castle bedrooms. Thus, the heavily-guarded and secure castle keep became available for use as a prison as well as a storage space for valuable possessions.
The word ‘dungeon’ itself is said to have originated from the French term “don-jon”, which translates to the castle’s keep. As the purpose and structure of dungeons changed over the years, the meaning of the term eventually evolved to refer to the dungeons we know of today- the dark and isolated chambers located under castles.
Before the High Medieval era, which stretched approximately from the 11th to the 14th centuries, imprisonment was not a common sentence for dissidents. Prisoners were usually awaiting trial or a death sentence in case of serious crimes like treason against the King. At the same time, a series of wars and rebellions were breaking out in Britain and Europe during this period. It was during this time that the concept of taking political prisoners gained traction. Nobles and dissidents alike were imprisoned for their political or religious beliefs if they contradicted the values held by the monarch.
King Edward I, for instance, who held the throne between 1272 to 1307, faced trouble from frequent rebellions in Wales. The new castles that he built, like Caernarfon Castle, contained new prisons to confine the dissidents and suppress the uprisings. Prisoners were moved to the less luxurious (but nevertheless secure) parts of the castle, which usually were the underground basements and storerooms. After this, dungeons began to take the form of dark, isolated underground chambers used for inflicting physical and mental torture on the prisoners.
Purpose of Castle Dungeons
The dungeons used in most medieval castles were situated in the dark underground basements and could be entered through a single heavily guarded door. The chambers inside usually consisted of multiple cells to confine the prisoners.
A variety of torture instruments and methods were also employed by the prison guards to extract confessions from the victims or to simply punish them for their transgressions.
One feature that most dungeons had was the oubliette. This is a narrow, vertical, shaft-like chamber that barely has enough space for an individual to stand in it. The prisoner is lowered into the oubliette through a trap door at the top of the shaft. The victims held inside were subjected to complete isolation and darkness and would experience extreme mental trauma. An executioner was also appointed to torture the victims and carry out death sentences.
Some of the instruments used to torture the victims during this era are truly horrifying. The rack is an instrument that has a system of cranks and levers. The victim is tied to the rack, and as the levers are turned, the cranks stretch their limbs. As the cranks are further stretched, the victim is subjected to increasing pain, and their limbs are eventually dislocated.
Another instrument used for torture is the brazen bull. The victim is forced into a hollow, bull-shaped brass statue, which is then heated from the outside. This method of torture probably became more popular as the victim’s suffering cannot be seen by the people witnessing the torture, but they can still hear the screams of the victim.
The darkness and isolation of dungeons, accompanied by torture instruments and methods, made dungeons one of the most feared places in the world.
Most Famous Castle Dungeons around the World
Bamburgh Castle Dungeon
The dungeons of Bamburgh Castle, located in Northumberland, England, are infamous for the inhuman conditions in which prisoners were held captive. Even today, you can visit the dungeons, which have statues of prisoners depicting their pain and suffering. Illustrations of the Bamburgh Castle dungeons also depict the wide range of torture instruments and methods. In 1346, Scots were defeated at the Battle of Neville’s Cross. King David II, who led the Scottish forces, was captured and held prisoner in the Bamburgh Castle Dungeons.
Windsor Castle Dungeon
Windsor Castle in Berkshire County, England, is popularly known as a royal residence. However, the castle’s dungeons show us a different side of the castle’s history. Windsor Castle’s Clewer Tower, built in the early 13th century, contains a basement that was used as a dungeon. Prisoners were held here for many offences, leading to the dungeons becoming fully occupied. Prisoners held captive in the dungeons would barely receive enough food and water to sustain themselves and would have to live in dreadful conditions.
During World War II, Queen Elizabeth took shelter in the dungeons of Windsor Castle during a bomb scare. The Crown Jewels were also hidden in the dungeons during the War.
Skipton Castle Dungeon
The dungeons of Skipton Castle are located beneath the castle’s twin-towered gatehouse. Prisoners were held captive here in the near-total absence of light. Some prisoners were also held in leg irons in the damp and dark dungeons of Skipton Castle.
Pontefract Castle Dungeons
Pontecraft Castle in Yorkshire, England, has an extensive network of dungeons at a depth of thirty-five feet below the main castle structure. King Richard II was held captive in these dungeons in the late 14th century. He eventually passed away in captivity after likely being starved and isolated.
Prisoners were trapped in the extensive network of dungeons beneath Pontefract Castle for years. Some of the markings made by prisoners are still present on the dungeon walls. These dungeons have given Pontefract Castle the reputation of being England’s most fearsome fort.
Warwick Castle Dungeons- One of the Most Terrifying Dungeons in the World
Originally built in 1068 by William the Conqueror, Warwick Castle is located in Warwickshire, England. Initially, the castle was a wooden fort and was rebuilt in stone in the 12th century. Warwick Castle Caesar’s tower had a dungeon built underneath it, which consisted of a vaulted basement, as well as an oubliette. Light enters through a singular small shaft placed high above the chambers, making the dungeon almost completely dark and isolated. The Warwick Castle dungeons are today open for tourists to visit. The dungeons offer a truly terrifying, haunted house-like experience for visitors. During the visit, gruesome torture devices are displayed, and the Castle executioner also makes his appearance, making for a frightening tour.
Castle dungeons were not always the dark, dingy basements we often visualize. Dungeons moved from being situated in the most secure place in the castle, the castle keep, to more isolated parts like the underground basements and storerooms. The objective behind maintaining dungeons was to inflict a great degree of mental and physical torture on the victims. While being confined in a dungeon is itself bound to cause great pain to the victim, the variety of torture methods and devices employed make dungeons a truly terrifying experience.