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Life in a Medieval Castle Was Smelly and Dark

Updated on June 21, 2017
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, England, UK


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.

Castle Life in Medieval Europe

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Castles Built For Defence

Castles were originally designed as defensive structures. They were built 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.

Surprising as it may seem to us today, these household jobs were considered to be a step up from working as a landless laborer in the village. "Life in a Medieval Castle" by Joseph and Frances Gies gives fascinating detail about people's lives of this period. 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 crop yield and the lack of clean water in the villages made subsistence farming with its disease and malnutrition, an uncomfortable and short life.

Beeston Castle, Cheshire, England, UK


Made from Local Stone and Timber

A medieval castle was primarily a defensive fort. It had to be built to be strong enough to withstand military attack. These attacks could take the form of fire, explosion or even tunneling beneath the castle walls. To minimize these risks, sites were chosen that enabled the castle’s inhabitants to have a wide view of their surroundings.

Castles are built on vantage points so that enemies can't creep up and catch the residents by surprise. Transporting building materials was difficult and expensive so locally found resources are 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 didn't 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, UK


Built Before Glass Windows and 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.

Caerphilly Castle, Wales, UK


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

Visit a Real Welsh Castle


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