Castle turrets have always been a thing of interest to me – they are the things that can make a castle stand out, provide it with extra fortification and let you have incredible views once you manage to walk up the many steps to the top of one. A random obsession really, but an obsession nonetheless (if you hadn’t have already guessed by the name of this blog).
So where did this obsession come from, what is so interesting about turrets? Something that every castle seems to have. They’re not something out of ordinary, in fact, I would be surprised to walked around a castle that didn’t have one. They became increasingly popular in the late middle ages, which is why we see them on so many medieval castles and there’s just something about them that can make you say wow.
It’s clear that castles were built for powerful people to live in and stay safe. It could be argued that it wasn’t until the 1100s, when King David of Scotland, wanted to prove that he was the most powerful man out there, that larger and stronger castles were being built. But because people didn’t want him to be king, they kept attacking the castles, which is why the castles builders had to think up new ideas to make castles better and more defensible.
So this was really the turning point for when the defensive castles really started to be improved upon significantly.
Where Did Castle Turrets Come From?
Everyone probably already has a good idea of what a Castle Turret is. It is essentially a small tower that was built into a medieval castle fortifications, most typically walls and towers.
The word ‘turret’ comes from the Italian torretta, meaning ‘little tower’ and the Latin word turris which just means ‘tower’. Nice and simple really, but it’s always interesting knowing where words have come from as it can help explain why things are as they are.
Describing a turret as a tower, makes complete sense, but it still doesn’t answer the question of where did castle turrets come from? Why were they created, what was there purpose?
The answer is pretty simple luckily. Castle turrets were developed due to the need of increased defensive capability, and it was pretty clear that this design of a ‘little tower’ was incredibly effective in providing defenders with a great field of vision.
The key thing that castle turrets offered was that they allowed the garrison soldiers to see better the walls or towers they were standing on. Making them be able to see the enemy more clearly, if the enemy decided that they were going to attack.
Once they could see the enemy (and normally standing on a tower meant they could see the enemy sooner rather than later), they could then fire upon the besiegers who were trying to attack the fortification. The turret gave the people in castle an advantage.
How Would You Describe a Castle Turret?
Castle turrets don’t need to be the same size as one another, but they do have the same basic design feature. This feature was that the small towers would have been built into an existing wall or larger castle towers.
They also would have projected outwards slightly from the structure that they were built into (this offered them greater visibility, and allowed soldiers to be able to fire upon anyone fighting on the adjacent walls).
Because the turrets were built into the wall, they would have projected out of the exterior surface. They would have had to be small though, as a large turret would have added a great deal of stress and pressure to the wall – something which we don’t want.
It was really important to make sure that these turrets were built properly. Did you know that turrets did not reach the ground, instead their weight was entirely held up by the structure that there were built into, which is why they were limited in size.
In order for the weight of these turrets to be supported, a corbel, would have to be added. This is a solid piece of masonry (although it could have been wood in some cases), that would have been added to the exterior of the wall in order to add extra support and would have blended in well with the structure of the castle.
The top of the turrets would have either be crenelated or built with a roof (often pointed) to help protect the structure from all the elements.
If a turret was taller than the actual castle, then stairs would have been added into the inside, for obvious reasons, this was to help the garrison troops reach the top of the tower with ease. A common misconception was that the stairs would have been clockwise to help them fight if needs be, but this is just a myth.
You will probably find that many turrets are actually the same height as the main structure, as turrets were pretty much just an extension to the interior of the castle tower or wall.
What is the Function of a Castle Turret?
Obviously, the primary reason for a castle turret was for military use. That’s pretty much what their function was since their projected away from the exterior of the castle walls, and gave the garrisons a greater line of sight, which would help them protect the castle.
Having these improved views of the surrounding countryside was definitely a benefit of having castle turrets. Having tall turrets that projected from castle towers would have been a big help in protecting the interior of the castles from any unwanted guests who were planning on attacking the castle.
Since the people stood on top of the turrets would have had a 360-degree view of anyone approaching the castle, it made it a lot harder for the castle’s enemies to approach undetected. The defenders would have been able to see their enemy coming from a long way off, and that would have helped them prepare for any potential sieges.
So it is pretty clear that the function of a castle turret was to be used as a watchtower, as well as being for military use in the event of a siege assault.
Just take a look at the Eagle Tower at Caernarfon Castle, there are three very tall turrets at this castle, and they would have been used to increase the ability of the garrison to spot any enemies approaching them.
It’s Not Just the Turrets That Can Help Defend a Castle
Of course, the castle turrets wouldn’t have been the only things used to help defend a castle. To really have a defensive castle, then they would have built up high which would have made it difficult for enemies to get to the castle. It would have been time consuming, and also tiring (who wants to climb up a hill and then have to fight their way inside anyway).
In order for a castle to be truly great though, it needed to be able to withstand a siege, as that was the most common way that people fought against them.
If a castle was able to withstand a siege it needed to be able to do these things:
- be built on land containing a well or spring, the inhabitants of the castle needed to have access to water, otherwise there would have been a problem
- have direct access to the sea or a river so that fresh supplies could be delivered, that way the inhabitants wouldn’t starve inside (a castle that was built inland meant that the inhabitants had a higher chance of being starved into submissions)
- water, not just for drinking, but large quantities of water to put out any fires
- being built on high land meant that the castle could easily defend itself
Those are just a few of the ways that a castle could withstand a siege.
Of course, there are a few other things that a castle would have had to do to help defend itself, which you can find here:
- be rounded – the corners of a square tower would have made the castle weak and easily broken into, so a round tower or keep eliminated those weak corners
- large concentric castles meant that more soldiers could be housed inside, which would help when it came to being a strong army
- moats – some moats were up to 30 feet deep – they weren’t always filled with water though, they might have been filled with wooden stakes. Water was preferable though, as it reduced the risk of tunnelling or potential fires
- castles would have a solid, thick outer wall (this was the curtain wall). The curtain wall could be between 6-20 feet thick
- the curtain wall also would have projecting towers to turrets that housed the soldiers defending the castle
- the main entrance was the castle gate, or gateway, and that would have been heavily armed and defended. It was not easy knocking down the castle’s front door. It would have been heavily barred and there would have been a portcullis (a heavy grilled door) that could come crashing down, blocking the entrance quickly, and maybe killing some unlucky person who got caught underneath it
- if there was a moat there would have also been a drawbridge
- murder holes and arrow slits
They really did think of everything when it came to defending a castle. Being holed up in a strong stone castle was not enough to stay safe, they had to get smart, and constantly improve their ways of staying safe.
It was not an easy task staying safe inside a castle, and it would have been a constant battle that could have lasted for years if people were unlucky. Thankfully, we’ve come a long way from protecting ourselves in an castle (or attacking a castle). Although, we seem to have our problems in the world now, thanks to a silent killer…
Ever since I was young, leaving about castle defences has been absolutely fascinating. The thought process that went into something so simple for things like the castle tower is brilliant in my mind. There really were some clever people during those times, and I love that you can still see their successes standing tall even today.
They might not have known it at the time, but hundreds of years later, those castles and turrets would still have been standing, and they are certainly something to impress.
Have you ever thought about the building process behind castle turrets? Did you realise how much thought had to go in to protecting oneself in a castle during those times? Do you have any ideas of how else castles should have protected themselves? Let me know in the comments!