Free book for science fiction or history! GET EITHER OR BOTHFree Books!

Building a Castle: Chapels and Vaulted Ceilings

Every castle had a chapel as the Church was an integral part of daily life. But originally the chapel was set up in a modest chamber. As time went on the chapel became more ornate, sometimes with a crypt to celebrate the lord’s ancestors, and became part of his display of status and wealth. From the 11th century onward, the chapels were specially built and often had vaulted ceilings, which were beautiful to look at but very difficult to build.

Oystermouth Castle Chapel

In some castles the chapel was built into the gatehouse or one of the corner towers, in others it was part of the keep. It was usually on the topmost floor so that nothing came between it and heaven. Some castles had two chapels, a larger one for the general castle community and a smaller one for the lord’s private use, usually near his quarters.

The chaplain was in charge of the chapel, and led Mass there every morning. He also said grace before every meal. He saw to the spiritual needs of the castle community and because he was literate, the chaplain acted as secretary to the lord, dealing with his correspondence and keeping records. Under the chaplain was the almoner, whose duty it was to distribute food to the poor. This consisted of the scraps left over after every meal, but it was also the almoner’s job to remind the lord to be generous.

Vaulted ceiling of the Chapel of our Lady of the Castle

Part of the grandeur of the chapel was the vaulted ceiling. When the walls were built, corbels were inserted to support the base of the ribs. These were often beautifully carved. The carpenters built a sturdy frame to support the vault while it was being built, and hoisted it into place.

Keystone from a vaulted ceiling

Unlike an arch, the keystone was put in place first. It was also beautifully carved to match the corbels. The rib stones were laid from the corbels up and mortared into place. The last stone, next to the keystone, could be adjusted to fit if necessary. Once the ribs were completed and set, there came the most nerve-wracking moment: the wooden framework was lowered a little to see if the roof held. Then the framework could be removed and dismantled, and the roof completed between the ribs.

Rib vault in Bethanie Chapel Hong Kong

Vaulted ceilings were also used on churches and cathedrals, and became more elaborate as time went on. Even today, some of the techniques have not been figured out.

Notre Dame Cathedral before and after the fire 2019

I found this article that explains an important reason for building vaulted ceilings on churches. The vault, being stone, protected the church if the roof caught fire. The terrible fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris would have been much worse if not for the vaulted ceiling. The main damage to the inside was caused by the falling of the spire onto the church.

[adapted from The Medieval Castle Haynes Manual by Charles Phillips]

Ann Marie Thomas is the author of four medieval history books, a surprisingly cheerful poetry collection about her 2010 stroke, and the science fiction series Flight of the Kestrel. Book one, Intruders, and book two Alien Secrets, are out now. Follow her at