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Building a Castle: The Great Hall

We looked last week at the construction of the roof of the Great Hall, so it’s a good point at which to consider the building itself. This was the centre of castle life. In early medieval times the entire household ate and slept together here, and even when other rooms were added to separate the ranks it was still used for business, greeting visitors, and eating.

Great Hall Tamworth Castle

The size and architectural features made a bold statement of the lord’s power and status, including the size and number of windows and the decorative embellishments. The windows may be large and with decorative carving, a fire burned in the centre of the room, and the walls may be plastered and decorated with painted designs.


Guest Hall Dover Castle Great Tower

The lord and his family, friends and noble visitors would eat at a long table on a dais at the end of the hall, while everyone else ate on benches and trestle tables around the hall. This meant that the lord could see everyone and everyone could look up to the lord. Originally the lord and his family would sleep at the back of the dais behind  a curtain for privacy, but later would have rooms above the hall, set back from a gallery. Again, from his vantage point the lord could keep an eye on everything going on in the hall.

The kitchens were behind the far end of the hall from the dais. After Mass in the chapel and breakfast in the great hall, the benches would be cleared away around the edge of the hall leaving a large open space in the middle. Then the lord would meet with his steward (or seneschal) for the business of running the estate: recording rents or other payments, settling disputes, receiving visitors. A clerk or the chaplain would draw up documents and keep accounts. Sometimes there would be one steward managing the castle and one managing the wider estate.

An usher would stand at the door and control who had access to the lord. Part of his power was his inaccessibility. The concentric design of the castle, with the hall at the centre and most secure, also provided privacy and restrictions as to who was allowed access to the lord in times of peace.

Homage of a later date (Chaumont de La Galaizière)

Ceremonies performed in the hall included paying homage to the lord, bestowing badges, livery or gifts to men of lower social orders, and presiding over settling disputes and granting favours.

[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