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Building a Castle: Tower Keeps

As we saw last week, a shell keep offered all round protection for the most important buildings in the castle, but the buildings themselves were cold and draughty and the wood was subject to rot. Later castles, especially those on a level site or a rocky outcrop that could take the weight, had a stone tower keep so the important buildings were stone.

The White Tower, Tower of London

These great towers were a symbol of the lord’s power and status, both to the local population and other lords.

Dover Castle Keep

The stone tower meant buildings could be larger and could have fireplaces, so the quality of the accommodation improved greatly. It typically contained several floors of accommodation, with kitchens and storage underneath.

The main access to the keep was via steps on the outside up to the first floor. Sometimes with a drawbridge. This made it easier to defend. Sometimes the steps were stone, but wooden steps could be destroyed once everyone was inside, offering even more protection. Windows were very small too as protection against arrows, getting wider on higher floors.

Rochester Castle Keep

One of the most impressive tower keeps was at Rochester Castle, built 1127-36 by William of Corbeil, Archbishop of Canterbury. It was given to him by Henry I on condition it was fortified, so he added the keep to the existing castle. It stood 38m (125ft) high and was square, the walls being 21m (70ft) on each side. Rising 3.7m (12ft) above the tower were four corner turrets, and the keep walls were 3.7m (12ft) thick at the base and 3.5m (10ft) thick at the top.

There were rooms actually built into the walls. The tower was also divided across the middle, providing two rooms on each floor but also supported the tower. In fact, when King John laid siege to the castle in 1215, the walls and bailey were captured and the keep attacked by siege engines, but the household retreated behind the cross wall and held out for two months! They only surrendered when all food was gone.

[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