Life in English castle – A castle was a fortified residence : the stronghold of a baron or, even, of the king. it was usually built on a mound and surrounded by a ditch or moat. The heart of the castle was the keep. This was the citadel; the focal point most strongly defended and, in a battle, the last to fall.
During a siege, and after the outer defences had fallen, the garrison fell back into the keep. Once inside, it was possible to hold out for a long time. The private apartements were situated here, offices, latrines, food stores, a well to supply water – even a chapel. There was everything necessary for a community isolated by an enemy.
But Norman keeps were gloomy places. When the likelihood of attacks by organiszed enemies seemed to recede – when the only dangers were peasants in revolt or autlaws from the greenwood – the lords built themselves more comfortable accomodation. The keep ramined, but only as a last resort – the place for a final, desperate, stand. Now, the social and domestic life became concentrated on a courtyard surrounded by suites of rooms.
In the early castles, as in cottages, the smoke from fires escaped through holes in the roofs. By Norman times, however, chimneys dealt with the matter more effectively. The windows were usually narrow slits – about 45 cm wide by 120 cm high.
Wooden shutters kept out the cold. It was not until the 14th century that glass was introduced to Britain. Even then, however, it had to be employed sparingly, for it was very expensive. The first person to enjoy its benefits was Henry III.
As well as being his stronghold in tmes of conflict, the castle was the key point from which a baron ruled his lands (or manors). If he controlled several manors, it might be a day’s journey or more to the farthest points. Consequently, he built himself a manor house in each – so that he could spend some of his time here.
The big house was usually surrounded by farm labourers’ cottages. A baron’s serfs had two roles to perform. They had to cultivate their master’s soil and look after his stock. In times of trouble, they had to take up arms and muster at the castle. Life for these men and their families was attended by constant hardship.
They lived in cottages built from logs or stones, with thatched roofs and floors of bare earth. Most of them were allowed to keep poultry, and had small plots of land on which they grew peas and beans. Some managed to keep a pig or a cow (about half the size of toda’s cattle). As for bread, it depended on the harvest.
Up at the castle, or in one of his manor houses, the lord lived well – entertained lavishly. For the peasant, who depended on his tiny patch of land for almost everything, life was much less satisfactory.