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Building a castle


Before beginning to build a castle it was important to find a suitable site upon which to build. The ideal site would have a good water supply nearby; this was essential for the castle defences as a ditch filled with water would present more of an obstacle to an enemy than an empty one. Water was also needed for the castle community. They would use it for drinking, cooking, farming and for the animals. The survival of the castle inhabitants would depend on a sufficient water supply.

The water for the castle was normally supplied in one of two ways. The first was by means of digging a well, the underground water flow normally occurring naturally. The second was by means of a tank or cistern within the castle enclosure. This was sometimes in the form of a hole dug in the ground and lined with leather to make it waterproof. It would most probably have a roof and sides to keep animals out and help keep the water fresh. However, with stagnant water there were always health risks from typhoid and dysentery.

A good castle site would provide natural defences, for example on the spur of a hill or the head of a valley. It was also beneficial if it was in open land as this provided fewer places for an enemy to hide and gave less chance for a surprise attack. Good visibility from a castle was also important for communication. Castles would often communicate with each other by means of beacons (small fires) and messengers. The further you could see from a castle the sooner you could receive messages and act upon them.

Goodrich Castle near Ross-on-Wye is a very good example of a castle that has been well placed. It is on a crag of rock above a river, which not only gives it good defensive visibility but also means that supplies could be brought in easily to the close vicinity of the castle.

Another example of a well-sited castle is the one at Clifford in the west of the county. The mound for the castle has been cut out into a spur of ground, making it higher than the surrounding ground to the west, south and north, and a person with good eyesight could see clearly for a distance of about 10-15 miles. There is a naturally sharp slope on the north side that leads directly down to the river. The river would have provided protection from attack, transport (by rafting and towing) and a place to cross. On the west is an area that was probably marsh, which would have also protected this side of the castle from attack. On the east is a levelled area of land, which would have held the bailey buildings.

It was important that a supply of materials for the construction of the castle could be found nearby. As there was not the technology for moving materials long distances, supplies could be brought in more easily if the castle was on a river, such as Goodrich Castle, where the grey conglomerate for the keep is thought to have been brought up from the nearby Forest of Dean. Castles were often built near woods, with the trees being felled and cleared to provide timber and create the defensive open space.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2002]