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Glossary for castles

This glossary of terms relating to medieval castles is arranged alphabetically, with a separate page for each letter. As some letters of the alphabet do not have any words defined in this glossary they have been omitted, so there are only 18 pages, not 26.

The glossary was originally compiled by Miranda Greene in 2002.


Arrow Slit: Narrow opening in a wall for firing arrows through and for letting light in. Not wide enough for a person to climb through.

Ashlar: Squared blocks of smooth stone neatly trimmed to shape.


Bailey: Defended open court of a castle, often separated from the castle mound by a ditch. Service buildings such as prisons and arms stores were often found in this area.

Ballista: A siege engine which consisted of a single central lever which when pulled back released a giant spear over the walls of a castle and onto the defenders.

Battering Ram: A large tree trunk which was placed on wheels. This would be driven at speed against the doors of the castle with the intention of breaking them down. Sometimes the end would be covered in tar and set on fire in order to do more damage to the castle's wooden doors.

Barbican: Outer fortification protecting the entrance to a castle.

Belfry: A siege engine used by castle attackers. It consisted of a wooden tower that could be wheeled up to the castle walls, allowing the attackers to throw objects over the high walls and down onto the castle defenders.

Berm: A level area separating a ditch from a bank.

Bordar: This was the lowest order of peasant at the time of the Domesday Survey (1086); he would have worked directly for the lord.

Burgh: A Saxon stronghold; the word literally means "neighbourhood". Comes from the Old English word "burg". In German the word "bergen" means "to protect".

Buttress: Mass of brickwork or masonry projecting from or built against a wall to give additional strength.


Champfer: A surface made by cutting across the square angle of a stone block or piece of wood at an angle of 45º to the other two surfaces.

Corbel: Timber or stone projection from a wall to support a horizontal structure, e.g. a beam.

Counterscarp: The outer slope of a ditch or bank.

Crenellation: Battlement or indented parapet consisting of alternating raised parts and indentations. A licence to crenellate was the equivalent of a licence to fortify.

Curtain Wall: Defensive enclosure wall, often connecting one tower with another.


Demesne: A manor house with lands adjacent to it not let out to tenants. At the time of the Domesday Survey it meant land whose produce was to devoted to the lord rather than kept by his tenants.

Domesday Survey: An extensive survey of England carried out by King William's officials in 1086 to create a detailed record of land ownership and value before and after the Norman Conquest (see also Herefordshire in the Domesday Survey).

Drawbridge: Wooden bridge over a moat, which can be raised towards a gateway by means of chains and ropes. When upright it forms a solid door to the castle and prevents access across the moat..


Embrasure: Small opening in wall or parapet of a fortified building, used for shooting through and for letting light in.

Encaustic: This means having had the colours burnt in; it was an ancient method of painting with melted wax. An encaustic tile is a decorative glazed and fired tile,  which has patterns of different coloured clays inlaid in it and burnt onto it during the firing process.


Feudalism: A system whereby land is held by lower status men from lords and barons of higher social standing. The land was held in return for service to your overlord. It was a class-conscious social and political system.

Forebuilding: An extension to the keep, guarding the entrance to the more heavily fortified interior of the castle.


Garderobe: Latrine (toilet), normally discharging into a cesspit or through a channel in the outer wall and out into the moat.


Hide: An area of land large enough to support one household. The actual measurement varied, depending on how productive the land in question was.


Keep: Main tower of a castle, often isolated and capable of independent defence. This tower could be built of timber or stone, and varied from simple places of storage to impressive buildings where the lord and his family resided.


League: A measure of distance equal to one and a half Roman miles, or twelve furlongs.


Mangonel: A siege engine which consisted of a cradle on a frame in which rocks or other items could be placed. The cradle would then be pulled back and released, flinging the rocks at the castle walls.

Meutriers: Defensive feature within a castle. In the ceiling of the gatehouse passage would be holes (the meutriers) which allowed the castle's defenders to pour liquids upon any enemy that had managed to breach the castle gates. They might use boiling water, hot tar or toilet waste. These holes could also be used to pour water onto fires that may have been started by the enemy. Examples of this defensive system can be seen in the gatehouse passage at Goodrich Castle near Ross-on-Wye.

Motte and Bailey: A post-Conquest defence system consisting of an earthen mound (the motte) topped with a wooden or stone tower placed within a court, the bailey, which housed the buildings associated with a castle, such as stables and blacksmiths' forges. The mound often had an enclosure ditch and palisade, and sometimes an internal bank. 


Palisade: Wooden wall constructed around the edge of an enclosure. After the Conquest most of these wooden walls were replaced with stone.

Parapet: Low wall placed to protect any spot where there is a sudden drop, e.g. at the top of a wall.

Pipe Rolls: These were the oldest and longest series of public records, providing information about the medieval finances of the king such as the cost of castle building and revenue from feudal fees. They were introduced by Henry I in 1130 and continued up until 1832.

Piscina: In the chapel of the castle, a stone basin used for washing the Communion or Mass vessels. Provided with a drain, and generally set in or against the wall to the south of the altar.

Portcullis: Iron gate constructed to rise and fall in vertical grooves; used in gateways of castles to prevent access by the enemy.


Rampart: Stone wall or bank of earth surrounding a castle, fortress or fortified city.

Reeve: A high-ranking official, or chief magistrate of a district; a bailiff or steward.

Ringwork: Ringworks are medieval fortifications built and occupied from the late Anglo-Saxon period to the later 12th century. They comprised a small defended area which was surrounded by a substantial ditch and earthen bank, sometimes topped by a wooden palisade. Sometimes a larger, more lightly defended area - a  bailey - adjoined these enclosures. Ringworks acted as strongholds for military operations, and sometimes at times of danger whole villages would move inside the defences. Ringworks are rare, with only 200 recorded examples nationally and only 60 with baileys. An example in Herefordshire is Whitehouse Camp at Michaelchurch Escley (Historic Environment Record reference no. 166).


Spur: A defensive outwork.

Scarp: The artificial cutting away of the ground to form a steep slope.

Shell Keep: Unlike the keep, which was a solid building, the shell keep was a stone wall that ran around the top of the motte, making the area inside the wall the more secure part of the castle's structure. It is most likely to be found surrounding timber castles.

Solar: The private chamber at the upper end of the Great Hall and above the floor level of the Hall. Only used by the lord of the castle and his family and friends.

Stringcourse: Projecting horizontal band or moulding set in the surface of a wall. 


Tithe: This was originally a tenth of land or produce that was allotted for church purposes. It can also refer to the rent paid in lieu of land or produce.

Trebuchet: A siege engine which consisted of a central pole between two A-frames. On one end of the pole was a large weight and on the other a bucket full of rocks, animal carcasses, etc. The weighted end would be winched up and then allowed to drop which would cause the bucket end to fly up, flinging its contents at the castle wall.

Trefoiled: Three-leaved, like clover.

Tufa: A porous limestone that could be easily cut and dried to make a lightweight building material.


Undercroft: This is the name for a basement found under the keep of a castle. It would have been used for the storage of food and drink for the inhabitants of the castle.


Villein: This is the word used for the highest level of peasant recorded in the Domesday Survey, which was commissioned by King William I (The Conqueror) in 1086, twenty years after he had been crowned king of England. A villein was bound to the lord and had to pay dues and services to him.


Ward: Courtyard of a castle or a bailey.

Whitan: The Anglo-Saxon Parliament.