Remember how I’m always harping that, when doing research, you need to be sure your medieval “facts” are applicable to your particular era of the 1000 years that made up the Middle Ages? Well, a very helpful comment from British medieval novelist Elizabeth Chadwick, left on my post And In the Children's Section, We Have..., tipped me off to an excellent book to simplify some of your research all in one source, at least where castles are concerned. The book is called The Castle Story, by Sheila Sancha. After reading Elizabeth’s comment, I ordered a used copy through Amazon, and have discovered for myself what a truly splendid book this is!
The Castle Story not only traces the evolution and changes in castles through the Middle Ages, it does so in a lively narrative fashion (this is no dull and boring scholarly tome), accompanied by a liberal number of photos, captions, sketches, drawings and explanatory arrows.
The book is made up of thirteen chapters:
“(1) A Glance at Early Fortifications”, beginning with Iron Age forts through the early Anglo-Saxon period;
“(2) Digging in Behind Earth and Timber Defences”, the evolution of castles in Normandy;
“(3) A Quiet Life in Hall and Chamber” continues with the building of Norman castles in England after the Conquest of Duke William of Normandy, and gives us a feel for the domestic side of castles;
“(4) Great Stone Towers and How to Take Them” turns early wooden castles to stone as we proceed through the reigns of William’s sons, William Rufus and Henry I;
“(5) Siegecraft, Chivalry, and Sheer Brute Force” describes castle developments, and methods invented to overcome castle defenses, during the war between Henry I’s rival successors, King Stephen and the Empress Matilda;
“(6) Changing Times” traces new castle developments during the reign of Henry II, son of the Empress Matilda and successor to King Stephen;
“(7) The Rise of the Gatehouse and the Decline of the Keep” describes castle innovations during the reigns of Henry II’s sons, Richard I (the Lionheart) and (Bad) King John;
“(8) Gothic Arches and Painted Chambers” deals with the great building projects of John’s son, King Henry III, who (as many a history book has suggested), would have been a better architect than he was a king, while…
“(9) Trouble in Wales and Other Matters” shifts the focus to Welsh castles, still during the reign of King Henry III;
“(10) The Heyday of English Military Architecture” describes the great castle building projects of Henry III’s son, King Edward I;
In “(11) Castles Begin to Lose Their Importance” we begin to see the long, slow decline of the castle through the reigns of Edward I’s descendents, Edward II and Edward III;
At the same time, in “(12) The Return of the Square Stone Keep” we follow a fresh surge of castle building taking place in Scotland;
And in “(13) Ending the Story”, we finally come to the end of the great era of castles as the defenses that at one time seemed nearly impenetrable now fall before the discovery of an overwhelming weapon…gunpowder.
I have given you the briefest overview of the chapters above, merely so you can see how in a single book, the chronology of castle development is presented. Choose your characters, choose the king they lived under, and you can then move quickly to study the chapter aligned with that king to help you invent an historically appropriate castle for your characters to inhabit in your own story.
In addition to the chronological advantage of this book, The Castle Story is also chockfull of incredibly useful sketches, drawings and photos. You’ll find examples of castle floor plans, cutaway views of castles, with explanatory arrows pointing to (for instance) the kitchen (on floor one), the chaplain’s chamber (on floor two), another kitchen (on floor three), a water cistern (on floor four), and a guard room (on floor five). On the opposite side of the same castle drawing, arrows demonstrate where the prison would be (below ground level), the portcullis and lobby (first floor), the chapel (second floor), an outdoor fighting deck, and a stair turret.
There are miniature drawings of archers, including how they cocked a crossbow, and miniature men engaging in numerous other means of defense, such as using hand slings, firing a catapult (and how a catapult worked), hurling stones over the castle walls on the heads of their enemies, etc. There are also a multitude of castle photos, many of them with sketches of miniature people “inserted” into the photos. One example: a photo of an actual castle hall, with sketched in people setting up the tables for an upcoming meal.
This book is both incredibly useful and utterly charming in its presentation. Once again, like so many truly excellent research books, The Castle Story, by Sheila Sancha, is out of print, but used copies are available at reasonable prices on Amazon and Alibris.