11 Features of a Stone Keep Castle

The stone keep castle is the image most of us will have of what a medieval castle should look like. A product of Norman design, they were built to withstand attack while radiating power and prestige. Although the size and shape could vary, there are common features you would expect to find within a stone keep castle.

11 common features of a stone keep castle are:

  1. The keep
  2. Battlements
  3. Spiral staircase
  4. Arrowslits
  5. Raised entrance
  6. Curtain walls
  7. Gatehouse and drawbridge
  8. The bailey
  9. Buttresses
  10. Great Hall
  11. Garderobes

The Tower of London’s White Tower is the most famous stone keep (source), with the fortress later transformed using a concentric design.

Warwick, Dover, Goodrich, and Windsor castles are further examples of stone keep castles. In this article, I shall look at 11 features of a stone keep castle that help provide its distinctive appearance.

Tower of London, famous stone keep castle
The Tower Of London, the most famous example of a stone keep castle

1. The Keep

The fortified keep was the core of the castle, sometimes built on a raised mound called a motte. This was primarily the residence of the noble who owned the castle, but it was also the last refuge if the outer walls were breached.

Therefore, the keep needed to combine luxury befitting a noble lord and his family, and practical measures for defending this inner sanctum.

The keep was a free-standing stone tower, built on the highest spot in the area. The first floor of the keep housed the kitchen, while the upper floors contained the living quarters. While the outer walls could be meters thick, the inner walls were much thinner.

Stone keeps replaced previous wooden structures. The first benefit of this was they were less susceptible to fire. Besiegers couldn’t set the keep ablaze as easily and wait for the inevitable abandonment by its occupiers.

Secondly, the strength of the stone allowed for the keep to be built with taller designs. Not only did this provide greater visibility across larger distances for its defenders, but it also offered an increased wow factor.

Potential local rebels would never have seen such a construction. Stone keep castles were designed to show the wealth and power of its nobility, an imposing presence to suppress any would-be opposition.

The table below shows the floor plan you might expect in a typical three-story stone keep.

Room FunctionLocation
Food storesBasement
Arms storesBasement
KitchensGround Floor
Great HallFirst Floor
ChapelFirst Floor
Private ChamberFirst Floor
SolarSecond Floor
Private ChambersSecond Floor
The stone keep of Blarney Castle in Ireland
The stone keep at Blarney Castle in Ireland

2. Battlements

The Keep was where you headed when the outer walls looked like they were about to be penetrated by an attacking force. Therefore, they needed a design to help stave off an attack and protect its inhabitants.

At the top of the keep were the battlements. This comprised an additional stone wall built on top of the keep for defensive purposes.

From the battlements, archers could fire their arrows down upon an invading force. Anything could be dropped down on enemy soldiers below, so long as it was considered heavy enough, hot enough, or sharp enough to stop them in their tracks and consider retreating.

The battlements ran the width of the keep to ensure all angles were covered.

Battlements would also be designed along the castle’s outer walls and outer towers.

As with the battlements protecting the keep, the outer battlements were defensive structures that aimed to prevent the castle grounds from being breached by an enemy force.

The following video takes you on a walk around the battlements of the stone keep at Arundel castle.

3. Spiral Staircase

Anyone who has visited a medieval castle must have queried why the stairs spiral. They always seem so cumbersome to climb and for some reason seem to tire you out faster than regular stairs.

However, as with every aspect of a castle, there would have been logic in the design.

The popular theory is that as most staircases spiral clockwise, they were designed this way for defensive reasons. On the basis that most people are right-handed, this theory suggests clockwise stairwells would make it harder for the attacker to use his sword.

The walls would be tight to their sword arm as they climbed the stairs. The assailant would also have a more restricted view around corners.

The problem with this theory is that not all spiral staircases were clockwise (source). A spiral staircase is not exactly easy to fight on for a defender coming down them either.

Indeed, some castles had both clockwise and anti-clockwise stairs. A simpler explanation could be that spiral staircases took up less precious room when constructing a keep.

4. Arrowslits

Another feature of a stone keep castle that always grabs your attention is the arrowslits. These thin, vertical apertures in the defensive walls could vary in size and height depending on the defender’s preferred type of bow.

The arrowslits provided enough room to shoot out while being thin enough to offer the archer cover from enemy archers. The inner walls around the arrowslits tended to be narrower and cut back. This allowed more room for the archer, which translated into a wider field of view.

Early stone keeps tended to be square or rectangular.

However, this created blind-spots and an unforeseen weak point in a seemingly impregnable structure. Circular keeps helped to remove blind spots, providing defenders with an all-around view from within the keep.

Arrow slit at Monsaraz Castle in Portugal
An arrow slit at Monsaraz Castle, Portugal

5. Raised Entrance

If you think that going up steps to enter a stone keep as a modern-day visitor is a little inconvenient, that’s the point of the design. Every feature of a medieval castle’s design was carefully considered and improved upon where necessary.

The entrance to the keep is built into the first floor, not the ground floor.

Therefore, steps were necessary leading up to the entrance. These may have been wooden, but more often stone. These steps were another potential hurdle and hindrance to any attacking force looking to fight their way up into the keep.

Over time, some keeps had more elaborate entrances built with the steps enclosed within walls to offer further protection to defenders looking to defend entry to the stone fortress.

6. Curtain Walls

A stone keep castle’s first line of protection is provided by its curtain walls. These stone walls extended around the castle site, enclosing the keep and the inner courtyard. They were interspersed with defensive towers and usually lined with battlements.

For any opposing force, breaching the curtain wall was the first port of call. Until the introduction of the trebuchet, the combination of the outer curtain walls and inner keep made medieval castles all but impregnable. These outer walls could be 20 ft thick.

For an attacking force, the better option was to besiege the castle. Patience was required here, waiting for the starving defenders to surrender before any relief could arrive.

7. Gatehouse and Drawbridge

Stone keep castles had one point of entry and exit, and that was over the drawbridge. The castle would often be surrounded by a protective water-filled moat.

A stone keep castle could also be surrounded by a dry ditch instead, with a steep bank leading up to the castle curtain walls.

Whichever protective element surrounded the castle, the single access point was a lowered drawbridge. Once the drawbridge was raised under the threat of an attacking force you needed to be sure you were sheltering on the right side of the walls.

The gatehouse from which the drawbridge was lowered or raised was not a particularly formidable obstacle in stone keep castles. This was particularly so with the early forms of these castles.

The stone keep was the main defensive fortification. As castle design moved away from stone keep castles toward concentric designs, the gatehouse became a more prominent defensive feature.

Chains and winches were used to operate the drawbridge from the gatehouse. Before drawbridges, a simple wooden bridge was built over the moat for access. The bridge could be removed when the castle was under threat from an invading force.

8. The Bailey

This was often a lively part of the castle grounds.

The bailey was the inner courtyard between the stone keep and the outer walls. When an aggressor is heading toward town, the locals would try and shelter in the bailey.

This offered protection provided the outer walls held firm.

The bailey was also the heartbeat of the working domestic castle. This was where the stables were located as well as animal pens. Sheds built against the inside of the outer walls housed the workshops where craftsmen worked, as well as the stores.

In the original motte and bailey castles, there was usually an inner and outer bailey. The outer bailey would contain the workshops, stores, animals, and kitchen.

Once the larger stone keeps were built, the kitchen and food stores could be moved from the bailey and located on the ground floor of the fortified keep. This offered more protection for vital supplies during a siege.

9. Buttresses

When stone replaced wood as the primary building material, the additional strength meant the keep could be four stories high. This allowed more spacious living quarters and for more storage of essential supplies within the keep.

Norman stone keep castles often used buttresses to add support and strength to these imposing buildings. Buttresses are the stone structures you see projecting from the walls of a stone keep.

Never ones to miss out on a trick, buttresses offered another function beyond the practical. As well as adding strength to the keep, buttresses could be designed to add a further wow factor if they were elaborate in design.

Projection of power was an important function of the Norman stone keep castle. They were designed to impress as well as suppress the locals. Any additional touches such as elaborate stone buttresses added to this impression of wealth and power.

The White Tower at the Tower of London is an example of a famous stone keep built with buttresses.

They help form the design and image of the Tower that we know and love today, but would have added to its projection of power during the early days of Norman rule.

10. Great Hall

The Great Hall was another area designed to show off wealth and power. This was off-limits for most locals. The hall was there to impress visiting nobles, local rivals and, fingers crossed, royalty who might honor the castle with their presence.

The Great Hall would be ornately decorated and furnished. The decor needed to match the feasts it staged.

This was the main room within a castle, the pride, and joy of the castle owner. Not only would people eat here, but it was also where guests were met and where the business of the castle was run.

The size of the great hall was determined by the size of the stone keep.

However, a grand fireplace, wall coverings, and a coat of arms of the lord of the castle tended to be standard. The wealthier the owner, the more ornate the hall might be furnished.

At the end of a large feast or gathering, the great hall may also be required to act as one large dormitory where people could sleep.

When a castle’s primary function went from defensive fortification to a residence for a noble family, even more attention and money was spent on a luxurious Great Hall.

The Great Hall of Edinburgh Castle
One of the most famous Great Halls – that of Edinburgh Castle

11. Garderobes

For all the effort to make the living quarters of a stone keep castle fit for nobility, medieval plumbing was not quite up to the mark yet.

If you have wandered around a stone keep and noticed a small chamber cut into the wall containing a bench with a hole, then you have located one of the castle loos.

These chambers hung out away from the keep wall. The hole in the bench was just that, a hole. Beneath was a cesspit or sometimes just the moat, into which the waste dropped.

Toilet chambers could be enclosed for privacy. They are termed garderobes, which can be a little misleading as this French word usually means a wardrobe or a storeroom. However, it has also come to mean a private chamber or privy over time.

Garderobes are not the most glamorous feature of a stone keep castle. However, they were a practical and essential, if somewhat unpleasant sounding, solution.