When we think of castles we primarily think of imposing defensive walls and towers. However, behind these walls are the rooms where everyday castle life is carried out. This is where the custodian of the castle and his family work, play, eat and sleep. So, how many rooms does a functioning castle have?
Nine rooms form the basis of a castle’s living quarters. The size and number of a particular type of room can depend on the size of the castle. A larger castle owned by a more wealthy noble family may have more of a certain type of room.
The function of a castle was as a military fortification. The castle was a stronghold to project power, but also a defensive fortification to withstand a siege. In this article, I will look at the rooms you would find in a castle, and the essentials required to organize and run castle life.
Behind the Castle Walls
Castles vary in size and shape. Outer walls can vary in height and thickness, as can the design of the buildings within the inner courtyard.
However, one constant is the type of rooms found within a castle.
Whether housed in the towers, a keep, or another purpose-built structure, there were nine principal rooms around which castle life was centered.
Castles were not only hosts to military garrisons, they were homes to the local nobility. They needed to strike the balance between the military function of the castle and the luxurious residential apartments suitable for a noble family.
The castle custodian would host fellow dignitaries and possibly royalty. They needed to impress their guests and confirm their power. They also needed to work, as the castle was often an administrative center for the local area.
However, at the end of the day, the family needed somewhere to relax too.
All these functions were condensed into nine primary rooms. Castles can have dozens, if not hundreds of rooms, particularly if extended over the years.
However, they will be variations or additions to these 9 principal rooms.
The table below shows the floor plan you may expect in a castle.
|First Floor||Great Hall|
Let’s look at these nine rooms in more detail.
1. The Great Hall
The Great Hall was the social hub of the residential apartments of a castle. This was where the family and their entourage dined and where they entertained their guests.
A great hall is typically rectangular in design and could be up to three times longer than it was wide. The feeling of space was enhanced by a high ceiling.
This was the largest and grandest of the rooms in a castle.
All the social hierarchy of the times was observed here. The family would usually eat at a table on a dais at one end of the hall. The further away you were eating, the less important you were.
As the Great Hall was used to entertain other powerful noble families and even royalty, it would be dressed to impress.
You would see coats of arms on the walls to emphasize the noble rank of the castle owner’s family. A grand fireplace, impressive large windows, and a masterfully crafted ceiling were all tricks of the trade to exude wealth and power to visitors.
The size of the hall made it handy to double up as an extra sleeping area after large social gatherings. The hall was also often used as the space to carry out the necessary administrative duties in overseeing the local area and ensuring order.
There are wonderful great halls that survive today, while others have been lovingly restored. A visit to Edinburgh or Warwick Castle will provide an idea of the scale of a great hall.
Just looking up and seeing the beautifully constructed wooden roofs would have been enough to fill you with awe before you went any further.
Here’s a fascinating video of one of the world’s most famous great halls, at Edinburgh Castle:
There was no point having an impressive great hall if the food you served your guests was a letdown. In effect, the kitchens and food storage facilities were equally important.
Great feasts while entertaining guests helped promote and maintain power, and the kitchen needed to cope.
Once upon a time, the kitchens would have shared their space with the dining area so diners could benefit from the heat given off by the cooking.
However, castles preferred them in a separate wing or on the floor below the great hall. This spared diners from the noise and smoke generated by the kitchen.
A castle’s kitchen could be huge, noisy, and very hot. They would have boiling cauldrons on the go, several ovens, and a large fireplace to spit-roast the meat courses (source).
3. Larder and Pantry
The larder for storing food tended to be attached to the kitchen or in a basement below.
No refrigerators back then. The larder needed to be somewhere cool and in an area that received the least amount of warming sun.
The lower floors of a castle often did not have any windows in order to prevent easy access by an enemy force during a siege (source). This could be an ideal place for a larder.
However, if the room designated for a larder did have small windows it was to help with the circulation of air. Meshing would be required on the windows to keep the flies away from the stored food.
Whereas the larder stored food without a long ‘use by date’, the pantry stored food that did not go off quite so quickly. The pantry also housed all the essentials for the dining tables.
Here you would find the plates, cutlery, and serving dishes. As these were an important part of the theater of social dining, these items were designed to impress and needed to be meticulously cleaned and stored.
4. Private Bed Chambers
After a hard night of entertaining, a noble family needed a private area where they could retire to sleep.
These rooms were usually at one end of the great hall and accessed via a small passage. This room was also known as the great chamber.
The great chamber was partitioned from the hall to allow the castle’s noble family at least a semblance of privacy. A castle in entertainment mode was a frenetic hub of activity.
Guests and their entourage would sleep in the great hall after a night’s entertainment.
The servants would still need access to the private bed chambers. Indeed, those who personally attended to the lord and lady of the castle would sleep in the private chamber also.
Admittedly they would sleep on the floor without the more luxurious bedding of their noble employers. However, they would at least gain the benefits from the fireplace, which other sleeping servants would not.
5. The Solar
The Solar offered another private space for a noble family away from the general hubbub of castle life.
Originally it was another name for the great chamber as it contained the bed of the Lord and Lady of the castle. However, as castle design developed the Solar began to serve additional purposes.
The solar was usually located a floor above the great hall.
It developed from just a sleeping chamber into extended private quarters. It was still a private space, one where the family could retire from the crowd who may be staying in the great hall. However, now it included private sitting rooms
The solar is where the head of the household would spend much of their day. Here they could chill, away from the hustle and bustle of a working castle.
Private business and administration tasks could be carried out here without being disturbed.
The Solar was smaller than the great hall below. However, it may be more ornately decorated, including rich tapestries adorning the walls.
If you spend the majority of your time in one room, it may as well be pleasing to the eye.
6. The Gatehouse
A castle’s principal role was as a military fortification. It needed a strong defensive structural design and a garrison of soldiers to protect those within from attacking forces.
The gatehouse was designed to protect the main entrance to a castle and was the first point of a castle’s defense.
While you may consider the gatehouse a building in its own right rather than a room, it contained lodgings for the guards. The entrance is the most vulnerable point of a castle.
Having guards lodged within the towers of a gatehouse minimized crucial time in responding to an external threat.
A drawbridge, a portcullis, arrow slits, and murder holes all became part of the gatehouse toolkit. However, it still needed guards to man the gatehouse, and they were housed within.
7. The Chapel
In a time when religion was such a dominant feature of everyday life, the chapel was a key room within a castle. The chapel was used for the family’s private prayer as well as for undertaking religious ceremonies such as christenings and burials.
Depending on the size of the castle and the wealth of its owner, the size of the chapel could also vary.
A castle of significance like Windsor has a purpose-built chapel, while a smaller castle may have a room set aside as the chapel. Here’s a video of St George’s Chapel at Windsor prior to the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II:
Building a chapel could bring a certain amount of prestige. Anyone within the castle grounds could be expected to frequent the chapel. However, in larger chapels, the lord and his family would have their private area, usually toward the front.
The chapel was also a useful building when under siege. A religious building was traditionally seen as off-limits when fighting broke out.
If the castle was penetrated by an opposing force, the chapel held out the potential as a safe haven as it was a huge sin to spill blood in a church.
8. The Buttery
I have talked about the larder and pantry, but the buttery is another important room located close to the kitchen. This is where the alcohol was stored. However, the importance of alcohol in medieval times stretched beyond ensuring a good time was had by all.
The tipples of choice within the castle walls would have been beer and wine.
However, beer would have been more common for those members of the household who were lower down the status pecking order. It was the beer that was largely held within the buttery.
The name of the room comes from the beer butts or barrels stored there before it is served. The castle may also contain a cellar for holding beer stocks, and a separate cellar to store the wine.
Beer and wine in medieval times served a purpose beyond being just a treat to enjoy. It was often safer to drink than water.
However, as alcohol consumption levels could be high, the beer tended to be weak.
In times of siege, when cut off from sources of fresh water, a good stock of beer and wine supplies was essential for survival.
The garderobe was one of the smallest, but most essential of the rooms in a castle. The term relates to a wardrobe in French and provides an inkling of the size of these rooms. What they contained was the castle toilet.
A toilet may be overselling the room. Often the garderobes were built into the castle wall, protruding out. The seat had a hole that overhung the walls.
The waste from the garderobe just fell into a cesspit below or even the moat. The stench that developed is hard to imagine.
A garderobe was usually found close to the private bedroom chamber or the solar. The castle may have another one for communal use, although chamber pots are just as likely for the rest of the household.
Further Rooms You May Find in a Castle
These are the nine rooms that form the basis of medieval castles. However, depending on the size of the castle and available space, the following rooms could be viewed as optional extras.
- Cabinet – another small room in the residential area where predominantly the lord of the castle went to relax, study or hold private meetings.
- Boudoir – This was the lady of the house’s equivalent to her husband’s cabinet. It could also double as her dressing room.
- Bakery or brewery – Again, depending on the scale of the castle, these may form separate rooms from the kitchens
- Dungeon – Against the common perception, most castles did not possess dungeons. Holding prisoners was not much of a thing in early medieval times when many castles were built. Any prisoners of noble rank usually enjoyed a fair degree of freedom within the castle.