Everyone loves the idea of castles. If you never got to live in one, it is undoubtedly a great idea to visit one! To date, castles are edifices of beauty, power, and royalty. But then, why do such noble structures have dungeons and what for?
Castles have dungeons because they served as cells for prisoners. However, extensive research revealed that dungeons were not originally built as torturous chambers specially designed for unfortunate prisoners but as the primary and safest place in a castle.
More interestingly, history reveals that dungeons had other fascinating uses in castles, which is why many medieval courts have them.
From the Dover Castle to Chateau Gaillard, down to Krak des Chevaliers in Syria and the most famous Warwick Castle in England, every castle is unique in its way, but all have dungeons.
This article is a brief guide on the uses of dungeons in castles, especially in the medieval era. Expect to learn the whys, hows, and the history of castles and dungeons from ancient medieval times until date.
Dungeons were originally safe-holds (The Pre-Dungeon era)
What eventually evolved into dungeons today were safehold for castles.
The word dungeon originates from the old French word – Donjon, which means a fortified main tower of a castle if translated to everyday English.
In other words, the safest and most secure, and impenetrable part of a castle. Today, they could be conveniently called a Keep. Dungeons could be underground or surrounded by towers or tall walls.
In the early Medieval period, castles weren’t built with prison sections or dungeons. Instead, they had Keeps attached.
Due to their security, nobles lived in the Keep whilst their soldiers repelled any possible attack from the outside.
Also, during this period, it wasn’t common practice to detain people in an underground cell.
However, the Keeps were usually unfashionable and made of ordinary stone and walls. As time progressed, nobles favoured fancy homes over the great Keep and moved to rooms designed for warmth and luxury.
During this transition, dungeons slowly moved from serving as a security fortress for nobles into storerooms for valuables and, eventually, prisons.
Before we move on, let me ask a simple question; if you had a prisoner you’d like to keep restrained, where’s the best place to keep them?
I reckon you’d rather have them in the impenetrable section where no one can break them out, right? That’s how the great keep gradually metamorphosed into what we have today – dungeons.
The History of Dungeons
Okay, let’s fast forward to the early 13th century during the reign of King Edward I. Then, the common practice was to take prisoners of war, children, or families of rival kingdoms and absorb them into the castle.
They could roam about but would not be allowed to leave.
These prisoners were often cared for luxuriously and could be exchanged for favours, broker peace deals, or tough negotiations.
The less valuable prisoners were usually dealt with through fines, or death, or even mutilation. Only the prisoners that mattered had the opportunity to live and remain in the castle.
Before this time, the lowly prisoners sent to the dungeons only stayed there while awaiting trial or before their sentence was carried out.
King Edward, I was one of the first prominent figures to start detaining people long-term in dungeons. He devised dungeons as a strategy to silence leaders of North Wales and the Welsh rebellion – He would capture his enemies and lock them up in dungeons.
With time, he also began building new castles with dungeons designed for that purpose.
Dungeons vs. Oubliette
From this period onwards, lords and kings began to build dungeons in the least desirable places and a discomforting manner; cold, wet, and unkempt.
It had acquired a new status – a weapon to punish, to imprison. It had attained the position of a prison. Haruki Murakami would later publish in the 20th century that a dungeon is ‘a place walled in, with nowhere to go but your own doom’.
Towards the end of the 13th century, dungeons had become a place of torture where prisoners accused of various offences were tortured to extract confessions.
They were tied to chairs or pierced with sharp objects, chained to the roof, etc. This latter era is where dungeons got their most famous reputations from.
By this time, it was impossible to build a castle without a dungeon. Most dungeons even had underground routes that allowed prisoners to be smuggled in and detained.
Hold on! It is essential to include that being locked in a dungeon was not the worse form of punishment, at least not in France.
The Oubliette – also known as the forgotten room, was a deep hole-like room built underground with only enough space for a prisoner to crouch or stand. Thus, a person could be lowered in via a rope and forgotten there forever.
So, there you have it – castles have dungeons because first, they functioned as the Great Keep, then as storerooms for valuables, and eventually as prisons for the damned. This is why all notable castles of old have dungeons in them.
Hey! thanks for spending your time here with us, and if you fancy more about castles, you can tap on and read about; biggest castle in Scotland; Do castles have electricity? How many castles are in Scotland?
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