Why Do Castles Have Portcullises?

Remember the metallic gate with sharp pointed edges at Castle Black of Game of Thrones? They are called Portcullises, and it appears that they do not only have theatrical importance; most castles of medieval times had Portcullises. So the question is this: why do Castles have portcullises, and what is the history behind them? 

Portcullises served as an additional layer of defence for castles in the medieval era. They are solid gates used to prevent attackers from entering a Castle, thereby giving castle soldiers time to prepare against the attack. Many castles still have their portcullises to date while some others do not (albeit, the tools used to hold portcullises in such Castles are still there).

Research shows that there are undeniable connections between castle portcullises and gatehouse defence mechanisms. However, while gatehouse fortification can be traced to as far back as 476, portcullises only gained widespread usage in the 12th century. 

This article has all you need to know about castle portcullises both in medieval and modern times.

The History of Castle Portcullises

We all know castles as gigantic fortresses built for the most honourable, wealthiest, and royal families of the early times. But, unfortunately, the medieval era was also one of might over wits, very violent, with enemies or rival families looking for the best way to plunder each other.

 As a result, we can see that the strong bars, tall walls, watch posts, structure, and masons made designs of castles to avert, withstand and defend against attack.

However, one of the most vulnerable ways to penetrate a castle was to pass through the main gate.

 It was impossible to build a castle without an entry/ exit route so, it became crucial to fortify those entries against attack. Gateways, barbicans, and portcullises served as some of those fortifications.

What are portcullises?

The name portcullis has Old French origin from Porte Coleice, meaning a sliding gate.

 Portcullises can be traced to Roman times long before 476, but architects incorporated them into castle design in the 12th century.

 They are heavy vertical closing wooden/ iron doors with pointed edges. They were usually attached to the castles from above and connected with ropes or chains to a winch such that few men could let them down quickly to prevent entry. 

It was easier to let down portcullises than to roll them back up. 

What were Portcullises made of?

Initially, they were made of wooden bars; as time went on, they were plated with iron/ metal and eventually made with iron from top to bottom. 

The engineers fastened them to the top of the castle with strong chains or ropes. There were different methods for releasing them, but the most common was striking a latch with a hammer. 

Once they were pulled down, soldiers couldn’t easily penetrate the castle. So castles had as many portcullises as deemed necessary. Some had up to six portcullises; meanwhile, some had only one or two.

The Purpose of Portcullises

The idea behind Portcullises was to present another defence front after the enemy had breached the castle gate. Thus, when a castle is under attack, a single soldier could let the portcullis down.

It prevented the entrance of attackers and gave the castle soldiers time to raise the alarm or prepare to fight back.

In some castles with more than two portcullises, they would allow the attackers to enter in between and drop them simultaneously, trapping the assailants and making it easy to attack them. 

There were many options for this; defenders could rain down hot water or hot oil on them through the murder holes (holes etched in the walls of the gatehouses), archers could shoot arrows at them through the arrowslits.

Castles with Preserved Portcullises you can see today.

As we speak, some castles still have functional portcullises. If you would like to see a portcullis then you should visit one of these castles:

1. The Tower of London (1078)

This historic castle is her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London. It is home to one of the oldest and long-standing portcullises. 

2. Monk Bar

The Monk bar is a four-story gatehouse built in the early 14th century to replace the Munecagate of the 12th century. It now houses a functional portcullis and the Richard III Experience at Monk Bar.

3. The York Castle, England:

 houses a collection of castles that dates back to 1068. Currently consist of castles, prisons, law courts, and a museum. Although the keep is largely in disrepair, there is a working portcullis there. 

4. The Hever Castle of Kent: 

dates back to the 13th century. Although initially built as a country house, it was expanded and remodelled in 1462. As a result, it has the oldest functional portcullis in England.

5. Amberley Castle: of Amberley Village, West Sussex. 

Erected in the 12th century as a manor house and remodelled in 1377. It is currently a hotel and has one of the longest standing portcullises

6. The Edinburgh Castle, Scotland.

 It also has a functional castle portcullis.

What is barbican?

A barbican is an outpost castle defence perimeter. Barbicans were separate structures mounted at the entrance of a castle and fortified for defence purposes. 

Usually, a barbican would be attached to the main castle via a narrow-walled road where entrants could be easily trapped and eliminated. 

It had murder holes and arrowslits and other traps too. One could easily take a barbican for a gatehouse; they serve the same purpose. However, gatehouses are usually grander and bigger. 

The purpose of barbicans and gatehouses was to fortify the main entrance of a Castle against attack. Also, the castle guards used them to easy eliminate trespassers.

In more recent times, gatehouses attained a more decorative feature and less defensive purposes. 

In these latter times, castle gatehouses were built to show the wealth and affluence of the castle owners and not necessary to ward off attacks.

Did you enjoy this article? Check out other articles on our website. We take you on a jolly ride through castles in medieval times.

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