Why Were Castles Built on Hills?

The hilltop castles are incredibly gorgeous, but why did the ancestors build these fortresses so high?

Lindisfarne castle  on the hill,
Why Were Castles Built on Hills?
Picture by Pffin123 on Flickr.com

Due to the high altitude, building castles on a hill offered a significant defence advantage during the sieges and easy control of the surrounding lands in peaceful times.

Of course, there were some other reasons for constructing them as high as possible.

What are the advantages of building a castle on a hill?

Hilltop castles nowadays attract visitors for their architecture and history and the hike needed to reach it.

Obviously, the hike wasn’t what came to the kings’ minds when building a castle but military advantages.

Military advantages 

Why were Castles built on the hills?
Edinburgh Castle

From the defence perspective, the advantage of being on a natural stone mound made these castles almost impregnable during the siege.

For example, at Edinburgh Castle, the only way armies could reach the walls is by assaulting the main entrance, also called the gatehouse.

At almost 360 degrees, the castle’s walls are standing on a steep rock about 20m high, leaving no chance for the soldiers to climb.

That’s why you have probably noticed the gatehouses are the most armoured parts of the castle.

Another benefit of having the hard rock as a castle foundation was that it excluded any possible digging underneath the castle during the siege.

A tactic that King John I used to take down the tower’s wall at Rochester Castle.

They dug a tunnel and laid the fat of 40 pigs right under the walls, which worked out as a medieval type of dynamite.

The archers benefited from the castle’s high altitude as they could shoot much further than their opponents, which had to get dangerously close to the walls.

An archer shooting down from a castle wall
picture by cascatz on pixabay

Moreover, The same principles applied to the catapults and ballista within the castle’s walls.

The higher position also helped spot the marching enemy troops further away, allowing civilians to gather behind the castle walls and soldiers to prepare.

The other less obvious advantage of a hilltop castle was that the enemy spies couldn’t use anything to climb higher than these buildings to see what people in the court were up to.  

Control 

Why Were Castles Built on Hills?
Dover Castle

In peaceful times, the Kings invested heavily in their mighty homes to show their power and supremacy over their lands.

It is well visible for miles ahead and from every street of surrounding villages. It clearly stated who is in charge.

Moreover, the King could go out on the balcony and see pretty much what everyone was up to in their kingdom.

Strength and stability 

They were erecting the strongholds on top of a rocky hill that gave extra stability. It ensured that the building wouldn’t sink over the years under its weight.

A strategy dates back to the Roman Empire, where they built strongholds on hills all over Europe, including England and Wales.

Gorgeous castles on the hill that you can visit

Luckily we inherited many hilltop castles that are well preserved and open to the public today.

Edinburgh Castle, Scotland 

Edinburgh Castle a castle on the rock in Scotland
Edinburgh Castle

One of the most iconic buildings in Scotland, Edinburgh castle proudly stands on the hill in the heart of the Scottish capital.

There is evidence that humans have occupied the mound since at least the Iron Age.

Edinburgh Castle served as a royal residence between the 12th and 15th centuries and then as a military garrison for the following centuries.

The turbulent past of Edinburgh castle made it worldwide famous for being the most besieged castle in Europe.

From the bloodiest battles to the enemy sneaking during the night, Edinburgh Castle went through a total of 23 sieges.

Because of its impregnability, you will often come across articles where Edinburgh is called the strongest castle in the world.

For the whole of Edinburgh Castle’s portfolio of events, you can check out our article on what makes Edinburgh Castle so famous?

After exploring Edinburgh city, tourists head uphill to the castle, making it one of the most visited castles in Scotland.

If you are planning on visiting Edinburgh Castle, there are lots of tours available on TripAdvisor.

Lindisfarne Castle, England 

Lindisfarne a Castle a castle on the hill in England.
Lindisfarne Castle

In just two hours southwest of Edinburgh, another formidable castle sits on top of the hill protecting the Holy Island.

Lindisfarne is a 16th-century castle located on the border where major clashes between English, Scottish and Viking armies were going on.

English built the first fortress around 1550 on top of a volcanic plug known as Beblowe Crag.

The fortified building was erected shortly after Henry VIII’s death and reshaped during Elizabeth I’s reign.

Today the castle is in the care of the National Trust. It is open to the public and occasionally hosts weddings in non-pandemic times.

Exploring Lindisfarne is unique in contrast to the rest of the English castles in the way you have to get to it.

You only can access the Holy Island between the tides through the causeway when the water is low.

The causeway to Holy Island
Picture by Neil Howard on Flickr.com

So make sure you allow yourself plenty of time when visiting Lindisfarne castle, not to get stuck overnight on the island.

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany 

Neuschwanstein Castle  in germany
Neuschwanstein Castle

One of the most famous castles on the hill in the world, which at least ones you might have come across in books, magazines, TV shows or movies.

The gorgeous Neuschwanstein Castle!

However, some people don’t like to call it a castle as it has nothing to do with the Middle Ages, when “the castles” we use to know and admire appeared.

Neuschwanstein Castle is a 19th-century romantic eclecticism palace on a rugged hill above Hohenschwangau southwest Bavaria, Germany.

According to the statistics, before the COVID pandemic started, 1.6 million people a year were visiting Neuschwanstein.

Probably you guessed it by now, why.

Indeed, the iconic logo’s design and Walt Disney’s castles had their beginnings here. Here at Neuschwanstein, Mr Disney got inspired by its stunning architecture.

Suppose you’re excited too and plan to visit Neuschwanstein. In that case, we have a quick guide article on what to expect at Neuschwanstein, and you might consider checking before you go.

Hohenzollern Castle, Germany 

Hohenzollern Castle a castle on the hill in Germany
Hohenzollern Castle

In Germany, the country with the most castles globally, the hilltop castles and palaces are also great.

This time we didn’t want to skip the most Instagrammable one, Hohenzollern Castle.

Unlike Neushwantain Castle, Hohenzollern’s history dates back to the 11th century when germans build the first castle on site.

Between the 11th and 15th centuries, Hohenzollern swapped hands and have been destroyed and rebuilt several times.

Although the current building with its gothic architecture, King Frederick William IV of Prussia built it between 1846-1867.

If you find yourself in Stuttgart, it’s worth checking breathtaking Hohenzollern Castle.

Castle Svevo, Italy 

Castle Svevo, a castle on the hill in Italy
Photo by foto daniel on flickr.com

Also called Castello Svevo Rocca Imperiale is a 13th-century hilltop castle that Frederick II built for defensive purposes.

It was a strategic stronghold designated to control the ancient Via Appia-Traiana and the whole gulf of Taranto.

The castle withstood a Saracens in 1664 that destroyed the city of Rocca.

In the following centuries, the castle Svevo experienced several upgrades and modifications that shaped the castle we see today.

Making your way uphill through the old town of Rocca Imperiale makes the trip particularly memorable.

By the way, that is not the most comfortable hike you have encountered, but the castle and the surrounding view from the top are worth it.

Orava Castle, Slovakia 

Orava Castle a castle on hill in Slovakia
Photo by wulfgeist74 on flickr.com

While Neuschwanstein gathers all the glory, there are way more castles hidden in the rest of the world and especially in the eastern part of Europe.

One of these underrated medieval gems is Orava Castle, a 13th-century military building in Slovakia.

It’s believed that the early settlements inhabited the mound before the Middle Ages. Yet, the first documented building people built in 1267.

Through the centuries, it served as an administrative and residential building for numerous aristocrats and noblemen.

In the courtyard of Orava Castle, Slovakia

In 1556 Thurzo Family embarked upon a major restoration project, resulting in new supporting walls, a new palace and a chapel, a bastion within the tunnel, a gatehouse and a gate tower.

In 1800 Orava Castle was put up in flames for several nights and days. However, Francis Zichy shortly repaired and reconstructed it.

Today, Orava Castle is the most famous and gorgeous castle in Slovakia, open to the public in non-Covid times.

Final Thoughts 

Today we are thankful for this building being on the hills, as it makes our castle’s trip more enjoyable.

Yet, our ancestors built them primarily as an ultimate shelter that will keep the unwanted outside as much as it could.

If you made it this far through the article, we can’t thank you enough!

You might consider checking more articles on our blog section that respond to many questions about these stunning medieval buildings.

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Mihail Ghelbur

I have been a castle lover since I remember myself, couldn't go past a castle without finding all I could about it. Now my goal is to visit every single one of them and share it with you! https://castletourist.com/about-mihail-ghelbur/

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