Castles versus Palaces

Lancaster Castle and Hampton Court Palace @2015 Photographs by Caterina Novelliere

Lancaster Castle and Hampton Court Palace @2015 Photographs by Caterina Novelliere

As I am touring sites with the words castle and palace in their name, it has me wondering what exactly is a castle versus a palace? And are what we call castles actually castles? The short answer is it depends. New titles, cultural tourism, and deceptive styles of architecture can make something perceived as relatively simple term fairly complicated and not easy to identify. To make sure you and I are on the same page, I am going to define a castle based on my studying and observations.

A castle from my perspective is a fortification built pre- Enlightenment that serves either a military function or a military and residential function surrounded by walls. The reason I am drawing the line at the Enlightenment period is I believe great manor homes and palaces replaced castles by this time period, even if some of the great residences of the day embraced a revival of gothic style and incorporated medieval architecture into their designs. Castles have distinct features. They are stone structures with a keep or gatehouse that serve as both residence and barracks for military personnel. They are frequently built on high ground or areas that would make them challenging to capture. On their grounds you will find baileys: a hill or man made mound that elevates the castle, a moat or motte: this can be a water filled large ditch around the castle, but it can also be a large swath of dry land that in the past would have been filled with things like spikes to try and prevent enemies from scaling the walls. Castles have a great gate that can house large doors or a portcullis with a barbican and/or drawbridge. Above the gate one can usually find murder holes allowing defenders to pour hot coals or other items onto besiegers. Throughout the walls, gate house and keep, small openings that can be slits, rectangles, or crosses called loop holes allowed soldiers to fire arrows or muskets at besiegers.

The preceding paragraph places me in a similar school of thought as historians J.E. and H.W. Kaufmann though their timeframe for the castle is more specific than mine. They state that a castle is “a fortification of the High Middle Ages that was characterized by high walls, usually with a moat, and towers regardless of whether or not it is a private residence.”[1]

Castles are not necessarily royal residences. Many nobles with the financial means could build castles on land they managed. Most would need to solicit special permission from the king or queen to construct a fortress; however, some did not wait for permission. Those who built keeps without their monarch’s blessing risked their home being destroyed or other penalties. It was not uncommon for a castellan, an early form of castle owner, to find their home dismantled if they fell out of favor. If a petition for a castle was denied and a more defensive style property was needed, many nobles would build what is known as a fortified manor home. Fortified farms or manors are basically a country home with defensive features. The noble could also maintain a privately funded guard to protect those that lived on the estate.

Now palaces are exactly what we think them to be. They are royal residences built in grand fashion. They may incorporate what was once a castle. Windsor Castle is a great example of a royal residence or palace where a Middle Ages castle has been modified and additions added over the centuries to keep it a key royal residence. Hampton Court Palace is a beautiful structure with a mix of medieval architecture all the way through the Georgian period. It is your classic palace. While it has a gate, towers, walls and is a royal residence, Hampton Court could not truly be considered a castle based on its function, history, and architecture. I will write a separate blog entry highlighting this stunning location.

Hopefully, the above provides some parameters and new insights for you as you follow my posts on castles or research them on your own.

Bibliography for this post:

Kaufmann, J. E., and H. W. Kaufmann. The Medieval Fortress: Castles, Forts, And Walled Cities Of The Middle Ages. 1st Da Capo Pbk. Ed edition. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2004.

This is a fantastic book to introduce you to castles.


[1] J. E. Kaufmann and H. W. Kaufmann, The Medieval Fortress: Castles, Forts, And Walled Cities Of The Middle Ages, 1st Da Capo Pbk. Ed edition (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2004), 21.