In my book, the story is based in a ‘medieval’ society and they live in castles or fortresses. Wow, that is unique, I know, but that is the way I envision it. So no judgement, please! I am writing a part where the characters are in a castle/palace, and I realised I kept getting stuck because I cannot visualise how it looks or where they are going.
I did some research to find out more about castles and citadels, so I may understand the world in which my characters live, fully. I found many websites which tell you the structure and architecture of a castle, but rarely ever go into detail about the interior. I thought, okay great I know how they are laid out, but when I am describing the scene I have no idea what everything looks like! Are their floors carpeted? What kind of furniture do they have? Does each room have a fireplace? What do the walls look like?
I want to share with you what I found, so that if your story is similar in setting, you can fully visualise the place your characters live. Because there is nothing worse than writing about a place even you don’t know what it looks like. How are your readers supposed to believe in this world you have created when you cannot even see it yourself?
Types of Castles:
The Great Hall
The Great Hall or simply the ‘Hall’ as it was called in the Middle Ages was the main room in the nobleman’s castle. Depending on the size of the castle or palace, and the owner’s wealth they may have had two halls, the larger of the two would obviously be called ‘The Great Hall’.
What it was used for: It typically was used as a dining area for the members of the Lord’s household, his gentlemen attendants and even some servants of the keep. It was for receiving guests and a place for great parties. In many instances, it was a place for the locals to come and make pleas to the Lord for various different grievances.
Some later period French castles have a separate ‘Upper Hall’ either on the first or second floor. This was called a Salle Haute, Upper Room or High Room and was reserved for the Lord, his family and his most distinguished guests. There was still a hall on the ground floor, but that was generally smaller and took guests of all social classes. At night the hall would be cleared and the servants would sleep in it.
What it looked like: They were rectangular in shape and had extremely high ceilings. It was generally entered into using a screens passage at the end and had many windows lining the outside wall, and in many instances had one large window. Above the screen entrance was a small gallery where the musicians or minstrels would play for grand parties. On the opposite end of the halls entrance is a dais where the head table is situated for the dining of the lord’s household. On this side of the hall beyond the dais would be an exit towards the lord’s family’s bedrooms would be, as well as the kitchen.
A great hall would host the largest fireplace of the whole palace or castle. It would generally be large enough to walk around in it and have an impressive overmantel either made out of stone or carved wood and host coats of arms, or other expensive objects the Lord fancied and figured might impress. What would be inside a great hall depended on the occasion? For dining, there would be the table on the main dais and a line of communal tables I rows on the main floor. Were it a party the main table would on the dais and the rest would surround the room, keeping the middle clear for dancing. There would be a carpet on the stone floor, or in later years it would be covered in wood. On the walls always were paintings or tapestries. They would also have one big chandelier and a many other smaller ones which could be brought down from the ceilings with a pulley system. Depending on the era the walls would differ. Generally, were it the middle ages up until the time of the Tudors, the great hall’s walls had bare stone walls, wood panelled or stone covered in plaster draped in heavy tapestries with different masculine scenes. There would sometimes be a large shelf where expensive and rare items would be displayed to show off the family’s wealth and prestige. In the later years, post renaissance the great halls were carved and painted ornately in varying romantic style paintings.
What I find most exciting about the anatomy of a great hall is the possibility that it may possess a listening device system called a Laird Lug. These are secret compartments perfectly hidden in plain sight within the great hall where one may sit and eavesdrop on conversations. I am actually using this vital piece of information in my next book. The French have something similar by way of peep hole for the eyes that you see in paintings from horror movies and Scobie doo, and they are called Judas.
What it looked like: Depending on the era, the walls would have been bare stone, plastered stone, ordained with heavy tapestries or painted with beautiful scenes and carved plastered ceilings. In the later centuries they had a chandelier. There would always be a fireplace either framed by polished stone or painted carved plaster. In the renaissance period and later, the bedchamber fire places were always ornate and beautiful. On the floor there would be a carpet beautifully decorated and it would sit before the fireplace. In the space between the bed at the back wall and the fireplace would sit a collection of chairs and a trestle table.
In a space against the wall, preferably near the window, was a writing desk. Sometimes, in there would be a vanity and a small stool to sit by. If there was no separate wardrobe or change room, there would be a folding screen for the lord or lady to change behind. The beds were always either a canopy four poster bed, or in earlier years it was a canopy fashioned into the wall over the bed. Both styles had curtains that could be tied to either the wall or the four posts. The mattress was either made from straw or feathers. There was almost always a headboard made out of carved wood or had embroidered material in the centre. In the earlier years, some beds did not have a head board and only used a dosser which is a heavy curtain or tapestry. On the beds there were mattress covers, duvets and costers (bed skirts) which are long bedspreads to prevent cold air chilling the underside of the bed. Most beds had one long pillow called a bolster. On cold nights, warm stones were placed in the bed in preparation for sleeping. Smooth brass circular pans called bed warmers with lids and long handles did the same thing as it was filled with hot coals or ash.
A Bower (for ladies) or Cabinet (for men) was a room for the privacy for one person and would be our equivalent of a study. They would typically be furnished with a table, chairs, a writing desk, a library and works of art. They typically would be accessible and adjoined to the bedroom. The men’s cabinet would be bigger than a bower, to allow for more people in order to have meetings.
What it looks like: It would have a fireplace as described above, sometimes with a shelf over it to place an object of interest or family heirloom. It contained sofas, chairs, chests, a trestle table and a bookshelf sometimes. It would have a writing desk and have tapestries hanging on the walls. On the floor would be a carpet. There would be a window on the side which gave most sun into the solar, and the family would spend most days in that room if not outdoors.
They were usually located at the other side of the residence form the bedchambers of the lords family and was a wooden or stone stab with a hole in it leading to a pit. For the more “important” people there would be a chamber pot under the bed, or a special chair with a cut out for the backside over a chamber pot. This chair may or may not have a lid.
The wardrobe was sometimes extended to be a bathroom where there would be a portable wooden bathtub. It would also be the place where hair dressing was done.
The kitchens were on a lower level of the castle, near the back for deliveries. It was usually a separate building rectangular in shape and connected to the great hall beyond the screens. It had a table, three legged stools and small storage units such as cupboards. It had one or more fireplaces, ovens and hooks to dry meats and vegetables. The walls would be stone, brick or plastered. The pantry was connected and usually large enough to walk through.
However, in before the Middle Ages there were no separate kitchens. Instead, all cooking was conducted in the great hall over ran open fireplace.
Gatehouse/guardrooms or place of arms
A gatehouse is a fortified stone structure built at the gateway of a walled city or castle. They include draw bridges, a portcullis, machicolations, arrow loops and murder holes. In the earliest periods they were very solid structures to fend off enemies but as the years rolled on they were converted to very beautiful structures particularly in the renaissance period. They went from plain stone to rendered and painted beautiful artworks.
The most exciting room for writers I find is the dungeons. There is so much you can do with dungeons! However, you will be sad to learn that most castles didn’t have them. If they were very early castles or fortresses, then they possibly did. In the early middle ages, prisoners were kept in the great hall as that was the most secure. When there were introduced into castles, they were first in the highest parts of the castles in the towers, then later on as the purpose of castles became less warlike they moved the prisons to the basements. Sometimes in the dungeons there would be something named a oubliette which is a deep hole in the ground with a trap door up the top, only wide enough for a person to stand only. A prisoner could not touch their toes. Many were exposed to natural stone walls, some prisoners were chained to walls or some had their own rooms with a small slit for a window, if at all. They could be furnished with a pallet filled with straw, a table and three legged stool.
I hope that this helps you on your way and gives you a more accurate portrait of the world your characters live in. I know for me it certainly has! Let me know if this covers everything you want to know or email me if you want more information.
If you want more castle inspiration and pictures, take a look at my Pinterest!