by Kathy Wolfe

This week, Tidbits uncovers the facts on some ancient fortresses from around the world.

A medieval king spent around 40% of his annual income building and maintaining castles. During the Middle Ages, the average time to build a castle was 10 years, with a cost in today’s dollars anywhere from $4 million to $120 million, depending on size and location. Unskilled workers earned a penny each day they worked, while masons and carpenters made about 5 pennies a day. Between 1282 and 1289, British King Edward I built Harlech Castle on the Irish Sea using 546 laborers, 30 blacksmiths, 22 carpenters, and 227 stone masons.

A castle’s great hall was a very wide rectangular room that served many purposes. Guests were received and entertained there, the lord of the house and his family and the servants were fed there, and it was the site of official activities. A massive fireplace topped with an elaborately carved wood or stone mantle kept the hall warm so that members of the household might even sleep on the floor of the great hall.

    The castle keep was the heart of a medieval castle. The most defended point of the castle, it was the safest place to be during a siege. It was the highest point with visibility for spotting enemies. It had extra thick walls and was topped by turrets and battlements. 

Hocking County Veterans Service Commission

The heavy latticed metal and wood gate at the castle’s entry was known as a portcullis. It was raised and lowered with a chain or rope. The lower end of the portcullis featured jagged teeth that would sink into the ground when closed, securely closing off the entrance when the castle was under siege, as well as injuring attackers when dropped.

    A castle’s version of indoor plumbing was a hole built into either an alcove in a room’s stone wall, or into a “garderobe,” a small room where people also stored their clothing, much like a toilet in a closet. Waste fell down a long chute that ended up in the moat.

When a medieval castle was under siege, its most vulnerable part was the well. It was the source of water for all those taking refuge inside the walls, and if poisoned by the enemy, the castle would be forced to surrender. A common method was to dump a decomposing corpse in the well.

The oldest castle still standing is France’s Chateau de Doue-la-Fontaine, built in 950 A.D. by the Count of Blois on the foundations of an older 9th-century. Only its aula, the large reception hall, remains.

The world’s oldest inhabited castle in Britain’s Windsor Castle, built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century. Since then, 39 British monarchs have used it as a part-time residence. The castle has 484,000 square feet of floor space sitting on 13 acres (52,609 sq. m). There are 300 fireplaces in the castle and 450 clocks. More than 150 people live and work there.    Ten English monarchs are buried at Windsor Castle, including Henry VIII, Queen Victoria, and Queen Elizabeth II and her father George VI.    In 1992, a devastating fire broke out at the castle in a chapel where a spotlight ignited a curtain, consuming nearly 20% of the castle’s area. A total of 225 firemen battled the blaze for 15 hours. A five-year restoration cost $47.5 million (about $86 million in today’s dollars).

England’s first castle was the Tower of London’s White Tower, built by William the Conqueror (William I) between 1078 and 1097 as a military fortification and luxurious lodgings for the King. It was greatly expanded in the 13th century. The Tower was the country’s most important prison during the Tudor Age. Three of Henry VIII’s wives, Catherine Howard, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Grey were all executed on the grounds in the 16th century and are buried on the chapel grounds.    The Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom are housed there, a total of 23,578 gemstones, some dating back to the 12th century. Rings, crowns, scepters, armor, and coronation vestments guarded by a regiment of soldiers. St. Edward’s crown is the centerpiece of the display, a crown embellished with 444 stones. Upwards of 3 million people visit the Tower every year, making it one of the world’s leading tourist attractions.

England’s Dover Castle is that country’s largest castle. It was built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century on the White Cliffs above the English Channel. King Henry II refurbished and expanded the castle in the 12th century, spending £6,400 of his £20,000 annual income. There are more than 3 miles of secret tunnels under the cliffs, with many yet undiscovered. The castle was used during World War II as a headquarters for the British military, with a garrison of 16,000 troops defending the high ground. It hosted training camps for soldiers, an air-raid shelter, and underground hospital. It was the headquarters for the effort to evacuate hundreds of thousands of Allied troops from the Battle of Dunkirk.   

    The largest castle in the world is Prague Castle in the Czech Republic. Construction began in 870, with several expansions over the centuries, resulting in an area of 750,000 sq. feet (70,000 sq. m) situated on 110 acres. It’s been the home for kings of Bohemia, Roman emperors, and Czechoslovakian presidents. Despite its age, Prague Castle continues as the official residence of the president of the Czech Republic. The Bohemian Crown Jewels, dating back to the 14th century, are kept in a hidden chamber in the castle’s cathedral, a barely accessible room with seven locks. The key to each lock is kept by seven different men. Upwards of 1.8 million people visit Prague Castle every year.

    Dracula’s Castle of lore and legend is a real place! Bran Castle, built in 1377, is located in Brasov, Romania, about 100 miles north of the capital city of Bucharest. Although Irish author Bram Stoker never visited the castle, his description is remarkably accurate as depicted in his famous 1897 novel. Today, the castle is owned by Prince Dominic Habsburg-Lothringen, the grandson of King Ferdinand I and Queen Marie of Romania, the final rulers of the country.

      If you want your vacation to include a night in a castle, you can book a room in Scotland’s Borthwick Castle, a restored castle originally built in 1430. Located 30 minutes from Edinburgh, the cost of a day at the castle will set you back around $15,800.