No matter how strong its outer walls are, every castle has the same weak point: the front door. That’s why, over time, castle gatehouses actually became the strongest part of a castle.
To begin with, the main doorways just had straightforward reinforcements, but castle-builders quickly got wise, and gatehouses evolved into impressive two or three storey constructions, defended by an increasingly clever array of tricks, traps and towers.
Depending on the design, you might have to cross a drawbridge to face towers armed with arrow slits and machicolations – and that’s before you’ve even made your way through the first door into a passage defended with portcullises, murder holes, and guardrooms. In fact, many of them were so secure that visiting monarchs often chose to stay in apartments on the top floor of the gatehouse, rather than in the Keep!
So, why are we interested in gatehouses? This October, we’re unearthing the mighty medieval gatehouse and drawbridge pit at Pontefract Castle – and you can come visit!
It hasn’t been seen since the castle was torn down at the end of the English Civil War, but given that the castle was widely recognised as one of the most impressive in England, its gatehouse must have been astonishing.
To mark the start of the dig, and to show you the scale of what we might be about to uncover, we’re sharing our favourite examples where archaeologists have managed to reveal astonishing new details about some of Britain’s other most iconic medieval castle gatehouses…
Main gatehouse, Chepstow Castle, Monmouthshire. Chepstow Castle is famed for being Britain’s first stone-built castle. Located on cliffs above the River Wye, construction began in 1067 just months after the Norman conquest. A suite of extra defences were added a century later – the middle bailey was strengthened with extra round towers, and the existing gatehouse was built… along with the castle’s famous wooden doors. Recent dendrochronological analysis showed that the trees for them were felled between 1159-1189, making them the oldest surviving castle doors in Europe.
On top of that, microscopic holes drilled into 14 different timbers also showed that they were constructed from a mixture of seasoned and green oak, allowing them to flex and bend both when under attack and through climatic variations. The latticework, which strengthens them from the rear, is also thought to be the first use of its kind of mortise and tenon joints in a castle door. Held together with iron pins and clad with iron to make them resistant to fire, they were not only technologically advanced, but their appearance must have struck terror into any attackers.
Bodiam Castle, East Sussex. Today, the approach to Bodiam Castle is one of the most splendid in the whole country – that huge moat is gorgeous! But that crossing was more formidable than it may seem. Before proceeding to the gatehouse, you first need to cross a bridge onto a small island called the Octagon. Archaeological excavations on the Octagon uncovered a garderobe (toilet), suggesting that there may have been a guard on the island, although it is unclear to what extent it was fortified. Ontop of that, the castle’s 28 toilets all drained directly into the moat, which according to archaeologist Matthew Johnson would effectively made it an open sewer – you certainly wouldn’t want to fall in!
Plus, once you’d crossed that stinky swamp, you still had to contend with the formidable three-storey gatehouse. Its towers had guardrooms on the ground floor, machicolations on the third floor, as well as the castle’s only gun-loops – which could all take aim at the bridge. The passage between them originally had three wooden portcullises, and its beautiful vaulted ceiling was pierced with murder holes. Deadly.
Main gatehouse, Harlech Castle, north Wales. Harlech Castle is a World Heritage Site, and one of the finest examples of late 13th century and early 14th century military architecture in Europe. The castle is concentric in design with a narrow outer ward protected by a rock cut dry moat and an almost square inner ward with massive gatehouse. The main gatehouse itself was pretty much another fortress within the castle, and was designed to be defensible not just from the outside, but also from the inner ward, in case the rest of the castle was taken. It was a classic ‘Tonbridge-style’ design with two massive D-shaped drum towers flanking the entrance, each with narrower stair towers at the back. To enter, you had to pass through three portcullises and at least two heavy doors. The upper floors housed the principal rooms – first-floor apartment probably served as the constable’s quarters, whilst the upper floor rooms would have been reserved for important visitors like the King.
King’s gate, Caernarfon Castle, Cadw. Many gatehouses are happy with rounded towers, and just a couple of portcullises, but not Kings gate! Work began in 1287 and, of all the castles built by Edward I, this pumped-up fortress is probably the most ambitious – it’s sheer size, seven polygonal towers, and elaborate walls that enclose the whole town, are all incredible. But most incredible of all is the King’s Gate – probably one of the most fearsome castle gatehouses in Britain. The entrance is cleverly recessed behind a segmental moulded arch between two polygonal towers. Today, you approach it across stone steps, but it would originally have had a drawbridge and, once you’d crossed it, you’d still have four doors and five portcullis to pass through – all while ducking from anything that was thrown down through its litany of murder-holes. But that’s not all… apparently it was never completely finished, and was originally intended to have SIX portcullises.
The Fallen Gatehouse, Dover Castle, Kent. Dover Castle is the largest in the country, and described as the ‘Key to England’. Some improvements were carried out immediately following the Norman conquest, but major construction work really began in the 1180s under Henry II. With towers that could protect the outer walls with crossfire, and a new gatehouse, it was always going to be a tough nut to crack. But when King Louis assaulted the castle during the reign of King John (1205-1214), his troops took a novel approach – they mined underneath the gate’s eastern tower, causing it to collapse – a fact that was confirmed by archaeological excavations. Henry III then repaired the castle between 1217-1256, converting the fallen gatehouse tower into an underground, forward-defence complex (including St John’s Tower), and building new gates on the western side (Fitzwilliam’s Gate) and the eastern side (Constable’s Gate).
Inner Gatehouse, Portchester Castle, Hampshire. Portchester Castle was originally built by the Romans, but was significantly modified and extended in the 11th and 12th centuries. Like many of Britain’s bigger castles, it has a Landgate (to control entry by land) and a Watergate (to control entry from a river or by sea). But in this case, the most iconic gatehouse is actually a smaller one inside the castle designed to stop invaders who breach the outer walls from entering the innermost part of the castle which is the most iconic. Within the castle walls, the inner bailey is surrounded by a moat and associated gatehouse built in the early 12th century. When you look at the walls, you can clearly see several different phases of development where new defensive features were added over the centuries, including a drawbridge, and portcullis.
Outer Gatehouse, Alnwick Castle, Northumberland. Alnwick Castle was built shortly after the Norman Conquest, and quickly became a key border fortress, with major additions in the 12th and 14th centuries. The outer gatehouse was built between 1310 and 1320, as was the Middle Gate which provided access between the inner and outer baileys. The outer gatehouse was located between Avenger’s Tower and West Garret Tower, and incorporated a barbican whose tall walls would have presented a formidable challenge to any attacker. Stone figures were added to the tops of the battlements, as was fashionable at that time, either for ornament, or to confuse attackers.
Main gatehouse, Pontefract Castle, Yorkshire. Known as the ‘Key to the North’, Pontefract Castle was one of England’s most notorious fortresses in the medieval period and beyond. Founded just after the Norman Conquest, by the 13th century it had been transformed from a wooden fort to a formidable stone stronghold. In fact, the castle was so impressive that when Oliver Cromwell attacked in 1649, he called it ‘one of the strongest inland garrisons in the kingdom’ and has some pretty unique features, including a torre albaranna – a fortification almost unknown outside the Iberian Peninsula. But what of the gatehouse? Large parts of the castle were destroyed after the Civil War, but in 2016, conservation work provided a glimpse of previously unknown remains that might tell us more about the castle’s medieval gatehouse. We *think* that unearthing it will reveal brand new evidence that the 13th century drum towers were later reinforced, and of what those reinforcements originally looked like. Exciting!
DigVentures will be unearthing the medieval gatehouse at Pontefract Castle
Free tours at 2pm every day throughout October 2019
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