A Castle is not the same thing as a Palace. Palaces came along later as a way to display wealth and pomp. But a castle … ah, a castle was a way for a Medieval lord to say without words, “You want a piece of this?”
Castles served a dual purpose. They were residences, yes, but first and foremost they were fortresses. In a world that was constantly shifting, where the threat of attack was always present, a man of power had defense on his mind at all times. Castles were often built into the landscape, making use of hills and bodies of water to aid the fortifications. The design aesthetic was centered around stability under siege. Could the walls withstand a battering ram or other clever Medieval projectiles? No? Then build the walls thicker. Unlike cathedrals, castles were not concerned with light and the appearance of lifting up to impossible grace. They were bunkers.
If you lived in a castle chances are that you were more than just a local lord with a manor, responsible for a village or two. You were a leader on a national and even international scale and as such you had to protect your interests. Castles are located at important strategic points within a country or kingdom. They are in the line of attack and are the last defense. So it makes sense that in addition to having thick walls and towers where archers can shoot without being shot and boiling oil can be poured down on attackers, castles would have multiple lines of defense. Take a look at this awesome aerial view of a Medieval castle.
There are several sets of walls protecting a relatively small inner building. Not only would an attacker have to get through the landscape into which the castle was built, they would have to fight their way through more than one set of walls to capture the castle. This is why siege warfare was a much better idea than an outright attack. Because if you could surround one of these bad boys and keep anything from getting in or out you could bring the inhabitants to their knees. … Or could you?
As you can see from this fantastic drawing of a castle floorplan, a whole mini world exists within castle walls. There were gardens inside of the castle walls, granaries, storage facilities, shops, stables, forges, and oh yeah, living space. A castle was its own microcosm of civilization. Granted, it didn’t have the resources of a complete manor and if you sieged a castle eventually it would run into serious problems, but not as soon as you might think.
Like cathedrals, these structures were huge. The engineering involved in putting something together that could withstand brute force while still incorporating the landscape and being self-sufficient to a degree is amazing. No, Medieval architects were not primitive ninnies. To construct a fortress that was both practical and beautiful and to do it without modern machinery or tools is just incredible.
I could go off on so many sub-topics about castles, but for today I’ll just leave you with a bunch of pictures to make you say “WHOA!” and appreciate the fact that even after being attacked numerous times over centuries a lot of Medieval castles are still standing.