Castle History

Below is a brief history of the development of castles, with building and figurine information.

Ancient Fortifications

Castles and walled cities have existed since the dawn of human history. According to the Biblical account, when Joshua led the children of Israel into Canaan, approximately 1250-1400 BC, he began by marching the Ark of the Covenant, the priests, and the army of Israel around the walled city of Jericho seven days. On the last day, the city walls collapsed and Jericho fell to Israel. Jericho may have been one of the oldest cities in the world, built as early as 7000 BC. Rahab, the woman who helped Israelite spies from inside Jericho, lived in a house located “upon the town wall.” Jerusalem, first mentioned in an Egyptian text about 1900 BC, was also a walled city, as were most, if not all cities of the time.

Egyptian Outpost

The Egyptians built many fortifications and other walled structures, including many of their great temples. The example presented in The Castle Builder’s Handbook is based on a relief carving showing an outpost built by the forces of Seti I during their campaign in Canaan in 1300 BC. This far-flung outpost exemplified the expanse of the powerful Egyptian Empire. This outpost is made of ¾” pine stock. It is attached to a ½” plywood base and ½” plywood is used for the roof.

Maiden Castle

The earliest castles in Europe were Neolithic hill-top forts. Early Bronze Age fortifications dating from as early as 3000 BC were constructed on hill tops and often enclosed as much as several hundred acres. The remains of over 2400 Bronze and Iron Age hilltop forts are scattered across England.

Maiden Castle, near Dorchester, in southern England, was built on a site first occupied around 3000 BC. The last fortifications were begun there in the fifth century BC and completed by 200 BC. Maiden was actually a large walled city, enclosing nearly fifty acres and housing approximately 5000 people. Early castles of this type were often log stockades built on the top of earthen mounds or natural hills. The walls were built above steep sloping sides, with a ditch in front and a more gradual slope behind. Ditches were dug around the hill site (called a scarp), with rings of counter-scarps thrown up around the hill. At Maiden Castle, three or four such rings surrounded the site. Although many were log, the stockades were made of anything close at hand: split tree trunks, a wattle of interlaced branches, or briar hedges, sometimes stone walls. Huge wooden gates were built at the entrance points. During the final period of Maiden Castle, the log walls at the entrance sites were replaced and reinforced with stone.

The model presented in The Castle Builder’s Handbook is on a very small scale: 1/274 (figure height: 1/2 mm). The base is formed of paper machete and the stockade is made of toothpicks cut at ¾” and pushed into holes drilled into the machete, so that ½” is left protruding above the surface. The buildings are cut from ½” dowels. The roofs are made from paper, with sawdust glued to the surface. The ground is spray-painted green and then covered with model railroad grass. Roads are covered with model railroad gravel.


About the time that Maiden Castle was in its final building phase, the ancestors of the Picts, in the far north of Scotland were building rock structures called brochs. They were built starting approximately 100 BC, perhaps as a defense against the builders of the hill forts. Brochs were stone towers, some as much as 50 feet high, surrounded by a walled court. The broch was built with a double thickness of wall. Stairways and wooden galleries were built in the space between the two walls. The towers were of dry stone construction, without the use of mortar. An example is the broch at Clickhimin, shown here.

The construction of Clickhimin Broch gives the model castle builder a chance to build in stone. The stones used in the construction of the broch are the typical gravel found in driveways or along the sides of paved roadbeds. Gather small gravel, averaging about pea size. Wash the gravel thoroughly and then let it dry. The gravel is held in place to form the structure by means of hot glue. That’s all there is to it except for the base, a bit of wood for the platform and gates of the gatehouse, and some framing and wood shingles for the roofs. The first rows of stones for the broch, outer walls, gatehouse, and other structures are glued to a plywood base. The other rows are glued to those stones. See the full plans in The Castle Builder’s Handbook.

Motte and Bailey Castles

After the collapse of Charlemagne’s Roman Empire in the 9th century AD, Europe was carved up into small territories under the rule of a hierarchy of kings, dukes, and other nobles. The territory of the duke or king was divided among lesser, feudal lords who were expected to pay tribute to the overlord of the territory. The lesser lords in turn granted parts of their estates to lesser nobles, such as knights, who paid tribute and service to the lords. The smallest piece of land (fief, or fee) owned by the knight or other minor lord, was called a manor. In addition to the lords and nobles, there were surfs (working class, who owned no land) at each level of land holding.

There was considerable confrontation between lords and their vassals. As a consequence, the kings, dukes, knights all built fortifications to protect themselves. So thick were the castles in some parts of Europe that many were within sight of each other. Some knights were not granted land but were supported at the castle of one of the lesser lords.

Castle building in Europe developed on the Continent in the 9th century. The fortifications of the time were built on hills and constructed primarily of wood. Following the battle of Hastings the Norman Conquest of Britain was assured through the construction of small wooden forts or “castles” built upon artificial mounds or mottes surrounded by a ditch and a wider stockade enclosing a wider bailey.

During the 11th century the motte (mound) and bailey castles spread over Western Europe, especially in Normandy. When William, Duke of Normandy, invaded England in 1066, he brought castles. The first castle built by Duke William’s forces was apparently a prefabricated fort, built in France, taken apart and loaded onto some of the nearly one thousand ships in his flotilla, and then assembled when the Norman force landed at Pevensey, on the southwest coast of England. At the time of the Norman Conquest, there were perhaps only half a dozen castles in all of England – most built of timber and earthwork by Norman knights in the service of Edward the Confessor. By 1100, only 34 years after the invasion, there were more than 500 castles in England.

The first Norman castles built in England were designed after the timber and earthwork castles on the Continent. These castles were motte-and-bailey castles, which were quick and cheep to build and required no skilled labor. The motte (a mound) was a flat-topped hill, usually man-made, but sometimes taking advantage of a natural hill. Mottes varied in size from one hundred to three hundred feet in diameter at the base and ten to one hundred feet high. Two examples of motte-and-bailey castles, made of toothpicks are featured in The Castle Builder’s Handbook.

William was crowned king on Christmas day and promptly put Londoners to work building a castle. The original Tower of London was apparently a motte and bailey structure. It was replaced a few years later by a square stone keep, the White Tower.

The Classic Norman Keep

Shortly after the Normans invaded England, they began building rectangular stone keeps all over the island. The White Tower at the Tower of London was begun in 1070, and the keeps at Canterbury and Colchester about ten years later. These first classic castles were followed in the twelfth century by numerous such castles all across England. These castles include some of the most picturesque in the land, including Bamborough in the far north, Lydford in Cornwall, Dover on the east coast, Arques, Newcastle, Corfe, Loches, Chepstow, Kenilworth, Rochester, and many others. A typical Norman keep is featured in The Castle Builder’s Handbook and as a separate set of plans on the website.

Edwardian Castles

Edward I of England (1239-1307), son of Henry III, became king in 1272. He invaded Wales in 1277 and destroyed its autonomy by the Statute of Wales in 1284. To consolidate his conquest, Edward used the same technique that his fourth great grandfather, William the Conqueror, had used over two hundred years earlier in his conquest of England – he built castles. The Edwardian castles were the most powerful and most technologically developed of any castles ever built in Great Britain. Edward initiated the largest and most aggressive castle-building program in British history. His program lasted more than a quarter of a century. Edward remodeled three royal castles on the English-Welsh border. He captured and completely rebuilt three native castles. He also had four new “Lordship” castles constructed. Most significantly, he built ten new royal castles: Builth, Aberystwyth, Flint, Rhuddlan, Ruthin, Hope, Conway, Harlech, Caernarvon, and Beaumaris. Edward was an expert in castle construction. He personally surveyed every site for his castles and was usually present when the work on each castle began. The construction of the castles was under the direction of James of St George, regarded as one of the greatest architects of the Middle Ages. 

Edwardian castles were concentric castles, with a four-square inner castle surrounded by one or two lines of outer walls. The inner walls had strong round towers at each corner. Keeps were replaced by powerful gatehouses. The gatehouses were large enough to support the operation of large engines, such as a gigantic trebuchet, on the roof. Because starvation was a major consideration in a siege, the Edwardian castles were built with several postern (secret) gates to bring in supplies, make sorties, or escape if necessary. The inner bailey was designed to facilitate greater mobility of defending forces to move from one area to another. Caerphilly Castle was begun by Gilbert de Clare during the reign of Edward’s father (about 1267) and was completed at the beginning of Edward’s conquest of Wales. 

The Welsh made several desperate attempts to capture and destroy the castle while it was under construction. Caerphilly was built on an island in a lake, making the castle impenetrable when completed. Flint Castle (built 1277-1280) was an experiment in setting the keep forward to create a massive detached gatehouse. Although ideas from Flint were used in later castles, the idea of a detached gatehouse was not used again. Conway Castle was built 1283-1287 and Harlech Castle 1285-1290. Caernarvon was begun the same year as Harlech, but was not completed until 1322, after Edward’s death. Beaumaris was built 1295-1320 (this last castle was never finished). Edward also remodeled several existing castles throughout England into concentric forms. The most notable of these was the Tower of London.

Harlech Castle (the castle featured in The Castle Builder’s Handbook) was the last of the great Edwardian castles to be completed during the king’s lifetime, and exhibits the ultimate concepts in castle construction. It as been said that Harlech was the favorite castle of James of St George. The castle was located on an immense crag at the edge of Cardigan Bay in northwest Wales. It consists of a rectangular inner bailey with four powerful round towers at the corners and a massive gatehouse in the front center. The towering walls of the inner bailey were surrounded by much lower walls surrounding the middle bailey (the middle bailey was also referred to as the park or list). The walls of the middle bailey were made low enough that archers from the tall inner walls could shoot over them to the ground beyond.

The front approach to the castle was protected by a ditch, crossed by a bridge with a drawbridge at each end. The first drawbridge was protected by two small towers, making a partial barbican (a small forward castle). The second drawbridge was protected by a larger front gate in the outer wall surrounding the middle bailey. 

The right and back of the castle were defended by a long outermost wall surrounding an outer bailey. The land sloped rapidly in the outer bailey, and the approach to the back of the castle is by a long flight of stairs. This part of the castle is not shown in the plans but can be constructed as a temporary wall.

As long as the harbor was open to the castle, Harlech Castle was unassailable. During the Welsh rebellion of 1294, thirty-seven men defended Harlech against the entire Welsh army. The castle fell to Owen Glendower in the early 1400s, helped by a French fleet that cut off supplies from the sea to the castle. Forty men, the famous “Men of Harlech,” defended the castle against Glendower. In 1409, it required a ferocious attack of 1000 professional soldiers, led by John Talbot, to retake the castle for the king of England. As late as the 1640s, Harlech was the last of the royalist castles in Wales to fall to parliamentary forces. Even during this Civil War, the Harlech garrison was only fifty strong. This is the ultimate definition of a castle: a stronghold that can be held by a minimal number of soldiers against a much larger and stronger force.


One of the major considerations in determining the size of the castle is what size of soldiers will be used with it: 1/32, 1/64, 1/72, 1/132 scale, etc. Conversely, the scale of the soldiers will be determined to some extent by the physical size you have already set for the castle. Selecting soldiers is not an easy proposition. Medieval knights in some of the scales are not all that easy to come by. Noncombatants – serfs and castle workers –are not available at all, except perhaps from very expensive specialty museum model companies. The small figures (1/72, 22 mm) allow for the construction of smaller castles, but the detail is not as good as with some larger figures. Middle-sized figures (1/64 scale, 25 mm) are small enough to make relatively small castles and are large enough to have good detail. However, these figures are among some of the most expensive. Larger figures (1/32 scale, 54 mm) usually have the best detail and are the easiest to play with. However, at present, this is the most difficult scale to find figures. The 54 mm scale figures are what we typically think of as “toy figures.”In making suggestions on castle occupants, I will confine consideration to two types of soldier: the classic medieval knight and soldier in armor, and the classic “toy soldier,” that is, the 18th century Napoleonic soldier. If the former is your choice then the typical medieval castle will be the best. If you choose the latter then it would be better to include the later additions made in castles for cannon placements, or the specific cannon forts. In cannon forts, the sides were sloped to deflect cannon balls.

There are several companies around, which can be found on the internet by searching for “toy soldier.” I purchase my figures from three companies:

The Michigan Toy Soldier Company
1406 E 11 Mile Road
Royal Oak, MI 48067

Silver Eagle Wargame Supplies
4417 West 24th Place
Lawrence, KS 66047

Games Workshop
8 Neal Drive
Simsbury, CT 06070

Michigan Toy Soldier has the greatest selection of 1/72 (22 mm) figures, at the best price (less than $10, including shipping, for a box of 30-40 figures). They also have a limited number of 1/32 (54 mm) figures at a reasonable price ($15 for 12 figures). They have figures from many periods, such as Roman, Celt, and Egyptian armies (all 1/72), which are difficult to find elsewhere. They have figures in lead and rubber. Silver Eagle offers 1/64 (25 mm) lead figures. There are few from the medieval period – the most common early figures are from the 17th century. However, these figures can be painted, with striking results. The price is reasonable ($1 or less per figure). Games Workshop is the source for Warhammer Fantasy miniatures in 1/64 (25 mm) scale. These are plastic, with some lead, and are larger and more detailed than other 25 mm scale figures. For example, although the men are actually 25 mm – the same height as other 25 mm men – they are thicker and more detailed than other figures. Horses from this company are twice the size of the rather undersized horses offered by other companies in the 25 mm scale range. These are probably the best, most detailed figures available and they paint up beautifully. There are also lots of fantasy characters available, such and fairies and goblins. They are somewhat limited, however, in the range of available figure choices. They are also the most expensive ($1.50 to $35.00) per figure.No matter which type of soldiers you decide to use in your castle, it is important that you purchase at least one figure in your scale of choice before beginning construction. That will allow you to make the battlements, and other features such as arrow slits and windows, just the right size. Throughout the construction guide itself, I will assume that you have chosen your scale and have a figure to work with, so I will limit any further reference to scale.

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