Palace architecture is a recognizable feature of medieval life that survives today. However, the buildings and the life within reveals much more. We are what we consume; our choices of buildings and spaces, clothing, food, tell us much about the values we hold. That is true today, and it was true in the Middle Ages.
Castle at Dover
In 1188, King Henry II of England welcomed some of his nobles to join him at a feast to celebrate the completion of his great castle at Dover, towering over the white cliffs that guard the coast of England. Henry had spent a fortune during the previous decade building this castle—about 8,000 pounds on the construction (that’s about $10 million in today’s dollars). His total annual revenue was only about 13,000 pounds.
When we consider the palaces of the wealthy in other parts of the world, we do not see the stone fortresses that characterized western Europe. Many of the wealthy, and rulers, chose to live in cities. The cities were protected by great stone walls, leaving the palaces designed with comfort in mind.
This castle was strategically placed on the coast, and it was a showcase of technology.
The great tower in the center of the fortified castle grounds had three floors, and the second floor housed the great hall where the nobles gathered.
This is a transcript from the video series The Middle Ages around the World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Great Hall at the Dover Castle
The great hall was the most public space of the castle. Here was where the king transacted business, held entertainments, and ate formal meals.
The hall had an open hearth where a fire burned for light and heat, and smoke filled the room, drifting out through the small slits in the stone walls. There was no glass covering the windows, and in the cold north, the wind blew in unimpeded.
By the 13th century, fireplaces were invented to clear the air from the rooms, and in the middle of the 15th century, Edward IV added a fireplace to the Dover castle hall. But in the 12th century, the smoke filled the room as servants brought food up from the great kitchens below.
Following the Hierarchy
The hall had a high and low end, and the royalty sat at a raised dais, where all could see them. After that, the nobles arranged themselves in order of rank down the table.
Men and women alike shared the great banquet. The queen and her ladies joined the king on the dais at the high part of the table—the area of honor—and the queen’s throne matched Henry’s in size.
In fact, when the lords of the castles were away—as they often were during local wars or long-distance crusading—women presided. The ever-present warfare in the West gave noble women considerable power. Even less powerful women than Queen Eleanor ruled their own castles and their own lands.
However, this autonomy didn’t mean women were equal; when the lord was back in town, he was in charge.
After dinner and entertainment, the king and his wife retreated to their private quarter upstairs, though private is a relative term, and modern notions of privacy didn’t exist in the Middle Ages. The royal couple had curtains that surrounded their bed, as much for warmth in the drafty castle as for privacy. Servants slept in the room and waited on the royal couple.
Palace Fashion in Medieval Europe
Men and women alike wore fashionable clothing appropriate to their rank. Because of the crusades in the 11th century, silks and exotic furs found their way to the chests of the nobility. Women often wore makeup, powdering their faces, and they curled their hair with hot irons.
Unlike the nobility in other parts of the world, who were more conservative in their dress, people in Europe embraced shifting fashions as the nobility wanted to signal their ability to wear new, dramatic looks. Women changed their dresses, revealing the tops of their breasts, and changed their hair coverings from modest scarfs to elaborate hats. Men, too, changed their look. They wore short and extremely tight tunics.
Some historians have drawn conclusions from clothing to values by arguing that changes in fashion mark a society that is open to change and creativity. If this is so, the medieval West was prepared for innovation. As the nobility gathered in the hall, they showed a range of fabrics, colors, furs, and style.
Marvels of Engineering
Within the castle, the nobility was relatively safe. The castle itself had concentric walls to prevent invaders, and was built over a well to provide water during long sieges. Europe was dotted with fortified palaces, for the homes of the nobility served as both homes and military fortifications. Castles were designed to allow the nobility to sleep well (if often in cold, drafty accommodations) in times of military insecurity.
These castles stood as marvels of engineering, and have become defining characteristics of the medieval West. However, these structures took their toll on the environment as great forests were cleared of timber to shore up the stones as workmen built. For example, records show that the castle of Windsor in England required the wood of more than 4,000 oak trees in its construction. However, as castles rose all over Europe, their stone towers replaced many forests as prominent features of the landscape.
Common Questions about the Palace Life in Medieval Europe
The great hall was the most public space of the Dover Castle. The king transacted business, held entertainments, and ate formal meals there.
Unlike the nobility in other parts of the world, who were more conservative in their dress, people in Europe embraced shifting fashions as the nobility wanted to signal their ability to wear new, dramatic looks. Some historians have drawn conclusions from clothing to values by arguing that changes in fashion mark a society that is open to change and creativity. If this is so, the medieval West was prepared for innovation.
During the medieval times, a castle had concentric walls to prevent invaders, and was built over a well to provide water during long sieges.