Castle or palace: Can you spot the difference?

Dunnottar Castle ruins in Stonehaven, Scotland
Dunnottar Castle ruins in Stonehaven, Scotland

Castle or palace: Can you spot the difference?

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

An old saying goes “my home is my castle,” and this applies even when a property is, shall we say, something less than palatial. Even the most modest of dwellings is expected to offer its residents warmth, shelter, privacy and security. Locks on doors and windows, gates, fences and sometimes an alarm system are the means by which we protect our spaces from would-be thieves and those who might seek to do us harm.

Our modern-day domiciles have something in common with all those wonderful ancient castles that dot the European landscape and continue to delight us today: they share the imperative of keeping those who lived within castle walls safe and secure. The builders and architects of days of yore had some pretty inventive, if not gruesome, means to deter invaders. Let’s take a brief look at how some castle features, so appealing to the eye today, were actually meant to repel and kill:

Location: There’s a reason castles tend to perch on rocky crags overlooking rivers and valleys. A vantage point from on high was the best way to spot an invading army from afar. And sheer cliff faces are hard to scale up completely unnoticed. Some castles, such as Burg Trifels in Annweiler, Germany, were originally built into the very stone on which they stood. Such castles are referred to as rock castles (Felsenburgen). Another example of such is the Fleckenstein Castle in the Vosges mountain range in northeast France.

Moats: A deep and broad ditch surrounding a castle was a preliminary line of defense. Moats frustrated enemy efforts to dig tunnels or place battering rams directly against the castle walls. Sharp stakes sunk into the water served as an unpleasant and unanticipated hindrance. Another way to make sure enemies steered clear was to make the waters as foul as possible by filling them with sewage or the corpses of dead animals. Clean moats, on the other hand, could double as fish ponds.

Drawbridges: To cross over the moat, wooden decks with a hinged edge on the bottom would be built into the gatehouses guarding the entry points. These massive wooden doors could be raised or lowered with ropes or chains. It would likely be backed by a “portcullis,” a latticed grill gate made of wood or metal that slides down into grooves set into the jamb of the gateway.

Murder holes: Holes in the ceilings of gateways or passageways allowed defenders to drop rocks, shoot arrows or pour harmful substances such as tar or boiling oil onto the heads of attackers.

Slit windows: The long, narrow apertures built into the castle walls are referred to as arrowslits. They were wider on the inside to allow the defenders of the castle to shoot their arrows from various angles, while their narrow outer width made it hard for the enemy’s weapons to hit their target.

Crenellations: Also referred to as battlements, these are what resemble a line of gapped teeth along the top of the castle wall. The raised parts provided cover, while the open spaces allowed the defenders of the castle to shoot unimpeded.

Spiral staircases: Medieval castle builders constructed staircases in narrow clockwise spirals for a very important reason. As the majority of the population is right-handed, the central pillar in the middle put those on their way up at a disadvantage as it inhibited their ability to cut wide swathes with their swords. Steps of mismatched heights were intentional, another way to trip up an enemy.

While we can all recognize a castle intuitively, scholars and historians have struggled to definitively define them. Some suggest a castle must have a free-standing keep, a fortified tower that served as a residence and refuge of last resort. A broader definition of a castle calls it a large structure built for defensive purposes before the use of gunpowder rendered many of those features obsolete.

Now that we’ve established the basics about what makes a castle a castle, let’s see what makes a palace deserving of its lofty label.

Palaces are generally sumptuous properties intended to serve as the homes to royalty, heads of state or church officials. Often surrounded by lavish landscape gardens, their interiors are finished in luxurious materials such as gold, ornate stones and inlaid wood. While we might think of ballrooms and banquet halls, mirrors, chandeliers and tapestry, there’s no single defining element that makes a property a palace. Palaces aren’t designed to withstand attacks but rather provide comfort, elegance and prestige to their residents.

Over-the-top mansions of the super-rich or aristocracy can qualify as palaces. Many palaces of yesteryear have been put into use as hotels, museums or seats of government. In past and present Italy, a grand urban residential property is called a palazzo. To live in one of these grand houses, one needs plenty of cash but not necessarily a title.

So, the question of the day is . . . castle or palace? Let’s look at three iconic properties to see which word applies:

Château de Versailles: King Louis XIII decided to rebuild his modest hunting lodge outside of Paris in 1631, and three years later, the basis of Versailles as we know it today had been laid. This property made up of gardens, parks, the Trianon estate and a château with 700 rooms and 67 staircases, including a Hall of Mirrors, still ranks amongst the most lavish large homes in the world. A true palace!

Marksburg: Set on a rock 300 feet above the town of Braubach, the only hill castle on the Rhine to have escaped destruction has been lived in for over 700 years. The imposing fortress with buildings mainly from the 13th to 15th centuries features a keep, kennels, bastions, armory, wine cellar, towers and battlements. Many consider Marksburg the epitome of a medieval castle.

Neuschwanstein: With its first foundation stone laid only in 1869, Neuschwanstein was never designed to repel enemies or withstand sieges. It was borne from Ludwig II, King of Bavaria’s notion of rebuilding an existing ruin “in the authentic style of the old German knights' castles,” as he wrote in a letter to Richard Wagner. An imitation of 13th-century Romanesque style with interior elements modeled after Byzantine architecture, Neuschwanstein is neither a medieval castle nor a faithful copy of one. Yet castle is what we call it, even if it doesn’t technically meet the criteria. But does it really matter, in the end? Whatever you may call it, you’ll no doubt agree, the place is pretty incredible!

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