Medieval Monday: Motte and Bailey–Early Castles

When we think of castles we usually picture a large stone edifice in the middle of an open space that’s surrounded by one or two stone walls. And that’s true of later structures. But early ones, even those built by William the Conqueror and his followers immediately after the invasion of England in 1066 were wooden. And ones that existed long before that in the pre-invasion British Isles–were made of wood.

Motte with stone castle shell surrounded by the open bailey and wall, with the gate to the right. Launceston Castle, England.

Originally defensive in nature, these places served as either a lookout/defense against invaders or as a home. The lookout /defensive towers usually were just that–a single tower. The structures that served as residences were usually somewhat larger. But still considered defensive in nature. Thus, they were usually surrounded by a wall. At that time, the walls were also wooden.

Of choice, defensive structures and castles were build on high ground. When no such high ground was handy, a high spot was created. These artificial hills were known as mottes. The living structure was built of wood on that motte or hill and surrounded by the open space (bailey) which was in turn bordered by a wooden wall. Thus the motte and bailey castles of old. Although most of the castles built immediately after 1066 were wooden, it wasn’t long before they were replaced by stone ones.

Although much faster to build, wooden towers and castles and walls were subject to obvious danger–fire and easy undermining only two. Still these early dwellings were used for hundreds of years before the Norman Invasion, and modern archeology has found that often the later castles replaced the wooden motte and bailey ones of centuries earlier. Many of the stone replacements remained on the ‘motte’ or earthen hill.

Here are a couple of photos of what a motte and bailey looks like–as we can see from today’s ancient remains.

Clough motte and bailey Castle,(stone shell standing) County Down, Northern Ireland.

NOTE: Be sure to visit my fellow Medieval Monday Roses (The Wild Rose Press) Mary Morgan and Anastasia Abboud . They always have something interesting planned. You can find them here:



4 thoughts on “Medieval Monday: Motte and Bailey–Early Castles”

  1. Well, I’ve learned something, thank you very much! I always assumed that “motte” and “moat” are the same! Not so! Thank you for enlightening me, Barb! This is all so interesting and the photos are lovely. Wishing you a wonderful Medieval Monday!

  2. Thank you so much. I’ve heard the phrase but never really knew what it meant. I appreciate the information and the pictures!

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