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Classification and Naming of Medieval Fortifications

At various times, various authors and authorities have used various classification schemes to identify the different forms of medieval fortifications. This, of course, has lead to confusion and attempts have been made to form an 'universal' classification scheme.

It should be noted in this web site the description of monuments is often derived from secondary sources which use various terms from different, and sometimes idiosyncratic, classification schemes.

The currently most accepted classification is the National Monuments Record Monument Type Thesaurus for which the terms used for medieval fortifications can be seen here.
This is rather dated and definitions of terms used are open to much debate.

Another classification scheme in use is the Monument Class Description of the Monuments Protection Programme, this has its problems but some of these are recognised and are under review. The terms used for medieval fortifications can be seen here.
This list is not without problems. Some classifications seem too broad; notable the term Tower House covers towers of different social and manorial status and Moats includes all moated houses of any social or manorial status. Some seem too narrow so that one building fits into several classes; consider any large castle such as Windsor or the Tower of London. Some classifications seem a little arbitrary; siege castles are included under Motte Castles, rather than Fieldworks.

There are some authors or field workers who faced with classifying a difficulty monument, such as a eroded mound, merely list all possible classifications showing no consideration to surrounding landscape, tenurial histories or other factors outside a very limited view of field archaeology. This practice rather negate the usefulness of classification schemes and it should be hoped that the holders of Historical Environment records would encourage professionals to exercise judgment rather than attempting to avoid making judgments.

Particular problems arise with all classification schemes in three main areas.


Motte has a broad meaning as any medieval 'castle' mound, either entirely man made from soil, pebbles or rough quarried stone or an adapted natural feature such as a hilltop, glacial mound or ridge end. Some mottes are adapted earlier manmade structures like barrows. Mottes vary enormously in size and form. The classic tall conical motte of the standard textbook, surmounted by a timber tower, is a rare motte form. David King stated the most common motte form is a low (2-3m high) platform, in effect merely an elevated building platform surrounded by a ditch. Some mottes, particularly in the Welsh marches, are very small mounds.

Whilst the prime function of all mottes was fundamentally the same - a symbolic representation of dominion - it is likely that mottes of different size and form functioned in different ways. The large conical mottes of major castles did usually have flat tops of a size able to house a significant building. Although called 'keeps' by many authors the idea of these being built as strongholds of last resort is fanciful, although this does not exclude a few being used this way. In most cases the building on these mounds were courthouses, as were the square norman towers of which these were an earth and timber equivalent, fundamentally places for lordly display of power and status. It was the bailey's of these large castles which containing the residential areas and the important military buildings of a blacksmith and stables, although the basements and undercrofts of the great towers were important storerooms.

The low mounds of most minor baron's castles were clearly the building platforms for all the significant castle buildings and, for these smaller castles, the residential hall and the courthouse were probably the same building. Whilst the minor castles of major barons or castles of minor barons or particularly wealth knights would have had some small garrison these would, normally, amount to little more than domestic security.

The small conical mounds of the marches are too small to have had any significant building on top of them. These mounds are often without an apparent bailey. Here these are almost entirely symbolic mounds built by knights who had been granted land for a 'knight's fee' of service (The wealth of these individuals can be judged by how often the service was for a half or ever a lesser fraction of a knights fee). These are sites with little or no real defence beyond a wooden palisade, no garrison beyond the knight himself (when there) and which functioned as farmhouses. The mound may have been surmounted by a token and symbolic tower which might have been, in practice, little more than a grain store. (see Minor Castles)

There is considerable difference between a major castle like Clun, which was garrisoned with knights etc and was clearly a centre for civil administration and a military base, and a minor castle like Rorrington, which was the farmstead of one of the knights owing service at Clun. To call both site motte castles leads to distortion and classic distribution maps (such as my own) do not really give an idea of how the military was actually distributed.

The difficulty here is similar to that regarding the use of the term 'Tower House' below. Building forms consisting of structures of a basically similar form but varying greatly in size and function are lumped together under the same title. The resulting confusion makes identifying the differences in social status and function more difficult. Thrown into this is the additional confusion of recording medieval siege mounds as motte castles.


The term ringwork has had a broad meaning of any ring shaped bank and/or ditch and can mean henge fore instance. Its use is now supposedly confined to the sense of a medieval castle with other terms like 'Ring Bank' and 'Circular Enclosure' being used for other monuments of a similar form but different date and/or function. It is also used for sites only partly enclosed by a bank and/or ditch (only sometimes called a partial ringwork) and by no means are all Ringworks are circular or even oval in form. Some authors have used the term Ring Motte or Ringmotte to signify a medieval castle but this term has been widely disliked. It also has, for some, become specialised in use to refer to Ringworks with a raised interior or alternatively as a type of ringwork with part of the rampart somewhat enlarged or elevated (As at Oakham Castle and Williams Hill at Middleham), a form that overlaps with the 'Barrage motte' described as an early motte form by Bas Aarts (Motte-and-bailey Castles of Europe: Some Aspects concerning their Origin and Evolution, in: Virtus. Jaarboek voor Adelsgeschiedenis 14 (2007), 37-56).

It should also be noted that mounds which have been damaged by excavations, erosion or otherwise, and particularly mounds which had masonry buildings which have collapsed or been robbed out may have a form very different to how the originally looked. (A motte around a wooden tower which has since rotted away may well have a depressed centre making the mound look like a small ringwork. A collapsed gatehouse on the edge of a ringwork may be so covered with earth as to look like a motte. etc.). In such circumstances it is likely that such a damaged site will get called a motte.

A good number of authors get around the problem of identifying ringworks by not bothering; they simply call all castle mounds mottes. This seems needlessly lazy and to call an obvious ringwork like Old Sarum a motte rather insulting to the intelligence of readers. In functional terms the difference between a ringwork and a motte are probably slight but that can also be said of the difference between a shell keep and a tower keep and no author giving a proper description of a castle would just refer to a keep without giving some idea of its form.

Tower Houses, Pele Towers, Pele Houses and Bastles

These terms, the generic term tower and the related terms (i.e. Bastle House) and alternative spellings (Peel; Bastel) are variously used by different authors to mean several different forms of building, quite often using the same term for different building and different terms for the same building, thrown in to this mess are the terms Strong House, Stone House and Fortified House which are generally used with less clear definitions to cover more vague monuments.

As far as this author can make out from the literature, and I welcome corrections on this matter, the following can be said:

A good number of authors, notably King, dislike the use of the term pele to refer to the smaller towers. In some cases the term originated as a reference to timber defences, probably specifically a timber palisade and was used with this sense in contemporary 13th century documents but it was, at least occasionally, in use for stone buildings of some form by the 16th century. The small and dated book of 1894 Peel: its meaning and derivation by George Neilson gives some contemporary examples. However, it should also be noted that the Celtic word pil can mean a fortified place and this does get spelt in various ways including peel. The antiquarian John Leland used the term pile, in the sense of heap of stones, quite often when referring to buildings, including tower houses.

King used the term 'Tower' to refer to both Tower Houses and Pele Towers, using the description to differentiate between buildings of different types. He used the Term 'Strong House' for fortified building that were not castles, towers or bastles; In effect Strong House becomes synonymous with 'Fortified Manor House' as used by most other authors but is probably justified since clearly not all fortified houses were of manorial status but this does not seem to have 'caught on' as a usage possibly because Strong House was a common synonym for Bastle. There can be some architectural similarities between pele towers built by wealth non-nobles and tower houses built by poorer members of the nobility but generally the difference in social status is clear in the buildings.

Philip Dixon in an article of 1979 writes, with considerable authority:
Among the surviving sixteenth-century structures two broad divisions are apparent: those in the first group are tall buildings, normally with battlements and all perhaps originally surrounded by courtyards containing domestic offices. Their builders called them 'towers' or 'hall-houses' or, occasionally, 'peles' or 'peels', and they are now normally called 'towerhouses'. Those in the second group may themselves divided into two categories: in the first place are large rectangular houses, sometimes with projecting staircase turrets and seldom with crenellations. Contemporaries called these 'bastles' or 'bastle-houses', or sometimes 'towers'. Secondly there are small roughly built barn-like houses with thick drystone walls. These were called several different names: 'bastles', 'stronghouses', 'stonehouse' or 'pelehouses' or more recently 'peles', and many in the sixteenth-century clearly regarded these names as interchangeable. Strict adherence to sixteenth-century usage is thus undesirable, but a recent account has taken the name 'bastle' to refer solely to to the smallest of the fortified houses (Ramm et al. 1970). This unfortunate practice excludes the very type of building normally called a bastle (see further Dixon 1972) ... the Scottish Royal Commission's useful distinction between 'bastle-houses' (large houses) [He uses the example of Doddington and Hebburn for this type of building.] and 'pelehouse' (small and rough houses, now often called 'bastles').
Thus Dixon (and it has to be said a number of other authors like Peter Ryder) seems to put under the one term 'towerhouse' that which other authors consider as two relatively distinct sets of buildings; Tower Houses and Pele Towers, but he also point out that the term Bastle also refers to two distinct sets of building. As he points out in Shielings and Bastles the term bastle is used exclusively for the smaller 'pelehouse' and later authors have generally followed this precedent rather than that of the Scottish Royal Commission (which itself now does not use the term 'pelehouse' but does continue to use the term 'Pele-House'), with 'true' bastle-houses being called 'tower-houses' or 'strong houses'. However, most authors (including Ryder) do not differentiate between bastles and consider Dixon's Bastle-houses as belonging to the Bastle class although at the' top' end of the group.

By Philip Davis. This page last revised 20 September 2014

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