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Norman Castles

Last updated: 3 September 2010

In Northern Ireland the Normans built two main types of castles:

1. Stone castles

John de Courcy founded a number of castles and constructed his most important ones in stone. These were at CarrickfergusOpens in New window, County Antrim and DundrumOpens in New window, County Down.

Carrickfergus Castle

Carrickfergus CastleOpens in New window was begun in the period 1177-1181 with the building of a large keep (stone tower with very thick walls) and a high defensive wall enclosing an adjoining courtyard. The courtyard contained a number of buildings, including a chapel and a two-storey hall for entertaining guests. The keep, which stood beside the hall, served several functions. On a simple level its height made it a very good watch tower from which to spot trouble for many miles around.

More importantly, it was a safe base from which de Courcy and his men could aim to dominate eastern Ulster and it also provided living and working accommodation for his family and most important officers. The keep had four floors. On the ground floor there was storage space and a well. On the first floor was the main entrance, accessed from outside by a flight of steps, and a scene of general coming and going with servants, soldiers and the lesser status visitors.

Guards stood watch over the stairs to the upper two floors, only admitting those of correct status or with proper business. The second floor was a large open hall where the daily business of the castle and de Courcy’s lands was managed by his chamberlain. Above this was the third floor which existed as a private space for de Courcy and his family. At that time, de Courcy’s private hall at the top of the castle was one of the largest and best appointed spaces in Ireland.

Carrickfergus castle grew progressively outwards under de Courcy’s successors in the 1200s with the addition of two more enclosures, known as wards.

Go to our Places to VisitOpens in New window section to find out more about Carrickfergus Castle. You can even take a Virtual Visit while you're there!

Sketch of a reconstruction of the keep at Carrickfergus Castle
Figure - A reconstruction of the keep at Carrickfergus castle

Diagram showing the phases of building at Carrickfergus Castle
Figure - Carrickfergus castle – phases of building

Dundrum Castle

Dundrum CastleOpens in New window, situated closer to the southern borders of de Courcy’s lands, may have begun life as an earth and timber enclosure around 1177. However, by 1180 it was being upgraded into a stone-walled castle. It too saw further additions during the 1200s. The round keep added by Hugh de Lacy is particularly impressive.

Go to our Places to VisitOpens in New window section to find out more about Dundrum Castle. You can even take a Virtual Visit while you're there!

Sketch of a possible reconstruction of Dundrum Castle in the later medieval period
Figure - Possible reconstruction of Dundrum Castle in later medieval period

2. Earth and timber castles

This type of fortification made up the vast majority of castles in the new Norman territory and tended to be occupied by military garrisons and the chief tenants of the earldom. Although archaeologists recognise different categories of earth and timber castles the most common type in Northern Ireland is known as the motte or motte-and-bailey castle.

Mottes are large mounds of earth with flat tops and steep sides fully enclosed by a deep ditch. The deep ditch and steep slippery sides were aimed at keeping out attackers and the flat top was a base for a wooden stockade enclosing a small wooden tower from which archers could operate. The ditch would be crossed by a drawbridge and the top of the motte accessed by a continuation of the bridge or by steps.

Once the steps and bridge were removed, the site could become quite secure against small raiding parties. Sometimes attached to mottes were additional defensive enclosures, known as baileys, which were also surrounded by a ditch and a bank topped with timber stockade. Elsewhere, baileys would typically have contained timber buildings, such as a hall, stables and a barn.

In Britain, the vast majority of mottes were built with an accompanying bailey but in Northern Ireland only around 25% have one. Archaeologists believe that this happened because the baileys in Northern Ireland were not used for ordinary living but for a military purpose, housing small garrisons rather than the lord’s hall and agricultural buildings.

In the absence of a bailey in which to build his accommodation, the lord then occupied a small hall erected on top of the motte. Perhaps the lord lived in a nearby timber hall during the day and retired to the safety of the hall on the motte in the evenings. Whilst mottes were rarely built elsewhere in Europe from the late 1100s on, they remained popular here and in other troubled areas like the English-Welsh border lands.

Sketched reconstruction of a Motte Castle
Figure - A reconstruction of a Motte castle

Sketched reconstruction of Clough Motte and Bailey Castle, County Down
Figure - A reconstruction of Clough Motte and Bailey castle, Co Down – note the tower and hall on top of the motte

Map of Mottes in Northern Ireland
Figure - Distribution of Mottes in Northern Ireland