For this week’s Medieval Monday post, I thought I might share the information I’m currently researching for my work in progress. We are pretty familiar with castles through pictures, movies, and if we’ve been lucky, tours of the real thing. We also know something about ordinary living structures that peasants lived in (see related post). But there is another class of structure that is somewhat more elusive, and I’ve been doing some digging to find good information on it. I’m talking about the towerhouse.
Some classify these as castles, but they didn’t have all of the components of castles or keeps, nor were they ordinary houses. Still standing examples of them are rare, and any supporting structures that once existed around them even more so. Towerhouses were built by wealthy lords to be fortified homes. They were meant to protect the lord, his family, servants, guests, and valuables–mainly from would-be marauders rather than from organized armies. Such homes were typically constructed in remote areas that were difficult to get to and had some strategic importance. Sometimes towerhouses were built in isolation, but they might also have a town constructed around them, or they were expanded upon over time to become part of a larger castle. They became increasingly popular toward the end of the medieval period, but for my own research I’ve been most interested in the earliest examples.
While no two towerhouses were precisely alike, their 3-4 story design and layout followed a distinct pattern. On the outside they were plain and rectangular with very thick walls, occasionally towers were built into the four corners for added space. There was no forebuilding or outer defensive wall, and the ground floor didn’t have windows. The ground floor was primarily for storage, perhaps even keeping some animals, and often had its own separate entrance.
The first floor was common living space with a hall and a fireplace built into the wall. Service rooms might be on this floor as well. Winding staircases would have been built into the inside of the outer walls, connecting the first floor to the upper stories in a way that made entry difficult for anyone who might breech the entrance. The second floor had private space—perhaps another hall, and sleeping chambers. If there was a third (or even fourth) floor, it would have contained another hall and space to house a garrison in times of siege. For security reasons, only the very top floor or floors would have had windows to let in light. There would have also been battlements around the top where guards could watch for intruders and rain down arrows, stones, hot oil, or other projectiles as necessary to protect the home.
Some towerhouses had kitchens on the main floor, but kitchens were a constant fire hazard so often they were in a separate building. Though it would seem towerhouses were completely self-contained, there were by necessity additional structures to support it, such as stables, buildings related to farm work, or even additional living quarters since space inside the towerhouse was at a premium. Guests staying in the main house might have to share sleeping chambers, or even beds, but it provided security that the outer buildings could not. Furniture seems to have been kept to a minimum, and interiors differed in decor–some were more lavishly decorated than others.
As I continue to research these unique homes and learn about what daily life was like inside of them, I will update this post or even make a new one if I find enough to make one. I did find a video tour of an Irish towerhouse for your enjoyment. Some components of the layout are different than what my research indicated was typical, but then again, no to towerhouses were the same, so some variation is expected, especially between regions.
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9 thoughts on “Medieval Monday: The Towerhouse”
Reading your article, I wonder how often the accessibility of the location played a significant role in the decision to build a tower rather than a full castle or fort. If it’s far from rivers and other bodies of water, moving the necessary stone and skilled laborers would have been difficult. Somewhat surprising to hear that the garrison would be above the main area. I would think the owner would want the soldiers as close to the ground level as possible, considering one would assume that’s how invaders would enter.
Certainly interesting to read. I can’t imagine a large number of people living in a tower, and depending on what is kept outside of the main tower, any attacking bandits might happily steal from those external buildings and leave the tower alone.
I think for some reason I always pictured any noble who would warrant such protection as traveling with a sizable military force as escort.
Interesting stuff. It’s funny how many things are regarded as “common knowledge” history, but they’re really convenient fictions employed by historical and fantasy storytelling.
Thank you for sharing.
This one has been a bit of a head-scratcher for me too. I’m trying to imagine how so many people could cram together in such a space and have any semblance of privacy (especially when guests are thrown into the mix). But then maybe the concept of personal space and privacy is more of a modern day, or even an American concern that wouldn’t have been such a big deal at the time. When I lived in Europe I was always surprised at how much tighter together everything was–including the amount of personal space strangers afforded each other.
From what I read location was certainly a consideration, but so was the wealth of the person building it. Very wealthy lords might already have full-sized castles elsewhere, and a towerhouse as an additional residence in an area where they wanted to keep an eye on things. On the other hand, lords without as much cash might only be able to afford to build a towerhouse.
Towerhouses also varied in size. The one in the video seemed really small, whereas some of the others I read about were many thousands of square feet and could hold a large number of people.
Not sure why they would house soldiers at the top, unless it was to give them fast and easy access to the battlements around the top floor. Better to wipe out attackers before they can even get to the door than try to hold them back from the inside or risk hand-to-hand combat on the outside?
I’m going to keep digging on this one. I feel like I haven’t gotten down to that level I like yet, where I can visualize what daily life was like. I may not ever get to that level. These houses seem to still have some mystery surrounding them, even for researchers. For my book, I will probably just end up creating my own version of life in a towerhouse.
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Always an option. After all, the diegetic world of your story is your own creation, and it’s resemblance to our own history is entirely at your discretion.
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My guess is that the army needed to get to the battlements and windows, as once the attacker was in the house, they could likely cause great trouble in the dark. Which makes the lack of furniture make sense. After all, lighting being what it was, one wouldn’t want a lot of things to trip over cluttering up the place. I wonder that the people would be outside as much as weather and danger permitted, for the light if nothing else, and as you said, the animals could be kept elsewhere so trips outside the tower would be essential to care for them, to scope out marauders, to fetch water, gather food/replenish stores. It makes me think of a man-made Masada, really, where it is a refuge but not a place you truly want to live (at least not comfortably). A visual and emotional comfort, as its security and remoteness inspires the sense that, no matter what happens elsewhere, one has a refuge.
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I’m sure that was true, especially for the early versions of these structures–more mini-fortress than pleasure home. I think much later on, after they’d gained popularity, they became more luxurious on the inside with comfort being of greater importance.
A very interesting post, Allison. You mention the closeness of people onver here. Remember that the US is a very big country and you have lots of space, her in the UK, at least, we have much less, We’ll fit into the Great Lakes! It is not surprising that we can put up with less space than you, over there!
I think that in the Middle Ages people would not be so worried about space. After all, they were dangerous times, and there’s safety in numbers.
Also, I remember reading that personal space in the countryside is greater than in the cities. Still, I wouldn’t like to live so packed together.
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Yeah, in Germany I eventually got used to being packed closer together than was comfortable when I was out in public. “Long Saturday” in particular was all elbows out, and no way to avoid getting jostled around by other shoppers. But at least I could eventually retreat to home where there was plenty of room. I can’t imagine “home” being so packed full that lots of people had to share rooms and/or beds. Bathing wasn’t an every day thing back then either, so the smell had to be horrible.