Last week I paid a visit to one of the smallest castles in England: Clitheroe.
Built around 1100 by a baron named de Lacy, Clitheroe Castle sits upon a steep motte in the rural heart of the Ribble Valley.
The purpose of this case study is to help you out with some ideas for your world-building and writing. We’ll first look at the castle’s features before exploring what life would have been like in the castle back in ye days of olde.
Clitheroe Castle didn’t see much action, probably due to its size and linked to that, its significance, but that takes nothing away from some of its cunning defensive structures.
The gatehouse is one of the most important parts of any castle and with Clitheroe you certainly get that impression. Two features stood out for me: the gradient and the tunnel.
Any sort of incline would have made it more difficult for a besieging enemy. It’s harder to gain momentum for a charging battering ram when running uphill. The tunnel is even more cunning. The roof of the gatehouse is now made of solid wood, but presumably, there would have been wooden hoardings crafted with murder holes for arrows, pitch and fire. The longer the tunnel, the bigger the kill zone.
I wondered whether there would have been two doors, one either end of the tunnel. Maybe a portcullis too. It makes sense if you think about it. It grants the defenders more time to pick off their attackers while they’re in their most vulnerable position.
One of my favourite buildings of the castle was a little further down from the gatehouse, near the bottom of a short road leading up to it. On approach, it looked like a shed. Then I spotted these arrow loops.
For archers firing from this kind of window, the line of fire was down or straight ahead, which is why the highest loop in the left-hand picture is shaped in such a way. The bulbous ends are called oillets, or observation holes.
The cross-shaped loop is to allow archers (you probably guessed it) to fire sideways. It’s easy to imagine charging up the hill toward the castle to meet a hailstorm of deadly needles, and unless you’ve got the skill of Legolas, there’s not much you could have done to abate it.
Sitting at the highest point is the castle’s most striking structure: the tower. I was debating calling it a keep, but as you can see from the photos below, it’s pretty cosy inside. There would have been more than one floor, of course, but still, you couldn’t get that many in. And in times of trouble, this was where the people of the town came for safety.
It’s hard to appreciate from the photo, but the height of the door was low. I’m six foot one and had to stoop. The average height back in 1100’s was about five foot three.
Around the tower is a curtain wall. In between is a drop of about seven or eight feet and a fairly wide space before the tower walls to allow those atop the tower to unleash a tempest of arrows. You’ll notice the tower has four higher points which jut from the wall by half a foot or so to give a greater vantage point and better angles of fire.
What do you make of the brickwork? It seems quite spontaneous, but it’s stood the test of time. I find it quite pleasing to the eye.
On a couple of sides, the walls have buttresses. The purpose of a buttress is to secure the walls to protect from undermining—the process of tunnelling under the wall to bring it down. This could have been one of the biggest threats to the Clitheroe’s tower. Given the steepness of the hill (as we’ll see below), attackers could have dug forwards into the earth below the tower, instead of down, making the task much easier.
The incline of the hill makes for a terrific defensive feature. Not only does it give a view for miles around, allowing you to see any approaching attackers, but the steepness is in parts almost vertical. My calves were certainly afire by the time I got to the top. Imagine having to charge up that to then try and bust through the gate.
Life in the castle
Making up the rest of the castle is a great hall, courthouse, chapel and stables, some of which have been converted into a terrific little museum. The exhibits cover the entire history of Clitheroe, from the first settlers right through to today.
The section to do with the castle delivered plenty of insight. Here’s how the Normans built their towers, which is what Clitheroe’s would have looked like.
I took a picture of this extendable ladder (right, below) because I thought it both genius and hilarious. Would you use something like this in your stories?
When do you go to a castle and not see a sword? To my dismay, this time. Not even a plastic one to play pretend. The best I can do for you is the collection of clubs. They all date to the 1800s, so not too medieval, but how different could a club be? I’d say a medieval club would have been pretty close to the bottom one. Crude.
I enjoyed the section on folklore and myths and witches (weird things interest me, what can I say?) Here’s the tale of the Pendle Witches, a sad and illuminating tale about what life would have been like for women, and a few men, in medieval Clitheroe.
They saved the best until last. A fine tribute to the father of fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien loved this part of the world and spent a few years living and working at a college not far away from the castle named Stonyhurst. It was during these years he was writing Lord of the Rings. Did Clitheroe Castle inspire him, I wonder?
I enjoyed this castle expedition. It helped me a lot, and I hope it helped you too. I think I’ll visit more. I have the whole of Lancashire in my sights, York and Durham too. Plenty more for you to sink your world-building teeth into.
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