Castle Rushen, Part 1: The Medieval Castle

Castle Rushen is situated at the centre of the Isle of Man’s historic capital, Castletown. This is one of Europe’s most finely preserved medieval castles.

By Manx National Heritage

Castle Rushen (19th century) by unknown artistManx National Heritage

Its origins are in the Norse period when Norse Kings fortified a strategic site guarding the entrance to the Silverburn River. The earliest evidence of construction on the site dates from about 1190, when a square tower was built.

Castle Rushen (19th century) by George William CarringtonManx National Heritage

The castle was expanded and its defences strengthened by successive rulers of Mann between the 13th and 17th centuries. Throughout those years, its towering limestone walls would have been a continual reminder to the local populace of the dominance of the Kings and Lords of Mann.

Entrance to the Castle

Castle Rushen follows a concentric plan: it presents a series of defences, one inside another, with the strongest at the centre. The outermost defence is the glacis, which originally encircled a moat. The moat—a dry one—encircled the high curtain wall. 

Today, the castle is entered through the heavy wooden gates in the curtain wall on the east side of the castle.

Glacis

A glacis is a natural or artificial slope that serves as a defence. At Castle Rushen, the earthen glacis was built up against the wall surrounding the moat to deter attacks by battering rams and other types of siege engines.

Towers and Wall Walks

In medieval times, archers or gunners would have been positioned atop the round towers flanking the gate and along the wall walks topping the curtain wall. From there, they could rain down arrows and missiles on approaching attackers.

Barbican

Inside the gate is the barbican, a fairly narrow passageway between high walls leading to the main gatehouse. The barbican zig-zags right to left to impede would-be attackers from making a direct, massed, frontal assault on the gatehouse.

At the Heart of the Castle

Castle Rushen’s keep is the oldest part of the castle, with stones dating from the 13th century, the period of the Viking Kingdom of Mann and the Isles. Over the centuries, the keep grew from a simple rectangular tower to the awe-inspiring structure it is today.

The keep’s outer walls are 3.7 m (12 feet) thick at the base and 2.1 m (7 feet) thick at the top. The tallest of the keep’s 4 towers is 24 m (80 feet) tall.

Inner Gatehouse

Guard houses flanked the entrance to the inner gatehouse. The soldiers attached to whoever held the castle spent most of their time here—conveniently, since it was their duty to protect and defend the keep.

Portcullis and Drawbridge

The entrance to the keep is protected by a double portcullis—two spiked grates, one behind the other, that could be lowered to trap intruders. The simple bridge connecting the outer gatehouse to the keep entrance was once a drawbridge.

Outer Gatehouse

The outer gatehouse, protected by its own drawbridge and portcullis on the barbican side, would have been constantly manned by a dozen soldiers or more. From the gatehouse they could access the barbican wall-walk via a stone spiral staircase.

Derby House

Derby House was renovated to use as a residence by James Stanley, the 7th Earl of Derby, Lord of Mann from 1627–1651. In later centuries the island’s governors lived in this building.

The Portcullis Chamber

The gatehouses were the workplace of the garrison who manned the castle. Very few soldiers actually lived in the castle. The majority lived in the town and, with the permission of the Lord or Governor, supplemented their wages by trading and farming.

Officials such as the Captain of the Guard did have lodgings in some of the sparsely furnished upper rooms of the inner gatehouse. This room is directly above the gatehouse entrance.

Longbowman

The longbowman wore hose, a jerkin, a mail shirt, and a close-fitting helmet. He carried arrows in his belt and a sword as a secondary weapon. All guards wore the badge of the Lords of Mann on their livery jackets.

Murder Hole

A cauldron of boiling water and one of burning sand were kept ready to pour down through the ‘murder holes’ in the portcullis chamber’s floor on any sorry intruder trapped between the two portcullises below.

The Castle Keep - Interior Courtyard

In the medieval period, the interior courtyard of the keep was a cramped and very busy area. This is where many of the activities of daily life took place. 

This is also where members of the household and local peasants under the lord’s protection must have huddled when enemies threatened the fief. 

The higher levels of the structure date from a huge building programme carried out by the Montacutes, Earls of Salisbury and Lords of Mann from 1333–1392.

Hearth and Chimney

To the left of the courtyard entrance is a huge hearth and chimney, almost certainly the remains of a medieval kitchen. Even after a kitchen was built above this area, it’s likely that food was cooked at this hearth, too.

Well

The well was probably not originally located where we see it today at the centre of the courtyard. But the castle would probably not have been built at this precise location if groundwater to feed a well hadn’t been available.

Bishop Wilson’s Cell

In 1815, parts of the inner gatehouse were altered for use as a prison. Even before that, the room to the left of the hearth served as a cell. In 1722, one of the island’s leading bishops was imprisoned here.

The Evolving Keep

Historians and archaeologists have examined the keep in great detail to determine when various parts of it were constructed. The stone stairs were an early 1800s replacement for a 14th century staircase.

The Medieval Kitchen

The medieval kitchen is located in the West Tower above the courtyard hearth. It has an open fire and cooking spit, a plank table for preparing food, a water barrel, and a ‘sink’ with a chute for the disposal of slops.

Gamebirds and cured meats might once have hung from the wooden beams and hooks, and herbs would have been hung to dry. The staircase outside the door leads directly down to the courtyard and the well.

Preserving Food in the Medieval Period

All across Europe in the Middle Ages, food was preserved in summer to carry people through the long winter. Common food preservation methods included salt curing, pickling in salt brine, smoking, cooking in gelatine, and drying.

Vaulted Ceiling

The vaulted ceiling is a key characteristic—though not an innovation—of Gothic architecture, a style of architecture that originated, just like Castle Rushen, in the 12th century. Vaulted ceilings date back to as early as the 3rd millennium BC.

Cobblestone Floor

The kitchen floor is made of cobblestones, now well worn down. When the kitchen was in use, the floor would have been strewn with rushes to soften it underfoot, to soak up spills and odours, and to cover the filth.

Battlements

Battlements are the defensive structures at the top of a castle. These might include walkways, parapets, crenellations, and machicolations. Castle Rushen was positioned strategically to provide clear views in all directions.

From the battlements, guardsmen could spot potential invaders from land or sea in plenty of time to alert the lord and the garrison. Up here, you get a good sense of the overall form of the castle, with the four towers standing out clearly.

North Tower Door

The north tower is the highest point of the castle. The heavy bolt on the door is a remnant of a period in the 18th and 19th centuries when the castle was used as a prison and ‘lunatic asylum’.

Garderobe

A garderobe was a small room used for storing clothing and sometimes valuables—so, a closet or dressing room. But garderobes also contained latrines. This garderobe was conveniently placed here for the use of soldiers on watch.

Crenellated Parapet

The parapet wall gave cover to guardsmen on watch. The wall is crenellated, with solid merlons punctuated with openings called embrasures through which arrows or missiles could be fired.

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