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.