A Portcullis could be described as a very heavy Wooden Grille, Gate, Door, etc. A Portcullis was usually made of strong wood such as Oak and was sometimes plated in metal, in later medieval times most Portcullis were plated in metal probably iron.
The Portcullis was usually very heavy and was held suspended in the air by a pulley and winch mechanism that was controlled on the first floor of the gatehouse by the castle guards. The portcullis was ready to be released at the first sign of danger. The castle Portcullis was particularly important when a medieval castle found itself under surprise attack as a barrier could quickly be put in place whilst the castle defences were organised.
“The name Portcullis is French in origin and comes from the word porte coulissante which is a “sliding door”.
The Portcullis was first introduced in Roman times before the medieval period, although similar devices were used the portcullis did not become incorporated into the castle design until around the 12th century. The final stage of a portcullis development found it being incorporated into the actual drawbridge, at this stage the portcullis would work in tandem with the drawbridge mechanism and act as a counterweight to it.
The Portcullis was used to protect a castles entrance from attack and was usually positioned at the front of a castles gatehouse, it created yet another barrier to protect the people inside the castle from enemy attack. The Portcullis was always in a state of readiness, ready to be dropped from it’s suspended position by the castles gatehouse guards, this was very important when thwarting surprise enemy attacks.
Portcullis were made of heavy wood, to improve the design metal plating was added to the spiked ends and in later medieval times the whole of the portcullis was plated with metal.
The Portcullis fortified the castle entrance and was winched into place by the gatehouse guards, the chains or ropes were pulled which raised the Portcullis along vertical grooves built into the stone at either side of the entrance.
Using this winching mechanism the Portcullis could be raised quickly, but the main advantage was how quickly the Portcullis could be released. The portcullis came down with a thud once the holding ropes or chains were released. The Portcullis was perfect for stopping or delaying attacking armies whilst the castle’s military regrouped.
Castles could have any number of Portcullis, one, two, six, etc and this was dependent on the size of the castle and the era in which it was built. Highly complexed medieval castles like concentric castles that had an inner and outer wall usually had many Portcullis as they had several entrances.
Typically a Castle would have a Portcullis at the main entrance and a secondary Portcullis further back. Where there was a gatehouse passageway the second Portcullis could be positioned quite a distance from the first Portcullis. Multiple Portcullis helped to give the castle’s entrance more protection from attack and they were also sometimes used in a tactical way, to trap enemy troops in gatehouse passageways for example.
The Portcullis could be used in a tactical way to trap enemy soldiers in the gatehouse passageway. If there was more than one Portcullis, one at the entrance and one at the far end of the gatehouse passageway, for instance, soldiers could be lured into a long gatehouse passageway if the entrance Portcullis was left raised.
Once the enemy soldiers were inside the gatehouse passageway the portcullis could be dropped, or both Portcullis could have been raised and dropped at the same time.
Whichever system was used the enemy was well and truly trapped inside and had no escape, from the hot liquids that were poured and heavy objects such as stones thrown at them. The enemy usually found themselves being fired upon by the castle’s crossbowmen from the gatehouse passages walls at the same time, there was little chance of surviving the onslaught.
We hope you enjoyed this article on the medieval Castle Portcullis, if you would like to learn about other castle parts as well as Castle Portcullis, please see the castle parts articles links at the bottom of this Castle Portcullis Page.