Castle Portcullis

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 particular 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.

  • Definition of a Castle Portcullis
  • What was the Purpose of a Castle Portcullis
  • Meaning of the word Portcullis
  • Defence of Castle using a Portcullis

Portcullis Meaning

“The name Portcullis is French in origin and comes from the word porte coulissante which is a “sliding door”.

History of a Castle Portcullis

The Portcullis was first introduced in Roman times before the medieval period that started around 476, 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.

  • Later Portcullis were plated with Iron
  • The Portcullis was assisted with pulleys and counter weights
  • Often a quick release mechanism in the form of a latch was used to quickly release a Portcullis
  • Medieval castle guards would strike a latch with a hammer to release the Portcullis
Portcullis Drawbridge Counterweight

The Portcullis was often used as a counterweight for the drawbridge

Purpose of a Portcullis

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.

Materials used to make a Portcullis

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.

How did a Portcullis Operate

Portcullis fortified the castle entrance and were 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 castles military regrouped.

How many Portcullis did a medieval castle have

Castles could have any number of Portcullis, one, two, six etc and this was dependent on the size of castle and the era in which it was built. Highly complexed medieval castles like concentric castles that had and 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 castles entrance more protection for attack and they were also sometimes used in a tactical way.

A Portcullis could be quickly raised

A Portcullis could be quickly lowered to stop surprise attacks

Portcullis used as a tactical device

The Portcullis could be used in a tactical way to trap enemy soldiers in the gatehouse passageway for instance. 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. However it was done the enemy was well and truly trapped inside, from the murder holes above hot liquids and heavy objects such as stones were thrown. The enemy usually found themselves being fired upon by the castles archers and crossbowmen in the gatehouse passages as well which was a highly effective way to kill them.

Where can you see a working Portcullis:

  • The Tower of London
  • Monk Barin York
  • Amberley Castle
  • Hever Castle

Did you know this about medieval castles Portcullis

  • The origins of the name Portcullis are French and come from the word porte coulissante (sliding door)
  • Portcullis were raised or lowered by pulleys and winches
  • Gatehouse guards were alert to attacks and quickly lowered the Portcullis
  • Castles could have numerous Portcullis and many entrances
  • Concentric castles had multiple entrances and multiple Portcullis

We hope you enjoyed this article on 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.

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