Medieval Castles advanced throughout the medieval period as new defensive parts such as castle drawbridges were added to them, one of the most effective medieval castle defences was a castle moat that had to completely surround the castle and was usually filled with water.
This created a problem as the inhabitants of the castle needed to be able to enter and leave the castle easily and so the solution came in the form of a medieval drawbridge. Castle drawbridges were usually made of wood and had to be long enough to cover the width of the moat, early medieval drawbridges were very basic and were moved by hand, later medieval drawbridges were much more advanced and used a mechanisms of pulleys and winches to raise and lower them.
Definition of a castle drawbridge ” A castle Drawbridge was a heavy wooden bridge that spanned the width of a castles moat or ditch, the Drawbridge was movable and could be raised quickly if the castle was under attack”.
What was the purpose of a Castle Drawbridge?
Defending a Drawbridge
Purpose of a Castle Drawbridge
The Drawbridge was needed so that inhabitants of a medieval castle could easily get in and out of the castle, however the main purpose of the Drawbridge was that it provided a way to stop enemies attacking the castle and prevented siege weapons being pushed towards the castles walls and gates. The drawbridge could be quickly raised under a surprise attack making it impossible for enemies to move in their siege weapons and soldiers, the moat would create the barrier but this was impracticable without the drawbridge.
In early times Drawbridges were basic and raised by hand
Later medieval Drawbridges used sophisticated pulley and winch mechanisms
Drawbridges could be raised quickly when the castle was under attack
Early Medieval Drawbridges were removed by hand or destroyed
The Medieval castle was pulled up quickly by a pulley mechanism
Castle Drawbridge History
Early medieval drawbridges were of a simple design and just used manpower to put them in place or remove them, sometimes they were destroyed and replaced. Later medieval Drawbridges were more advance and relied on a system of ropes (later replaced by chains) and pulleys. Large or very heavy drawbridges used counterweights to help in the raising and lowering of the drawbridge as the chains and pulleys could not cope with the weight, sometimes the portcullis (Wooden and metal plated grille door/gate) would act as a counterweight.
Defending the Castle – The Drawbridge
The moat was the first line of castle defence and the drawbridge completed the effectiveness of the moat. the early medieval drawbridges were basic but later medieval castle drawbridges would be raised by a pulley and chain mechanism that would raise the drawbridge into the castles main entrance, the gate would usually sit flush against the main gate and the main gate would be at front of the gatehouse which was added to medieval castles to strengthen this vulnerable part of the castle. An attacking army could be delayed by the moat as the drawbridge was raised they would be fired upon by the castles archers.
To attack a medieval castle with a moat, drawbridge and Gatehouse you might have to:
Get across the moat whilst being under fire from the castles archers and military
Find a way to get through the heavy raised drawbridge and portcullises (Grilled Gates) behind
Fight your way through the gatehouse passageway whilst under fire from archers
Survive hot liquids and heavy rocks being dropped on you from murder holes
Break down another secondary bolted gate and another portcullis
Battle against archers and other military behind the last entrance and deal with any other surprises
A medieval Drawbridge could be raised quickly if a castle was under attack
How did Castle Drawbridge Work
The Drawbridge in later medieval times tilted up as it opened and was pulled back by thick chains, as castles were so big in later medieval times the entrances needed to be large and this meant that drawbridges were big and heavy. These later drawbridges were introduced in the 14th century and were also known as “Bascule Bridges” .
Bascule Drawbridges needed a counterbalance to help then move them so that both ends moved in opposite directions, weights were added to help with this and the Portcullis (Metal Grilled Gate) that was positioned behind the Drawbridge was often used as a counterweight to help raise and lower the drawbridge. Ropes and later chains were used to lower and raise the castles drawbridge, these chains were connected to a “windlass” which was positioned above the Gatehouses passage.
Modern drawbridges are called “Bascule Bridges” and were introduced in the 14th century
Weighted counterbalances were added to heavy drawbridges to help lower and raise them
Some later drawbridges used the castles portcullis as a counterweight
A “Bascule” drawbridge was raised by “Gaffs” (lifting arms)
Working parts in later medieval drawbridges:
Gaffs and Rainures – held counterbalance Beams in place
Trunnions – helped the drawbridge turn
Windlass – The mechanism that lowered and raised a drawbridge
Did you know this about medieval castle drawbridges:
Alnwick castle in England used counterweights and a Portcullis system for it’s castle Drawbridge
Helmingham Hall in the UK has two 16th century Drawbridges that still work!
Drawbridges could be quickly raised in a surprise attack by the gatehouse guards
Roads that led to the castle usually went right up to the drawbridge
We hope you enjoyed learning about the history and purpose of medieval castle drawbridges, castle drawbridges were just part of a system of complexed defence systems that were built into later medieval castles and we suggest you look at our castle moat, barbican and Gatehouse articles to get a better understanding of these castle parts which will build on your knowledge of Castle drawbridges.