Motte and Bailey Castles Facts & Worksheets

Motte and Bailey Castles facts and information activity worksheet pack and fact file. Includes 5 activities aimed at students 11-14 years old (KS3) & 5 activities aimed at students 14-16 year old (GCSE).

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    • Historical background of motte and bailey castles
    • Parts of a motte and bailey castle
    • The decline of motte and bailey castles

    Key Facts And Information

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    • Motte and bailey castles were fortifications that had a wooden or stone keep situated on a raised area of ground called a motte, accompanied by an enclosed courtyard, or bailey, surrounded by a protective ditch and palisade.
    • They were relatively easy to build with unskilled labour, however, they were formidable

    Historical Background

    • These castles were built across northern Europe from the 10th century onwards, spreading from Normandy and Anjou in France, into the Holy Roman Empire in the 11th century.

    Historical Timeline

    • The Normans brought the design to England and Wales following their invasion in 1066, led by William the Conqueror.
    • After William defeated Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings, he struggled for five years winning battles against rebels in the north of England and building Norman motte and bailey castles everywhere, which consolidated his new realm.
    • Motte and bailey castles were adopted in Scotland, Ireland, the Low Countries and Denmark in the 12th and 13th centuries.
    • By the end of the 13th century, the design was largely superseded by alternative forms of fortification, but the earthworks remain a prominent feature in many countries.
    • Windsor Castle, in England, is an example of a motte and bailey castle.
    • It is believed that over 1000 motte and bailey castles were built in England by the Normans.


    • The word “motte” is the French version of the Latin “mota”, it was an early word for “turf” and by the 12th century it was used to refer to the castle design itself.
    • The word “bailey” comes from the Norman-French “baille”, it refers to a low yard.
    • In medieval sources, the Latin term “castellum” was used to describe the bailey complex within these castles.
    • Mottes were made out of earth and flattened on top. It is very hard to determine whether a mound is man-made or natural without excavation.
    • Some mottes were built over older artificial structures, such as Bronze Age barrows.

    Motte and Bailey Castles

    • In England, the first proper castles were the motte and bailey castles. They were a true European innovation.
    • While the concept of ditches, ramparts and stone walls as defensive measures is ancient, raising a motte is a medieval innovation.
    • The earliest of these castles were constructed from timber and earth alone. They were cheap and easy to build and didn’t require any special design.
    • The fortification consisted of a wooden keep that was placed on a raised earthwork called a motte, overlooking an enclosed courtyard called the bailey.
    • In practice, no two motte and bailey castles were exactly the same, although most of them shared these three elements: the motte, the keep, and the bailey. Some castles had more than one bailey, and a good example of this is Windsor Castle in England, where several baileys flank the motte. Alternatively, some other castles were designed with a single bailey and two mottes, such as Lincoln Castle. The design of each castle basically adapted to its natural surroundings.

    The Motte

    • The motte was a big earthen mound with a ditch surrounding its base.
    • It was often artificially made – it was built by piling up the earth, but sometimes it incorporated a pre-existing feature of the landscape, like a hill, for example.
    • Some of the largest mottes could be as high as 30 metres and as large as 90 metres in diameter, but they were rarely used. The reason for this was that it took an enormous effort to pile up such a huge volume of earth.
    • A motte was protected by a ditch that surrounded the area, and this would have been the source of the earth and soil for constructing the mound itself.
    • Mottes varied considerably in size, usually with the minimum height being at around 3 metres. In England and Wales, only 7% of mottes were taller than 10 metres, around 24% were between 5 and 10 metres, and 69% were less than 5 metres in height.
    • The motte was flattened on top in order for the keep to be constructed.
    • The steep embankment on the side of the motte was known as a scarp.

    The Keep

    • The keep on top of the motte served as the castle’s primary defensive element. It was always surrounded by a protective wall, be it from wood or stone. The smaller mottes could only support a simple tower but the larger ones could support more complex structures that often contain multiple rooms.
    • The keep on top of the motte was also the castle’s last line of defence and it was placed where the lord of the castle, and most likely his family, resided.
    • The largest towers were often equipped with cellars and granaries, more living rooms and rooms for the watchmen, and the servants appointed there.
    • It wasn’t uncommon for the tower to be built and then partially buried within the mound, with the buried part forming a cellar.

    The Bailey

    • The term bailey typically refers to the yard formed by the flattening of an area alongside the motte.
    • The yard was usually surrounded by a wooden fence called a “palisade” and then a ditch. The bailey was the centre of domestic life within the castle and could contain a variety of buildings, like halls, kitchens, stores, stables, a chapel, barracks and workshops.
    • The bailey was linked to the motte either by a flying bridge stretching between the two, or, more commonly in England, by steps cut into the motte. Sometimes the ditches were filled with water by damming or diverting nearby streams forming water-filled moats. The bailey was usually kidney-shaped to fit against a circular motte, but frequently, the terrain dictated its shape. Often, the ditch of the motte and the bailey joined, forming a figure of eight around the castle.

    Norman Influence

    • Motte and bailey castles were very popular for almost 200 years. The Normans were huge advocates of this type of castle design and this was also a decisive factor in their conquest of the British Isles.
    • Though these structures had a simplistic and relatively rough design, they were highly effective, having excellent defensive capabilities.
    • Attackers would often find out that the keep on top of the motte was extremely hard to capture as the height of the motte and the ditch surrounding it gave its defenders significant advantages.
    • Moreover, Norman designers found out that the wider the ditch was dug, the deeper and steeper the sides of the scarp could be, making it even more difficult for attackers.
    • The biggest advantage of the motte and bailey design was how extremely cheap and easy it was to build.
    • The designers could use an existing mound or hill for the foundation and this would often save significant construction time.
    • The construction itself didn’t require special materials, and the work could usually be carried out by unskilled men.
    • This meant that a motte and bailey castle could be built quite quickly using just local manpower, earth and timber.
    • This was the factor that allowed the Normans to consolidate their power very quickly, as they moved on to conquer each region.
    • As a mark of their success, there were around 1,000 motte and bailey castles built in England, Wales and Scotland.
    • These structures are of northern European design, and can also be found in Denmark and Germany, but also even in southern Italy, and occasionally beyond.

    The decline of the motte and bailey

    • By the end of the 11th century, these structures, especially the ones made out of earth and timber, began to fall from favour for various reasons.
    • Their biggest advantage, the fact that the primary building material was wood, became the greatest disadvantage. This was because timber burns easily. Even shooting firing arrows at the castle could have devastating effects.
    • Sophisticated fire-launching techniques were designed to burn down the castles and they were used with great success.
    • Also, the broad base of the mottes meant that attacks could come from any direction. Raiders would usually use this to their advantage and would often surprise the defenders inside the keep.
    • Timber also tends to rot easily, and many of these early castles ran into disrepair and were abandoned.
    • They were abandoned because they required extensive and often costly repairs and ongoing maintenance.
    • Small and medium mottes could not sustain a large keep, and this meant that living quarters were essentially small and cramped. This meant that there was little space to house soldiers and peasants, let alone the stature yearned for by many nobles.
    • In order for a large tower to be built, that would accommodate the lord and his servants, castles needed bigger mottes.
    • However, a large motte was very difficult to build as it took disproportionately more effort to pile up earth than in the case of smaller hills.
    • For example, a large motte is estimated to have required around 24,000 man-days of work, while the smaller ones required around 1,000.
    • These facts, alongside others, forced the noble class to forego the simple motte and bailey design and turn to more complex design principles to build the large castles that their status and people needed for economics, politics, and defense.
    • To avoid the perils of fire, improve durability, and increase the castle’s defence, the obvious solution was to replace timber with stone as much as possible.


    • The motte and bailey design gradually became less popular in the mid-medieval period, and from the end of the 12th century, a new scientific approach in castle design had emerged.
    • With this new approach, the great era of the stone castles had begun. Many motte and bailey castles were abandoned or allowed to lapse into disrepair. Those with wooden keeps rotted away, leaving a handful of odd-shaped hills scattered across the landscape – the only indicator that they ever existed.
    • However, not all of these structures were abandoned. Many of them were used as the foundations for the newly designed stone castles, and such, the motte and bailey castles morphed, and endured, for a couple of hundred years more.