Medieval castles dot the landscape of many European countries, some more intact than other, all of them offering a truly unique experience if you visit them. Even though not all of them have been restored, being medieval castles, impressive massive structures, built to endure sieges and assaults, they are all influencing the landscape in which they reside dramatically.
Since Antiquity , fortifications were an effective means of controlling the terrain around you , it could be used to garrison soldiers and control traffic along the nearby route. After the Roman Empire fell , fortifications became important for the protection and defense of villages and delimitation of frontiers and borders, and since then, instead of one great empire , many smaller kingdoms and duchies needed to control their allotted land and built as many forts and castles as they could have been given by their resources. The age of castle building began in the early middle ages , so the classic image of a castle emerges from then on , and continues until the end of Renaissance when the fire power of guns and cannons required a new design in fortifications changing the shape of walls ,towers and bastions for the new age of gunpowder. A few countries have more castles then others , but most European countries have them , since during the middle ages wars happened throughout Europe, but notable castels in western Europe are in Great Britain , France , Germany , Italy and Spain while in Eastern Europe you can find some impressive medieval castles in Poland, Romania , Czech Republic and Hungary, or at least the typical western castles that are the standard image for a castle. Below are of some of the most interesting top 10 medieval castles that you must visit.
1. Château de Vincennes
We start off with a famous castle , built during the 13th century , the castle that we see today is largely due to the 15th century renovations and extensions . Vincennes is one of the famous castles thanks to its military gothic architecture of the late middle ages and for the events which took place here. England’s Henry the V died here , ending his claim to the French throne and his death beginning a new phase of the Hundred Years War. Here was also the place where the spy Mata Hari was shot during World War One . It was used as prison and dungeon throughout the ages , and turned into an arms factory in the 19th century. During the debacle of 1940 , it would serve as marshal Gamelin’s Headquarters, just as the Wehrmacht was breaking through the Ardennes . Located in eastern metropolitan area of Paris , it easy and accessible. If you are ever in the French capital, it constitutes one of the many reasons to visit the city. From the top 1o Medieval Castles its easily one of the most recognizable and most easy to gain access in.
Most medieval castles were autonomous and so no wonder Vincennes has a gothic church within its compound.
2. Chateau Gaillard
While in Paris , if you have time take a north-west trip to upper Normandy and visit Richard Lionheart’s greatest military complex in northern France. The castle is famous for having incorporated in its planning the concept of the then new concentric planning and is among the first to use machicolations . Built by Richard the Lionheart while being acting Duke of Normandy and King of England , it help fill a gap in the Normand line of fortifications facing the french fortifications of Philip Augustus as the main threat was from that part of France. The castle changed many hands until finally in the 15th century at the close of the Hundred Years War it finally fell to the French. Having lost its strategic significance it fell into disrepair and ruin. Even in this final state of the decay , the military complex is an awesome site to behold . It’s number 2 in our top 10 medieval castles because of the grand initial plan anthe fact that Richard spared no expense in building it.
3. Krak des Chevaliers
One of the most complete castles of the early -high middle ages , with its large military complex intact , Krak des Chevaliers is a monument to the importance of border defense in middle ages. Built by the Crusaders near Homs in today Syria on top of an old Kurdish fortress , it was finished between 1142 and 1170 by the Knights Hospitaller , and was a pivotal fortress against Nur ad-Din the emir of Aleppo and Damascus and later against Saladin . It was situated in crusader state of Tripoli . It was located between the County of Tripoli and the Principality of Antioch facing east the Seljuk Turks and later the joint muslim forces of Salah ad-Din , it managed to endure untill the late 13th century with a garrison of full 2000 men , and completely controlled the adjacent area . The Castle finally fell to Baibars in 1270 heralding the end of European interference in the middle east through the use of Crusades and the collapse of the Crusader States as a whole. The castle today is largely intact with the romanesque and gothic details still visible on the inner facades of the cloister and court-yards . It is an impressive site and offers a unique view into the history of the Crusades. Of the 10 Medieval Castles this one is not really in Europe but is a standard concetric european medieval castle even if it is in Syria and well worth visiting.
The medieval castles built by the knights Hospitaller are generally impressive and after the Krak des Chevaliers they would go on to build many more fortresses in the path of the ottomans, culminating with Valetta.
4. Eilean Donan
Located in Scotland on the isle of Donan where 3 lake meet : Loch Duich , Loch Long and Loch Alsh. A prime example of Scottish Gothic castle architecture , built during the 13th century as a stronghold for the clans Mackenzie and Macrae it was demolished during the Jacobite rebellion of 1715 when ships bombed the castle reducing to a ruin. It was rebuilt between 1919 and 1932 and opened to the public in 1955 . It has since been the location for filming in some popular movies like Highlander and The World is Not Enough. Scottish medieval castles are unique and borrow either from Gothic and Romanesque architecture or Renaissance, and come in both large and small examples like keeps and towers. Unlike other medieval castles that rely on strong walls and ramparts this example relies on the lake itself to keep invaders at bay.
5. Castle Grandson
The list would not be complete without mentioning a Swiss castle, especially since Switzerland has many medieval castles and towns still intact. Grandosn Castle was built during the 11th century and gradually improved and reinforced throughout the ages as many castles were. The Lords of Grandson began to decline and by late 15th century Jaques de Savoy count of Romont and Lord of the Vaud gained it possession . However , he was a vassal of the Duke of Burgundy and sided with the Duke , Charles the Bold against the Swiss. The Confederates then occupied the castle as it guarded the road to Bern along Lake Neuchattel. Charles then led his vast mercenary army to besieging the castle , and then executed the garrison after their surrender. The Castle change hands again when the Swiss routed the burgundian host in front of the castle. Today the castle is intact and houses an impressive collection of armor and automobiles . Medieval castles in Switzerland tend to reflect the building tendencies of their northern french and german neighbors . This means that most of them have Gothic details and due to the Milanese also preferring the Gothic style until late in the 15th century few Renaissance influences ever crossed the Swiss border. Hence their medieval castles echo italian , savoyard or german designs and some castles were not built by the swiss themselves, these lands having been aquired later.
6. Three Castles of Bellinzona
Switzerland again and this time not with one but with three castles. Castelgrande , Montebello and Sasso Corbaro make together the fortification system built by the Dukes of Milan to counter the expansionist nature of the Old Swiss Confederacy. Border disputes caused the milanese to fortify Bellinzona against the Swiss , namely the canton of Uri which tried repeatedly to invade and capture the city. Folowing the battle of Arbedo in 1422 the swiss were defeated and Bellinzona remained some time in milanese hands. This prompted them to enhance and reinforce the fortifications of the city , after the French occupied Milan in 1500 , the city rebelled and joined the Swiss Confederacy. So not one , not two but three medieval castles that are basically on the same spot for you to visit.
7. Conwy Castle
Built by Edward the first after his conquest of Wales in late 13th century , the castle is a fine example of 13-14th century military architecture, being part of the larger Conwy fortified town complex. It withstood several sieges and rebellions by the welsh . It also played a key role in the English civil war when it was partially demolished in 1665. Interest for its remains grew in the 19th century but it would only be extensively rebuilt by 1953 . Famous among english medieval castles , that played a large part in making the interest toward meidieval architecture agrow at the turn of the 20th century.
8. Castle Stalker
Well the name in a way sums it up as we are talking about a lonely tower-keep in the middle of a lake in Scotland. The Castle was built during the early 14th century and has been restored during 1908. Its scenic and picturesque image has attracted many tourists and painters and is featured in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail . Like many Scottish medieval castles , this one is no more than a lonely tower/keep that capitalizes on the lack of accessibility providing a strong power center for the local nobles. As was the case for some medieval castles, it had to not just command an important route or a town through the use of high ground but also to hold out during a siege, and being on an island in a lake has its advantages, so as far as medieval castles go in terms of defense this one has terrain and nature on its side.
9. Colditz Castle
Built in Germany during the 11th century , the castle suffered throughout numerous sieges and was badly damaged during the Hussite wars. But the Castle would be rebuilt and from 1524 onward it began to adorn a renaissance style for the facades, however its more notable for the part it played during world war two when it was a notorious prisoner of war camp. Many of the higher ranking allied officers were imprisoned here. Although a high security camp , because of the prisoners who mostly were specialists in escaping , the camp had high rate of successful escapes.like many other medieval castles it served as prison one way or another, but because of a higher degree in comfort thanks to its renaissance influences that emphasize the living element rather then the defense , it was also a sanatory before world war two. For the part it played in world war two and the renaissance renovations it is in our the top 10 medieval castles.
10. Castle Itter
Located in Austria and built in 13th century castle Itter has a unique neo gothic look since it was remodeled by its owners in the late 19th century. Just as Colditz , durin WW2 it was prisoner of war camp that housed a lot of the important figures of the french Third Republic like marshal Gamelin and Weygand but also the former prime ministers Edouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud. The castle took some damage when it was liberated by allied force just 5 days after Adolf Hitler’s death when the senior french staff was rescued. Although most medieval castles have a scenic view , Itter is truly in a fairy tale like setting, and like other medieval castles , was transformed several times throughout its long history. The castle is unique through the fact that it retains some old gothic details but it was rebuilt as a comfortable mountain residence , in accordance to late 19th century standards. Unlike other austrian medieval castles this one resembles more a residence then the former seat of power of a lord , so its unsurprising that it housed the french staff and government of the third republic.