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A Duke’s Castle

Archaeologists have unearthed the ruins of a medieval castle and some of its contents.

A medieval painting shows a man being arrested outside a castle door with three other people nearby.

© The Picture Art Collection—Alamy

This medieval painting may show what the Château de l’Hermine looked like.

In the 15th century, a powerful duke abandoned his castle, leaving it to slowly decay. Archaeologists recently found the remains of this castle—along with artifacts its residents left behind.

The castle, known as the Château de l’Hermine, was built in the village of Vannes by John IV, Duke of Brittany, in 1381. Brittany is now part of France, but between the 10th and 16th centuries it was a feudal state, sort of like its own small country. Brittany was ruled by a series of dukes, and Vannes was its capital. The castle was used for about 100 years until it was abandoned by John’s grandson Francis II, also a duke. Another building was constructed on top of the castle ruins in the 1700s.

A large 18th century building with a lawn and flowers in front.

© Cezary Wojtkowski/Dreamstime.com

This hotel was built in the 1700s, on top of the castle ruins.

The newer building had once been a hotel. Archaeologists at the French National Institute of Preventative Archaeological Research (INRAP) were excavating the cellar and courtyard of the old hotel ahead of the construction of a new museum when they came across the castle ruins. 

Despite being buried for hundreds of years, the castle’s remains are well preserved, making it an incredible time capsule that reveals the life of a medieval duke. The building was about 138 feet (42 meters) long and 56 feet (17 meters) wide. Its walls were up to 18 feet (5.5 meters) thick. Like other medieval castles, the château was designed as both a home and a barrier against intruders.

Archaeologists uncovered several flights of stairs, leading them to believe that the castle may have been as many as four stories high. They also found latrines (early toilets) and drainage pipes, as well as a moat that surrounded the castle. The main part of the wooden bridge that once spanned the moat no longer exists, but its support piers do.

The moat held many items that belonged to the duke or his family, including metal dishes, jewelry, clothing, shoe buckles, pots, pans, keys, and padlocks.

INRAP says that the ruins are in unusually good condition. This suggests that John IV had the wealth and intelligence to build a castle that would stand the test of time.

“The remains indicate that John IV knew how to surround himself with the best engineers and craftsmen of the time,” INRAP said in a statement.

Fun Fact

A medieval castle’s latrine was often built above a hole in a wall so it would empty into a moat or river. The latrine was usually on an upper floor of the castle to prevent enemies from crawling in through the opening.

A latrine structure is built on the side of a castle wall.

© LIMARIO/stock.adobe.com

A Beautiful Barricade

A white castle has a shingled roof, multiple curved eaves, and a stone foundation.

© Shawn McCullars

During the Middle Ages, Japan was split into clans—groups of people related by blood or marriage. Each clan was ruled by a member of the nobility who spent a lot of their time worrying about being invaded by a rival clan or a military leader called a shogun. Like many European rulers, Asian rulers built castles for protection.

Since Japanese castles were constructed from wood, many of them are no longer standing. One exception is Shirasagi Castle, or White Heron Castle, in the city of Himeji. White Heron Castle was originally built by the Akamatsu clan in the 14th century. As ruler after ruler took control of the castle, they added more to it. The structure that stands today was completed in 1609. 

It’s easy to think of a castle as a single building, but White Heron Castle is a complex of 83 buildings, interspersed among high walls, passageways, and staircases. The layout isn’t meant to be impressive or beautiful—it’s designed to be confusing. Would-be invaders ended up in a maze of passages full of dead-ends that would slow them down long enough to let castle guards fire on them.

White Heron Castle gets its name from its white eaves, which resemble a bird taking flight. The castle is white because its wooden walls are covered in plaster, which has helped the structure withstand fires, earthquakes, and wars for hundreds of years.

Safety Over Comfort

A stone castle sits high on a cliff.

© Darren Turner/Dreamstime.com

There’s a lot more to know about how castles were designed and defended during the Middle Ages. Check out Britannica to learn why medieval Europeans thought these fortifications were necessary.

WORD OF THE DAY

rampart

PART OF SPEECH:

noun

Definition:

: a tall, thick stone or dirt wall that is built around a castle, town, etc., to protect it from attacks — usually plural

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