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Castles were mainly built as a center of fortification and defense. Usually castles would guard a strategic geographical feature such as a river concourse, mountain pass, harbor or important tract of land.
Medieval warfare actually saw more castle seiges than actual pitched battles. Castles served not only as the home for an important lord, monarch or noble, but also as a major political seat and center of planning. Castles were also the hearts of most trade, commerce and industrialization in the area it governed.
The Romans built the first castles, mainly out of the earth. They usually featured a surrounding ditch and in the center, little more than a few wooden structures. The ditch served as a major obstacle for invading forces and eventually gave way to the water-filled moat.
As the Normans and Anglo-Saxons began spreading across Europe, stone castles began springing up throughout the lands. William The Conqueror was one of the most prominent castle-builders in history. Mainly building towering structures out of stone and mortar, his first constructions proved to be incredible and nearly impenetrable strongholds.
During later years modifications were made to the construction of many castles. Series of walls were built around them in addition to the moats and the entry passages were built in a series of mazes that led to the main keep. Those who lived in the castle knew the routes but invaders who managed to get inside were often lost for hours and at the mercy of archers posted on the walls above.
When the moat became a common feature it further hindered the progress of invaders. The moat was a man-made ditch that surrounded the castle and it was usually filled with water. The only access to the castle was through a drawbridge which when pulled shut, stood vertical along the castle face or wall. Castles that were built without moats usually protected their entries with a portcullis. This was a huge and heavy iron gate that was raised and lowered by a series of pulleys and chains.
While castles developed into massive strongholds new ways of conquering them were also invented. Seige engines such as the catapult, trebuchet and ballista were built to fire huge stone projectiles at the walls in order to bash them down. Sometimes dead carcasses of animals were slung over the walls in an attempt to spread disease within the castles. It was also common to shoot flaming bales of hay over the walls to set fire to the keep.
When these measures failed an invading army would often just encamp outside the castle and provide a steady flow of reinforcements. Eventually they might succeed in starving out the holders of the castle. However this practice could take months or even over a year as castles were well stocked and provisioned.

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