Castle dungeons have a fearsome reputation in the modern imagination – they are dark, subterranean prisons, where unfortunate captives would be held in squalid conditions and sometimes subjected to horrendous tortures. However, this image is not quite true, and there are many myths surrounding the castle dungeons.
It is true that dungeons existed to hold prisoners (and that they certainly could not be described as luxury accommodation), but they were rarely the underground torture chambers that they are often imagined to be.
Although prisoners were usually held in the basement, there were also many cells situated in castle towers as well, and despite torture being common in the medieval period, it was not always carried out in dedicated dungeons.
A Guide to Castle Dungeons
Origins of Castle Dungeons
The word dungeon comes from the French term donjon, from the Latin for ‘lordship’. Donjon was actually a contemporary term which was first used in the 12th century France to refer to the central freestanding towers in castles that we call ‘keeps’ in English – donjon first appeared in English in the 14th century and had the same meaning as the French origin.
Academics still use donjon to refer to castle keeps, but in popular culture, the word has developed into the English ‘dungeon’, which is of course used to refer to medieval castle prisons.
This could be because castle prison cells were often situated within the tallest and largest tower, which was the keep or donjon – by extension, the name of the tower came to be associated with the actual prison itself, leading to us calling castle prisons ‘dungeons’ today.
Donjon and dungeon are what is called in linguistics ‘false friends’, words that look and sound very similar, but are very different in meaning, although they both have the same root in the Latin word dominus meaning ‘lord’ or ‘master’.
The equivalent term to a dungeon in French is oubliette, stemming from the word oublier (‘to forget’). An oubliette was a basement room which was only accessible from a hatch or trapdoor in the ceiling.
As with all prisons, castle dungeons emerged from the need to hold captives, whether political prisoners or enemy soldiers taken in war.
However, imprisonment was not actually a very common practice in the medieval period. Criminals who were sentenced were generally punished through fines, mutilation or death, and were rarely given prison time.
Only the very highest-ranking prisoners would actually be held for any length of time – feeding prisoners and making room for them in an already fairly cramped castle was an expense that would not be extended to common criminals.
Therefore, dungeons were generally cells used to hold prisoners on a short-term basis, such as when they were awaiting trial, punishment, or ransom. Nobles were not usually held in dungeons either, but in the luxurious accommodation of the castle itself – they would be free to move about the castle as they desired but would not be allowed to leave.
As the castle was heavily defended and fortified, escape would be very difficult. Furthermore, noble prisoners were sometimes exchanged as hostages (noble children, in particular, were often given as hostages), in order to secure and maintain a peace deal between lords and monarchs.
While technically prisoners, the hostages would be treated as honoured guests and be allowed to roam free. As it was in their interests to maintain the deal that their hostage-taking was predicated upon (as well as the fact that they were often children), lords who had hostages in their castle were rarely concerned about them escaping.
There was certainly no need to throw them in a dungeon cell in order to keep an eye on them.
Purpose of Castle Dungeons: Storage Rooms or Torture Chambers?
However, despite the fact that holding prisoners was not a common feature of medieval life, it did begin to occur more frequently as a practice from the 13th century onwards, and many later medieval castles were built with dedicated dungeons.
As the castle keep was used to accommodate the lord’s household and servants, and space was at a premium, dungeons and cells for prisoners were usually constructed in the least desirable places in the structure – the basements and cellars underground.
There were cells that were included on the upper floors of the keep, but most were on the ground floor or lower. As castles developed during the medieval period, stone keep castles based around a central freestanding tower gave way to concentric castles and other fortifications that featured a series of towers and curtain walls.
In these later castles, which began to emerge in the late 12th century, dungeons were constructed more often, and primarily took the form of cells built into the walls or rooms in the large gatehouses which became increasingly sizable and important in later medieval castles.
Taking prisoners in warfare, both for ransom and as a bargaining chip, became more widespread. For example, Edward I often took prisoners during his wars against Welsh rebels in the late 12th century, and many of his new concentric castles across the country featured dedicated dungeons.
The role of castle dungeons in facilitating torture has been much discussed. Torture was certainly commonplace throughout the medieval period, and various methods were used to extract confessions from those accused of crimes.
Prisoners could be tied to chairs and cut or pierced with implements, they could be stretched on a rack or submerged in water, and some methods even included exposing a victim to the elements or made use of rats.
Yet the worst excesses of torture, the ones that arguably form our modern ideas of dungeons and torture chambers, were practised by medieval and early modern inquisitions as they attempted to root out heresies against the catholic church in Europe and beyond.
By 1256, catholic inquisitors were given absolution from sin if they used torture on their victims, although there was certainly no medieval consensus on the legitimacy of torture as a technique.
Later in the late medieval and early modern period, torture was more highly organised and more widespread under the Spanish Inquisition.
These organised inquisitions utilised their own highly specialised torture chambers to interrogate victims, which bore little relation to the dungeons of a medieval castle.
These chambers possessed chimneys to funnel out smoke and curving walls behind long winding passageways to muffle the screams of prisoners.
The Palace of the Inquisition in Lisbon, Portugal, contained a series of cells through which prisoners would progress on their way to the torture room, with each room getting progressively smaller and darker to intimidate the accused into a confession before they reached the torture chamber.
In popular culture the idea of brutal torture taking place in squalid medieval dungeons is a strong one, largely thanks to 19th century fiction.
Although the first instance of the word oubliette in French dates from 1374, its first use in English was in 1819 by the author Walter Scott in his book Ivanhoe, where it was used to describe a darkened chamber.
Throughout the 19th century, romanticised studies of castles led to a fascination with the medieval dungeon, and the horror of torture was closely associated with them.
The dungeon represented cruelty and tyrannical rulers, while literary heroes and heroines, as well as other innocent characters, were imprisoned within them and sometimes tortured mercilessly. Alexandre Dumas portrays Catherine de Medici as mocking one of her unfortunate prisoners held in a dungeon in his La Reine Margot.
Naturally, dungeons were depicted as dank, subterranean holes similar to caves, as they were used as emotive literary devices to evoke feelings of horror in the reader.
As a result, many of our preconceptions of dungeons come down to us from 19th-century fictional depictions which are not entirely accurate.
It appeals to the imagination to label tiny underground rooms and small cells with strong doors as ‘dungeons’ when in fact identification is much more difficult, and they may have, in actual fact, simply been storage spaces or sealed rooms for holding valuables.
For example, underground rooms accessible only by a trapdoor in the gatehouses at Alnwick Castle and Cockermouth Castle in the north of England were originally thought to be oubliettes.
However, they have no latrines and the gatehouses both have plenty of rooms that could have been used to house prisoners, so it has been suggested that the underground chambers were used to store goods and valuables instead.
Appearance and Design of Castle Dungeons
Dungeons primarily took the form of very plain and simple rooms, usually with very minimal furniture and no decoration. They were small and often only had tiny windows, or no windows at all, so as to make the prisoner within less than comfortable.
These dungeon cells could be in the castle tower itself but were more usually situated at the base of the structure, either on the ground floor or below it in the cellars.
As castles became larger and central freestanding stone keeps waned in importance, gatehouses came to replace many of the functions of the keep. Accordingly, dungeons were moved to the gatehouse in later medieval castles.
An oubliette or ‘bottle dungeon’ was a smaller kind of cell for prisoners, although it is debatable whether these spaces were actually used as dungeons, or whether they were simply storerooms. Oubliettes were small underground rooms accessed by a trapdoor or hatch in the ceiling known as an angstloch.
To reach the chamber below, a person would have to descend using a rope or ladder. The oubliette itself tended to be tiny, and some even narrowed towards the bottom, meaning that a person would be unable to lie down inside. Some examples are so claustrophobic that any occupant would barely have been able to move at all.
It has been argued by historians that many of these spaces labelled as ‘oubliettes’ were instead storage rooms, intended to be used for supplies, or as water cisterns and latrines.
Famous Castle Dungeons
Originally constructed in 1068, Warwick castle was upgraded in the mid 14th century with a gatehouse, a barbican, and two new towers. The structure known as ‘Caesar’s Tower’ had a dungeon built underneath it. This basement dungeon is vaulted and accessed via a small staircase at the base of the tower.
There was only one small shaft high in the wall through which light could reach the dungeon, as well as a small window with an iron grille through which prisoners could be watched by a guard. A channel cut into the floor of the dungeon was the only sanitation the chamber possessed.
This fortification in West Yorkshire had a bloody history – both Edward II and Richard III had rebels executed there, and the castle was besieged three times during the English Civil War.
Pontefract has a large network of underground dungeons where prisoners were held, which were later used as storage rooms during the civil war. It is still possible to see where prisoners scratched their names into the walls of the dungeons 35 feet below the castle. These chambers were also reputed to be where the deposed King Richard II was murdered.
Although it started as a Roman fortification guarding the passes over the Alps, Chillon in modern Switzerland was also home to a medieval castle with a large vaulted subterranean dungeon.
During the 16th century, the dungeon was used to hold political prisoners – from 1530 dissident François de Bonivard was imprisoned there, tied to a column by a short chain, for resisting the Dukes of Savoy’s claim to his native Geneva.
British poet Lord Byron was captivated by the romanticism of Chillon’s dungeons and wrote a poem about de Bonivard in 1816. Byron’s signature can still be seen scratched into the masonry on one of the columns in the dungeon at Chillon Castle.
Built in the 14th century to defend Paris from attack during the Hundred Years Wars, the Bastille has several chambers which were used as dungeons to hold prisoners. Six new towers were added to the castle in the 1370s, each with an underground ‘cachot’ or dungeon at its base.
However, the Bastille’s reputation as a prison was perhaps more fearsome than in reality – prisoners were generally placed in the upper rooms of the towers, and the top rooms were actually the least pleasant as they were smaller and colder, being more exposed to the weather.
The rooms themselves were later described as being rather plain and basic, rather than uncomfortable, and much of the literature describing the Bastille’s dungeons as horrendous comes from revolution-era French sources, who sought to paint the king and the Ancien Régime in a negative light.
The dungeon at Carlisle Castle is a grim, cramped room with no natural light. As the castle was a stronghold in the border region near Scotland, the dungeons would have held many prisoners over the years – Mary Queen of Scots was even imprisoned in Carlisle, although in the castle itself rather than the dungeon.
In 1776, 90 Jacobite rebels were held in the dungeon and were forced to lick the damp walls of the cell to stay alive before their trial. The pitted walls of the dungeon can still be seen today.
This Norman Castle on the south coast of England featured four basement rooms in its four corner towers. Three of these underground rooms were accessed by a spiral staircase, but the fourth only has a trapdoor in the floor, through which a person would have to descend on a rope or a ladder. It has been suggested that this chamber may have been used as a prison cell, and represents a good example of an oubliette.
The Tower of London
Constructed by William the Conqueror as a statement of Norman power, the Tower of London was primarily intended to fortify London. However, there were vaulted dungeons underneath the structure that were, at various times, used to hold and even torture prisoners.
Most instances of torture occurred during the 16th and 17th centuries. Many noble prisoners were incarcerated in the more luxurious chambers of the tower itself – however, the most famous occupant of the dungeons was probably Guy Fawkes, who was tortured and executed for plotting to blow up parliament (and king James I) with gunpowder in 1605.