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Castles of Britain

Dungeons

© 1995-2015 by Lise Hull
castle dungeon The word "dungeon" is a corruption of the French term, "donjon." Interestingly, a castle's donjon did not function as the prison. Rather, the donjon was the great tower, later called the keep. Normally, the great keep was a self-sufficient tower housing the lord and his family, which, at times, became a sturdy refuge capable of withstanding at least a brief siege. Over the centuries, the keep devolved from the castle's most formidable tower, to a storage tower, and then to a prison tower. Hence, the mutation of the French term.

Certainly, prisons were not meant for an enjoyable stay, even though nobility under house arrest were treated well and given plenty of freedom. Some, like Mary, Queen of Scots, could often come and go freely, as long as they were accompanied by a guard. Other political prisoners had the freedom to roam the passages of the castle, while some, like Henry Marten and Eleanor, "the Beauty of Brittany", spent years confined inside a prison tower.

Frequently, the castle's prison was located near or inside the main gatehouse to prevent the enemy from gaining access to the interior. Then, the guards could also keep a close watch over their captives. Nonetheless, many castles, like Pembroke and Conwy Castles in Wales, contained a special dungeon tower fitted with an oubliette.

The oubliette must have been an incredibly brutal prison, with or without the physical tortures that may have accompanied imprisonment. Known throughout Europe and even in the Middle East, these early castle prisons were usually shaped like slender cylinders. The only entrance into the windowless chambers was through a trap door in the ceiling, which opened into the floor of the guardroom above and was usually too high for the prisoners to grasp in an escape attempt. The doomed prisoners were tied to a rope and then lowered into the oubliette. They received food the same way. As indicated above, sometimes the oubliette sat below ground level. On occasion, the pit filled with water that seeped up from the earthen floor, making survival almost impossible.

The earliest known true oubliettes survive in France, at Pierrefords and at the Bastille, in Paris. The 11th/12th century Black Tower at Rumeli Hisari, in modern Turkey, contains an unusual variation. Prisoners were forced along a dark, lengthy passageway which ended above an opening in the floor through which the unsuspecting prisoners tumbled, never again to see the light of day. The Scots, on the other hand, fancied the bottle dungeon, a type of oubliette shaped like a bottle so that the prisoner could never lie down.

Contrary to popular belief, relatively few people were thrown into the pit prisons, however, many castles did function, at least for a time, as prisons. Of these, the Tower of London is probably the best known, having confined some of history's most notable characters.BR>