Haunted Histories

Creepy Castles, Dark Dungeons, and Powerful Palaces

J. H. Everett and Marilyn Scott-Waters

Henry Holt / Christy Ottaviano Books

1: Castles

Some kids think that castles in the old days were pink and filled with princesses and ponies. Guess what? Life back then was no fairy tale. I know ghosts who can prove it. They haunt the most terrifying castles in the world: Himeji (HE-may-gee) Castle in Japan, Krak des Chevaliers (CROCK DAY she-VAHL-yay) in Syria, and the Tower of London in England. I know why people built castles. I also know how castles helped to make the world we live in today. Let’s fly! But stick close—ghosts lurk around every dark and dripping corner.…
The medieval period lasted a long time (about the fifth to sixteenth centuries). It’s the source of many ghost stories in Western Europe. People believed in a great chain of being, meaning that everyone had a particular place in the world. If you were poor, you were supposed to be poor. If you were rich, you were supposed to be rich. Many people lived poor and died young from war, disease, and lack of food. During this period, the strongest warriors battled and claimed the best land. Everyone else lived and worked to support them. Peasants lived in mud and straw houses. Kings and lords lived in heavily guarded castles because they constantly battled other lords to keep their land and power. The most powerful people liked the idea of a great chain of being because it always put them at the top!
Lords placed castles on high hills and surrounded them with deep moats. They decorated the insides with treasures and with great tapestries to keep the rooms warm in the winter. Not all castles were made of stone, as you might think. For one thing, stone was very heavy, and it took a lot of work and money to quarry and build with it. It also took a great deal of knowledge to build castles out of stone. Many lords were fine soldiers and were called knights, but had few of the skills needed to design a castle. And conquering armies simply did not have the time needed to properly build a stone castle in between attacks. So lords built their castles out of cheaper and more readily available materials, like wood, straw, and mud—not much better than the peasants’ houses! Often lords had servants paint the wood to look like stone.
To scare enemies away, lords placed heads of criminals and enemies, dipped in tar, on spikes above the gates and along the road to the castle as a warning. They also displayed the bodies of condemned prisoners in gibbets, nasty iron cages hung outside the walls of the castle grounds.
Now that we’ve got the basics of castle design and purpose, let’s check out a few sinister sites and dig a little deeper. Follow me to Himeji Castle, the fortress from which the shogunate (SHOW-gun-ate) ruled the entire western region of Japan. A shogun was a powerful military leader who ruled as part of the emperor’s family. Oh, and I should warn you, we’ll meet a spirit there. She’s usually in the foulest of moods.
Himeji Castle
It may look beautiful, but Himeji Castle has a chilling history. A military fort has existed on the site since 1333, about 160 years before the European explorer Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas. A local warlord started building a castle on this site in 1346 to protect lands from roving foot soldiers called samurai.
In 1601, a Japanese lord named Ikeda Terumasa completed the castle’s construction for the Tokugawa family shogunate. Terumasa had married the shogun’s daughter and distinguished himself in battle. His father-in-law sent him to Himeji in western Japan to complete the castle and to subdue the local warlords, bringing them under Tokugawa’s control.
Tokugawa gave Terumasa 3 million bushels of rice to pay for the completion of Himeji Castle.
Himeji was five levels high, built on a hill, with three moats. Each moat was more difficult to cross than the last. The hill and moats were designed to slow down and tire out enemy soldiers. The halls were like mazes meant to confuse enemies who got inside the buildings. Narrow stairwells and corridors prevented soldiers from swinging swords. This beautiful castle was never successfully attacked. It was the perfect castle to control and expand landholdings for Tokugawa.
Himeji Castle’s most famous ghost is the spirit of fourteen-year-old Okiku. She is known as a yuurei, a traditional Japanese female ghost who seeks revenge for the wrongs done to her. These ghosts, known for their screaming, are particularly unpleasant to meet. Her specter now rests in the bottom of the castle’s bloody well.…
Okiku was not always a hideous spirit of the dead. In life, she was a servant for the lord of Himeji Castle. Her job was to protect ten precious golden plates. When she warned the lord that assassins were plotting to kill him, he imprisoned them.
But then, one of the jailed assassins escaped and sought revenge on Okiku. He stole one of the golden plates and convinced the lord that Okiku was guilty of the crime. The lord became very angry and threw her into the well, where she died. Every day, before dawn, Okiku howls and counts the plates.…
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine … AAAHHHHHHHHhhhhh!
Because of the drama surrounding her death, Okiku’s story is a favorite subject for Japanese popular theater, Kabuki. Kabuki theater originated in the poorest areas of Japan in the early 1600s. But soon after it started, everyone from the poorest to the richest loved it.
Kabuki theater brought together all the different social classes of Japan. Just as in Western Europe, the Japanese feudal system placed people into different levels of power and wealth. These different classes almost never talked to each other, except at the theater. And now, in the grave.…
Lords built castles to control land. They operated courts and government from the castles, and used them to impress foreign enemies. But a castle’s main job was to protect the people living in it against attack. And even though a castle could be made of anything, strong stone walls always worked the best.
So where are the most awesome examples of the biggest castle walls that were meant to repel an enemy attack? Take a guess! Hint—they’re not in England. And not in Germany or France. In fact, some of the strongest castle walls are in Syria, in the Middle East. Are you ready for another quick trip? Hang on to your hoodies!
Krak des Chevaliers
Ah, the Krak des Chevaliers, meaning the fortress of the knights. This castle has stood since 1031. From the surrounding plain it is 2,300 feet tall and guards the only pass between Turkey and Lebanon. It once housed more than 4,000 soldiers. During the Crusades (Western European invasion of the Middle East) in 1142, an order of knights from Europe, known as the Hospitallers, took over the castle and expanded it. The knights in the Krak held back at least twelve major sieges. How did they pull it off? Let’s ask the spirits of the warriors who occupied it.
The outer wall defenses of the Krak des Chevaliers are among the best in the world. Even with the best siege technology and highly skilled armies, it was almost impossible to fight this castle and win.
But in the end, the Krak’s amazing defenses really didn’t matter. In 1271, the Mamluk, who were slave soldiers, attacked the Krak for more than a month. Sultan Baibars, their leader, then figured out a sneaky way to get inside. He forged a letter to the knights in the castle from their leader, the Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller, who was in Tripoli. The fake letter said that the Grand Master had negotiated with the sultan to grant the knights safe passage home to Europe. All the knights had to do was to give up the castle and go to Tripoli. Even though the Krak’s people had enough supplies to survive a year-long siege, they grew tired of the constant bombardment from Baibars’s war machines. They packed up and left. Baibars gave them no trouble as they went. Then he sent in the Mamluk to take over the empty castle. Pretty clever, huh?
Now that we’ve broken through the mysteries of the outside of a castle, it’s time to find out if it was really any better to live on the inside of one. I assure you, living in a castle was not all silk mattresses and unicorn tapestries. In fact, castle life was absolutely disgusting. Ready to return to England? Here we go!
The Bloody White Tower of London
The White Tower, at the Tower of London, is a lodestone keep—the central tower of a castle. William the Conqueror originally had his builders construct it out of wood in 1078 to claim Britain as his own and to control rowdy Londoners. Later, William and his successors decided to make the Tower the strongest fortress they could, so they expanded it by adding stone walls. Because London was the most important city in Britain, the Tower became the most important castle.
Castles were military strongholds built for war. But kings also lived and worked in them. Earl William fitz Osbourne is thought to be one of the men who helped design the White Tower and many other castles for King William I. The king made fitz Osbourne an earl in 1067, giving him one of the first aristocratic titles in England.
What did castles look like on the inside? Pretty unpleasant. The king designed the White Tower to have the best that the world had to offer in the eleventh century (everything a lord could desire). Loads of explosives and weapons, smoke-filled rooms, a place to hang hunted meat, a dungeon, and even indoor toilets … sort of.
Nasty Business
1. Gotta go? Tower residents called the bathroom a “garderobe.” It was a stone seat with a hole in the middle. Waste ran right down the outside of the castle wall.
2. You smell what? Servants and workers in the castle took baths only a couple of times a year and often had just one set of clothes for most of their lives.
3. Don’t swim in it! People dumped all their garbage and waste, including animal guts, in the moat.
4. Are you hungry? Salted meats (dead animals) hung in all the kitchen areas.
5. Are you comfy? If you were a servant, you lay on the floor or leaned up against a wall to sleep.
6. Sweet dreams! If you did get to sleep in a bed, it was probably infested with bedbugs.
Here are the ghosts of two young princes in the Tower: Edward V, age 13, and his brother, Richard, Duke of York, age 10. Edward was the crown prince at the time of their disappearance. It is said that they still haunt the Bloody Tower today. And, even though they are often seen playing and laughing around the castle grounds, their last days at the Tower were less than happy.
Edward was supposed to become king of England in 1483. Instead, his uncle Richard captured the boys and held them prisoner. Soon after, they both disappeared. Many people said that their uncle (who became King Richard III) killed them. Other people think that Edward died and Richard escaped. The Tower may have kept many kings safe, but these two young princes learned that it could be murder to live there.
The keep and other buildings in a castle helped to protect the families of the lords, their armies, and their servants. They also provided a place for business and politics. But the rooms weren’t comfortable by today’s standards. Garbage, waste, bug bites—how dreadful! And what happened when things got really hard for people living in castles, such as when a castle was under attack? Let’s zoom back to Syria to find out.…
Living Through a Siege of the Krak des Chevaliers
Welcome to the year 1271, just outside the siege camp of Sultan Baibars. He is about to attack the Krak des Chevaliers. Things look serious. Women and children are filling clay pots with flammable goo and sharpening giant arrows.
Slave kids and adults are walking in giant war machines. Men and horses ride siege towers right up to the castle to help their soldiers get over the walls. The defending knights in the castle are busy loading spears into springalds, giant crossbows on the top of the towers. They are also heating up giant pots of oil. The fight is about to begin.
Six of One to Win!
Dig a trench under the walls and light the walls on fire.
Poison the castle’s wells and cut off the drinking water.
Launch fire pots and fire arrows into the castle.
Build big machines like siege towers (wooden towers to lift soldiers over the wall), mangonels (machines to hurl big stones), and trebuchets (giant slingshots) to smash through castle defenses.
Build a battering ram to crash through the front gates.
Use germ warfare—toss diseased dead animals over the wall.
So, what did the richest kids do in war? They trained to be knights, lords, and ladies like their parents. The lord and lady of the house encouraged their children to become defenders of the family lands and wealth. Many of them didn’t think much of school.
The Ostrogoths, also known as the Goths, were an empire of barbarians (according to the Romans) from the area that is now Germany. By the sixth century, they had a kingdom of their own. Procopius was a famous historian who recorded the history of the Goths. Queen Amalasuntha was a Goth queen. Here is what they said about school.
It may sound fun to miss school, but the Goths figured a child was better off getting his head smashed in instead of reading books!
One of the things kids got to do in war was to hurl insults at the enemies. The Goths were famous for their insults during battle. Historians have learned that many of their insults are still used today. The Goths actually called people sissies! Just as it means today, the word meant that someone was weak and unmanly.
Castles were all about war and controlling territory. They helped kings and lords hold the land that they won in battles and gave them somewhere safe to live while they fought to gain more land and more power. As we have seen, most castles were not known for their comfort.
Castles helped to define the borders of a lord’s land, and eventually strings of castles defined entire kingdoms. Over time, those kingdoms became the countries and states that we know today.
In battles, armies captured enemies, and those prisoners needed to be put somewhere. How better to deal with enemies than a wickedly gloomy, fear-inspiring dungeon? I warn you—spirits who died in dungeons are particularly nasty. Step lively, now.…

Copyright © 2012 by J. H. Everett and Marilyn Scott-Waters