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Basic Information

A gatehouse is a fortified (or at least secured) structure built around the gate of a castle or other fortification (or, in the modern era, any secure facility), to counteract the weakness created in the perimeter by putting a gate there and to house access control of one form or another.

There are practically as many ways of building a gatehouse as there are gates to be guarded - from a basic hole in the wall with a tower either side to something that is virtually a castle in its own right, with at least one barbican and extensive storage and accommodation. In general the bigger and more advanced the facility, the bigger the gatehouse. Some later medieval designs of castle - notably those built in the high concentric style - seem to consist mostly of gatehouse to the modern observer. In some cases the gatehouses have been known to outlive the fortifications of which they were part and many European cities have them as free-standing structures in the middle of a shoppping street that was once the entrance to the medieval town.

A medieval fortified gatehouse will necessarily contain at least one gate - materials of construction to depend on the resources available. Many will include multiple gates and/or portcullises to make the gateway harder to breach. "Murder holes" in the roof of the gateway, through which ranged weapons may be fired down at attackers passing beneath and stones and hot liquids dropped are also common features and some designs include pits between layered gates designed to trap and immobilise breaching siege-engines and arrow-slits permitting lateral fire into the gate passage. Larger gatehouses may also have doors opening from the gatehouse into the gate-passage - in peacetime these are used by the guards working access control to inspect incoming traffic. In wartime they allow sallies against the flanks and rear of enemy troops trying to fight their way in. In smaller gatehouses the same role is fulfilled by doors opening into the ward or bailey behind the gate.

It was not unknown for a gatehouse complex to continue resisting after other parts of the castle had fallen and/or after the enemy had forced its gates: just because the enemy have destroyed the physical barriers to their passage of the gatehouse, that needn't mean that the garrison has to stop shooting at them as they pass, nor must the fact that the bailey or even the keep has fallen mean that a gatehouse still capable of holding out need necessarily stop resisting1.

The modern gatehouse is typically less impressive, often consisting of little more than a hut for the gatekeeper to sit in, sometimes with facilities to open the gate without getting up, but in military bases can also contain duty offices, arms storage and even cells (given that this is often where the local provost unit is based).


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • This is, perforce, the first part of a facility that most people will see. This may also be the last, depending on why they are there.
  • In a fortified city or town this will be where entry taxes are collected and may contain other government functions as well … including guard offices and militia armouries.
  • Contrary to popular imagination, even in the medieval era, this was the most common location for jail cells.
  • Modern soldiers who behave in a cinematic manner are likely to become quite well accquainted with the inside of their regiment's guardhouse one way or the other - either by drawing extra guard duty by way of fatigues, or from being dropped in the regimental provost's cells.
  • In some bases, this may be where the armoury is located - this is particularly common in bases for non-combat arms units.
  • PCs defending against a siege might find themselves cut off in a gatehouse complex - do they try to break out back to the keep or fight on where they are until their supplies are exhausted. What about if the keep falls and they are still holding out?
  • Likewise the PCs could be on their way to relieve a castle, hear that it has fallen and then learn that the gatehouse still holds - or capture a castle and have to work around some diehards holding the main gate.
  • They could even be assigned to capture a gatehouse - either one that is holding out as above, or as a coup-de-main to ensure the success of the main assault.
    • Possibly even a "Market Garden" style scenario where they are required to sieze the main gatehouse … and then wait for relief from the main army breaking through the outer wall.
  • Faced with the fantasy staple of the "ruined/derelict castle as above ground dungeon" a sizeable gatehouse could well be a key area and stocked as the base of one of the factions in the dungeon population.
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