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Counterweights for the sliding portcullis

A portcullis is a latticed grille or gate made of wood, metal or a combination of the two. Portcullises fortified the entrances to many medieval castles, acting as a last line of defense during time of attack or siege. Each portcullis was mounted in vertical grooves in castle walls and could be raised or lowered quickly by means of chains or ropes attached to an internal winch.

There would often be two portcullises to the main entrance. The one closest to the inside would be closed first and then the one farthest away. This was used to trap the enemy and often, burning wood or fire-heated sand would be dropped onto them from the roof. Pouring hot oil is a myth; it was far too valuable and rare at the time to waste. There were often arrowslits in the sides of the walls, enabling archers and crossbowmen to eliminate the trapped group of attackers.


The portcullis was the heraldic badge of the House of Beaufort, and the first Tudor king Henry VII, who was of matrilineal Beaufort descent, adapted both the portcullis and the Tudor rose as the Tudor badge. From this origin, portcullis has appeared frequently in English heraldry, such as that employed as the symbol for the Palace of Westminster in London. One example of where a portcullis is found is on a UK one penny coin, and another on the crest of the now defunct Customs and Excise. The coat of arms of Canberra features a portcullis on the crest, symbolizing Parliament. Portcullis Pursuivant of Arms in Ordinary is also one of the officers of arms at the College of Arms in London.

See also


1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

PORTCULLIS (from the Fr. Porte-coulisse, Porte, a gate, Lat. porta, and coulisse, a groove, used adjectivally for "sliding," from couler, to slide or glide, Lat. colare; the Fr. equivalents are herse, a harrow, and coulisse; Ger. Fallgatter; Ital. saracinesca), a strong-framed grating of oak, the lower points shod with iron, and sometimes entirely made of metal, hung so as to slide up and down in grooves with counterbalances, and intended to protect the gateways of castles, &c. The defenders having opened the gates and lowered the 'portcullis, could send arrows and darts through the gratings. A portcullis was in existence until modern times in a gateway at York. The Romans used the portcullis in the defence of gateways. It was called cataracta from the Gr. «arappc' rrls, a waterfall (Karappi'yvvuOac, to fall down). Vegetius (De re milit. iv. 4) speaks of it as an old means of defence, and it has been suggested that in Psalm xxiv. 7, 9, "Lift up your heads, oh ye gates," &c., there is an allusion to a similar contrivance. Remains of a cataracta are clearly seen in the gateway of Pompeii. The Italian name saracinesca originates from the crusades. (See GATE.)

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