Before gunpowder, one of the common ways to break a city is to break the gates. Since they have to be opened and closed they are intrinsically weaker than the wall itself.

There were various defences in place: Portcullises that could be dropped either in front or behind the main gate, a double passage that allowed materials like molten lead, or smoking hot oil to be dropped on the enemy. Overhangs, and wall projections that allowed the defenders to make life unpleasant for the attackers.

But once the exterior forces were able to get a decent ram up to the gate, the game seems to have been over.

The following possibility occurs to me:

Construct the wall around the gate with a serious notch on the inside of the passage through the wall.

Keep a set of timbers that fit this notch, that can be laid horizontally to span the space between the notches.

Keep a reserve of dry earth, sand, or gravel sufficient to fill the space between the timbers and the gate.

One it's obvious that the enemy will get a ram near the gate, put the timbers in place and fill.

Filling could be made faster if the fill was located at the same level or higher than the top of the gate. This would allow wheelbarrows to be used

This would not be done casually, as taking it apart after would be time consuming.

I think this would have roughly the same strength as a stone face and rubble wall. The ram instead of breaking the gate timbers would half to grind the timbers to splinters. With each thump of the ram, the fill would settle and be a better backing.

Is this workable in a pre-gunpowder, muscle and water power world?

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    $\begingroup$ Wood rots, your wall would fall down on it's own in a few years. Also castles really weren't attacked as often as movies would have you believe. And even fewer fell because the gates were breached. $\endgroup$ – Trevor D Aug 24 '18 at 16:07
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    $\begingroup$ @TrevorD The gate is made of wood anyway. It needs periodic replacement. The timbers are only used for short periods of time (compared to the life span of walls) and if kept dry between seiges last for centuries. You get a +for your comment for your last sentence $\endgroup$ – Sherwood Botsford Aug 24 '18 at 16:28
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    $\begingroup$ This is mechanically complex compared to a moat, and the most obvious consequence is that sieges would convert to waiting games. Castles do not have an infinite supply of food. Castle defences existed to give defenders time to convince attackers to go away, but patience wins every time. As General Patton once said, "Fixed fortifications are a monument to the stupidity of man." $\endgroup$ – JBH Aug 24 '18 at 16:33
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    $\begingroup$ Turning a door into a wall just makes it vulnerable to everything that a wall is vulnerable to. Never underestimate the power of several thousand soldiers and engineers. $\endgroup$ – Giter Aug 24 '18 at 16:37
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH the topic is, "Why weren't medieval city gates backed with a system that would turn the gate into a rubble filled wall?" That's a historical question. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Aug 24 '18 at 17:57

This overlooks several facts of castle design:

  1. The gate was a well known weakness, so was also the most heavily engineered part of the castle, short of the central keep itself. The gatehouse could often be considered a separate fortress simply attached to the castle walls, and you generally had two sets of gates, much like an airlock. Breaching the outer gate got you stuck inside a passageway filled with murder holes where enraged defenders could shoot at you with arrows, stick you with spears or pour boiling water or heated sand on you. Gatehouses were generally avoided for this reason.

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Kidwelly Castle gatehouse

  1. There are always several entry and exit points in a castle, to prevent you from being trapped inside (which is the end result of your suggestion). These could range from a second gate on the other side of the castle to "sally ports" hidden in the walls to allow a force to slip out and fight the attackers, generally in the form of a quick raid to disrupt the engineering troops. You need to be able to counterattack at times and places of your choosing in order to take the initiative away from the attackers.

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Ruthin Castle plan. The two towers in the North West corner are the gatehouse, while the marked sally port is opposite to it

While there is nothing in principle to prevent you from filling the space behind the gate with rubble to stop a forced entry, this is hardly an optimal solution to the problem and seriously restricts the defenders options. It also really does nothing about miners tunnelling under the foundations, or preventing normal siege engines from breaching the curtain walls, or preventing the use of ladders to scale the walls. You would spend a lot of time and effort to prevent something which has a low probability of happening.

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    $\begingroup$ another common idea was more than one gate house with narrow right angle connections between them, you might batter down hte first gate but there would not be enough room to turn the corner and get the ram to the second one. beaumaris castle is a great example of this. $\endgroup$ – John Aug 24 '18 at 19:41
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    $\begingroup$ In addition to the right angle trick, some castles also had the gate above ground level, such that with the draw bridge retracted, there was simply no way to get a ram up to it. To do so you would have to build an enormous ramp, all while under arrow fire from the castle's defenders. $\endgroup$ – Ryan_L Aug 24 '18 at 21:59

A mechanism for permanently closing a gate in a castle wall would consume precious resources and space which would be better used on food goods and other supplies to survive the siege. It is much more likely that an enemy will simply surround your castle and starve you out, than that they will spend lives and equipment trying to breach your gates.

After all, if they break your gate down now, then later, after you have starved and the castle is theirs, they will have to fix it. Better to let you slowly die behind your pristine walls, then scale the undefended walls, unlock the front door and let the cleaning crews inside to remove your corpses.

Unless you give them a good reason to hurry (like an oncoming Russian winter), they will leave your gate undamaged regardless of what nasty mechanisms your build to reinforce it.

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    $\begingroup$ And seal you in, which is also sub-optimal. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Aug 24 '18 at 17:23
  • $\begingroup$ Seige warfare was always a race: Warfare was seasonal. Maintaining an army outside the city was expensive. Always risk of epidemic. The goal of the castle is to outlast the enemy. $\endgroup$ – Sherwood Botsford Aug 26 '18 at 11:41

As other answers point out it was well known that a gate was a weak point in castle architecture, however, just because it is easier to break down a gate than break down a wall doesn't mean it is an efficient use of an army. Gatehouses were incredibly well fortified with projecting flanking towers, portcullises, machicolations and murder holes that made direct assaults on gatehouses very costly. Also keep in mind that defense for medieval castles often meant defense in layers. You have an inner and outer gate on your gatehouses, you often have more than one gatehouse and you have a central keep and if well designed you can have tight corners in front of gatehouses to make maneuvering siege engines like rams up to a gate very difficult.
All that in mind the cost of using extra materials to seal yourself inside your castle is not a good idea as you are then foregoing the benefit of having those layers of defense and instead forcing yourself into a siege situation where you have limited resources inside the castle and are at the mercy of the enemy sitting outside the castle, at the point you are sealed in you wouldn't even be able to have your defenders join with an ally if help were to arrive.


Show me the evidence of sieges breaking in through the gate

I went through a great number of historical sieges, and I couldn't find a single one where the assault on a gate of a stone walled fortress was successful.

The closest I could find was the Last Siege of Constantinople, but that city had its walls partially destroyed by cannon fire and was generally assaulted by some 50,000 men. So while the gates fell in the assault, it's hard to pin the failure on the gates; especially since the first breach was elsewhere.

So, unless you can demonstrate that Medieval gates were actually a weak point, the answer to your question is that stone gates didn't need to be reinforced with anything else because they were already effectively impregnable.

  • $\begingroup$ look up petards, petards were for breaching gates. the vikings were also famous for using battering rams to do the same. $\endgroup$ – John Aug 24 '18 at 20:09
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    $\begingroup$ @John So, tell me the name of a place where the siege was won by breaking the gate... $\endgroup$ – kingledion Aug 25 '18 at 12:02
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    $\begingroup$ Messina in Sicily on October 4th, 1190, third crusade. ia800302.us.archive.org/15/items/chronicleofricha00rich/… $\endgroup$ – John Aug 26 '18 at 5:35
  • $\begingroup$ @John Ok, conceded. That siege isn't listed on Wikipedia; probably because in the account it was over 'in an instant.' Still, gate forcings are pretty rare. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Aug 26 '18 at 12:35

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