The Alleged Violent (and Possibly Pretentious) Origins of Spiral Staircases

published Mar 23, 2023
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spiral staircase in an industrial loft
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A spiral staircase makes a statement in any home that it’s placed in. Whether the stairs are made of wrought-iron and lead up to a cozy loft, or the swirl is comprised of wood in a mid-century modern abode, these architectural pieces get attention as easy as they save space.

But believe it or not, the origins and purposes of spiral staircases are up for debate, sparking arguments in Reddit threads and serving as material for many thesis papers. 

A commonly cited reason for the invention of spiral staircases is that they provided an additional line of defense in medieval castles should they come under siege. Attackers would be funneled into the staircase, making it easier to fight back as the defending forces attacked them from above. But that’s not the full story. Read on to learn more about this historic feature.

Clockwise or counterclockwise? That is the question.

While Shakespeare mused about what it means to be or not to be, spiral staircase experts and amateur historians ask: Clockwise or counterclockwise?

If you subscribe to the theory that these staircases were constructed as a method of defense, a clockwise staircase makes the most sense because it would put primarily right-handed castle defenders at an advantage. They could charge down the stairs with their weapons in their right hand and have more room to swing them at their attackers. The attackers’ weapons, meanwhile, would be inhibited by the newel around which the stairs were built.

Credit: Photo by Martinvl viaCC BY-SA 4.0
Spiral staircase in the Well Tower of Caernarfon Castle in the U.K.

This theory has been traced to Sir Theodore Andrea Cook, who shared his ideas in a 1902 essay and later in his book, Spirals in Nature and Art. In his explanation, counterclockwise spiral staircases were likely the result of right-handed architects who could more easily draw a right-handed spiral. 

He states, however, that this is not necessarily the optimal construction. “A man ascending it and turning perpetually to the left would always have his right hand free to attack the defenders, and the garrison coming down would expose their left hands on the outside,” he said.

But this theory — that spiral stairs turned clockwise to give castle defenders an advantage — picked up steam and was nevertheless cited by other writers, allowing it to cement itself in people’s minds as fact. Yet it doesn’t reflect the number of staircases that actually turn counterclockwise, which effectively debunks this notion.

Some early castles and cathedrals actually featured two mirrored sets of spiral staircases with the staircase in the north tower turning anti (or counter)-clockwise and the staircase in the south tower turning clockwise.

Why build stairs in a spiral at all?

While it is common to assume that castles were built primarily for protection, it turns out that castles also served an entirely different purpose. 

Since the late 1980s and 1990s, castle specialists have questioned the role of castles as primarily a defense mechanism. Instead, according to James Wright, an archaeologist and architectural historian, “Castles are primarily enormous buildings to impress the power, the prestige, the lordship, and the status of medieval aristocrats,” he said on Gone Medieval’s podcast Mythbusting Medieval Buildings

They were effectively “theatrical backdrops to lavish displays of power and patronage,” he explains. They were residences as well, and only after these two purposes were served did the defensibility of the castle come into play. Defense, in fact, may have only been an afterthought or “symbolic of this power and prestige,” per Wright.

All of the research conducted on castles in the last 50 years has led experts to believe spiral staircases weren’t initially designed as defensive mechanisms. Wright says that among castle specialists and scholars, spiral staircases are now thought to be simply a “high-status way of accessing an upper chamber.” That certainly has a nice ring to it, if you happen to have one in your home.