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portcullis

portcullis

[pawrt-kuhl-is, pohrt-]
portcullis, grating or framework of strong bars of wood or iron, sharp-pointed at their lower ends, sliding vertically in the grooved jambs of a fortified portal as a protection in case of assault. First used in Roman times against Hannibal, the portcullis reached its highest development in the 12th cent. as a characteristic feature of the defensive system of a castle or fortified town. It could be dropped suddenly in a surprise attack. Through its grating the defenders could keep up a fire of arrows and other missiles. In the 14th cent., with the development of gunpowder, its tactical value was reduced.
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 defence 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 furthest away. This was used to trap the enemy and often, burning wood 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 as such. Also, archers could shoot arrows at the trapped enemies. There were often arrow holes in the sides of the walls for archers and crossbowmen to eliminate the besieged army.

Theatre

By analogy to the gates, a portcullis is also the name given to a device used for quick change or scenes in theatrical stagecraft. The painted scene is attached to a grille, which then is made to appear in the stage, by moving it with a winch.

Heraldry

The portcullis often appears as a device or emblem in 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 Canada Customs crest. 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.

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