Classic Themes: Defining Classic Castle

In which we explore the early days of LEGO® Castle, take in the early factions, and look at just what made Castle sets ‘Classic Castle’

Over the past 18 moths, the Rambling Brick has looked at the development of Classic Town from the early days, through the System era, a World City inspired Dark Ages to LEGO® City. We have followed this up with a look at Classic Space, and its evolution through to the turn of the century. There is still an article to follow up here, looking at space themes in the 21st Century, and where they are today. This is particularly pertinent, given the 2022 reimagining of the original LEGO Space Flagship set: the 928/497Galaxy Explorer. This is not that article.

Before I write that article, for reasons that will eventually become apparent, I would like to take a look at the other pillar of the Classic LEGO Minifigure Themes – Castle. While Town gave kids the chance to live out the present, and space allowed them to imagine the Future, Castle allowed then to explore the past.

As a kid growing up in Australia, castles were a thing of fantasy: we only really saw them in books (with drawings) and in movies or on television. Typically in the context of an episode of Doctor Who. While the country has been inhabited for tens of thousands of years, the need for permenant fortifications was never really needed. In fact, the only castle I am aware of in Australia was built in the early 1970’s and run as a theme park.

But what are the characteristics of Classic Castle? And what time frame might be considered ‘Classic’? In this post, we will look at: Castle inspiration before minifigures existed; the initial range of Castle sets (1978-1981), and finally, consider Castle sets throughout the rest of ‘LEGOLAND’ phase: 1984-1990.

Before the Beginning

But before we consider Castle as a central minifigure play theme, I thought we might touch on the ways in which castles had been explored by LEGO prior to 1978.

The 2021 Brickset Article, Castle Before Castle outlines some of the (glued) inspirational models sold to retailers around 1959-1960.

Around this time, one of the first LEGO Idea Books provided inspiration for ‘buildings of the past’ – perhaps more of a renaissance palace than a traditional castle, but the ideas can be worked on.

Subsequent Ideas books provide further inspiration at a larger scale (1967 – book 450). This is probably the first evidence of yellow bricks being used to represent the stone in a

From Ideas book 240 in 1967. I love the angulated work demonstrated here.

While Ideas books 221 (1972) and 222 (1974) brough us castles at smaller and smaller scales.

Further research of my own, looking for evidence of other Castle constructions around this period turned up this 1973 postcard on brick link – showing that the original LEGOLAND park in Billund had a castle display.

Postcard demonstrating the Castle display at LEGOLAND Billund in 1973. – Image: Bricklink.

And somewhere inbetween all of these ideas, the first set, specifically created for building a castle was released in the UK, in return for a couple of Weetabix box tops and some money.

And while these sets and ideas, castles had nobody to populate them – certainly not at the scale we were looking to build. Of course the investment in yellow bricks required to allow the brick built miniland figures to populate a sizable castle was beyond reach of most families at this time.

And while we were able to build a castle, without knights and peasants and nobles it was a building. something to show off as constructed, rather than to play with.

While the home maker figures released in 1974 occupied many contemporary settings such as the police and fire brigades, school buses, even after a fashion, the space program, historical use was restricted to somewhat steroeotypical cowboys and indians, who were also represented in some of the ‘LEGOLAND’ scale sets around this time, albeit using the somewhat bland ‘stage extra’ figure..

Outside of Europe, castles were removed from the public consciousness: cowboys were far more often seen on our TV screens at this time – with Bonanza and Gunsmoke continuing to rerun and capture the public’s imagination- I was probably a little too young to fully appreciate them. Meanwhile, in Europe, castles were something that were seen fairly regularly as you visit older towns and cities, not as living buildings, or hubs of the town. Unless they had been bombed during the Second World War.

And then, in 1978, something changes.

In the Beginning

The launch of minifigure themes feels, in retrospect, to have been a somewhat haphazard affair. In 1978, we saw catalogues with a whole double spread dedicated to LEGO Town. Yet we only had one model in the castle range: 375 occupying a quarter of a page. The launch of Space in 1979 brought us a full page of sets ready to explore the galaxy, while the castle range was extended by only two further sets. Town and Space continued to grow over the next few years, while Castle stagnated, with no new sets appearing before 1984. That said, perhaps that initial range of 3 sets presented much of the style of material we could expect from castle over the next twenty years.

The yellow castle was one of the five largest sets released between 1978 and 1984, rivaled only by the largest of the Basic sets, the USS Constellation and the 12 volt 7740 Intercity Passenger Train. It held the record for the highest part count in a castle set until 2005, and the highest number of mini figures in any regular retail sets until 2015 (The LEGO Educational/Dacta people packs had more, but were not generally available for regular consumers.) But what else made it interesting?

Designer Daniel Krentz, interviewed for Bricks Culture Magazine, said that the color choice was somewhat restricted: while company owner Godtfred Kirk Christiansen had memories of growing up in war-torn Europe, and felt at that time that grey bricks were likely to inspire military models – things he was keen to avoid at that time, Krentz said that he would have liked a tan, sandstone-type color if it were available. It was not available, so bright yellow it was. Tan did not enter the palette until 1998 (Adventurers), but grey bricks arrived just a year or so later than the castle, when the Classic Space sets were rolled out.

So: what was special? The castle itself had a sizable keep, as well as an opening up ‘Doll house’ design. There was a high tower as well as ramparts for the figures to man.

The set was released before printed torsos became de riguer, so all of the heraldic crests were based on stickers, applied to the tabards, shields and flags.

As well as the eight ‘crown’ knights, the other six knights are identified by three alternate heraldic designs – based on the Maltese cross; clubs and a chevron. This would represent the fist time we have evidence of factions in any LEGO Theme. There are no opposing forces in Space before the arrival of Blacktron in 1987, and we don’t see the arrival of designated convicts in LEGO town before 1996.

As an interesting point, we see visors attached to the classic helmets in 375 years before they apear in space, town, or other themes.

And then we come to the horses. While these horses are brick built, they present us with the use of a tile rather than a plate between the studs on top of the head, to represent the ears. In 697 stage coach from 1976, a plate had been used, which might be considered an improper building technique: the plates are slightly thicker (approximately 10 microns) than the gap between studs. Also, the height of a stud is ever so slightly more than the distance between the edge of a plate, and the edge of a stud: as such, you might expect a slight gap to be present.

Of interest, 617 Cowboys, also from 1976 also uses a tile. I find it interesting that sliding either a plate and tile between studs was acceptable at that time, while only one of those techniques would be considered to be complying with the guidelines today.

This was of course not the only castle set released at this time. In 1979 saw the release of two further sets, now incorporating printed torsos: The 383 Knight’s Joust and 677 Knights Procession.

Knights procession brought us 6 minifigures, carting a trolley with supplies. Four knights carried a sword and printed shield, while the other two carried halyards, while hauling a cart of supplies. This feels like a prototype for the Star wars battlepacks of today, and indeed echoes in other figure packs through the years in Castle.

Meanwhile, the Knight’s Tournament Joust brought us man of the things we would come to expect from LEGO Castle sets in the future: Some nobles, a visiting knight, horses and lances, a squire for the knights and even a princess.

We see advances in landscaping, in the form of the new Cypress tree mould, as well as brick built barding for the horses. There are so many thing going on in this set: It almost defines the standard for middle sized castle seats for years to come: factions, decoration, landscaping, ambiguous levels of combat/factionalism.

Fans of the 6000 ideas book will recognise the bright read hair with pigtails, as worn by the female protagonist of that book – Mary to some, Polkadot to others. And in the castle section of that book, the queen has to make do with the somewhat less unique black hair.

And then, nothing happened. Unless you lived in North America: the Castle sets were only released there in 1981 with the numbers 3075, 6077 and 3083 respectively.

With different heraldic symbols appearing in every set, these early castle sets made it difficult to establish the canonical roles of characters, the relationship of the different families and factions is difficult to establish. Who gets along? Who is fighting who?

Of course, such a level of underlying story telling had not yet been introduced: children directed the play around LEGO sets. They didn’t need to be told who the enemy was, and who was getting along. It might change whenever they felt like it, that is part of the narrative imperative after all. You cannot expect to get plot lines as intricate as ‘Game of Thrones’ from a LEGO Catalogue alone. But that’s a story for a later time.

And then, in 1984, we started to see something new.

After the Beginning

It was around five years before we saw anything truly new in LEGO Castle, and 1984 delivered newness in spades: new sets, new factions, new elements and new colours!

The heraldry of the early days were gone and we had, in the first instance, two distinct factions: Crusaders (with both lions and axes emblazoned on their chests) as well as the now legendary Black Falcons.

The new elements touched on every aspect of these characters: from the helmets, plumes, weapons and shields, allowing our knights to defend themselves in new and exciting fashions; to a new wheel design – relying on a modified (half size) connector pin to attach the new wagon wheel elements. But there were two elements that were particularly game changing.

The newly panel element allowed castle walls to be thrown up quickly, with a minimal part count. With a cut out window, the brick motifs printed for added realism, you could construct a keep in minutes. Grey is no longer limited to the Space sets, as it becomes an integral part of castle construction for the next generation.

The other game changer is the horse: now, we saw brick built horses in 375, but this new horse mold gave us the chance to give just throw our knights on the back, and have them ride. We also saw the arrival of saddle and hitching elements that would allow us to give our knights somewhere to ride, and the ability to connect to a wagon.

These sets also give us a brief insight into civilian life, with the peasant transporting goods. there is also a sense of self righteous authoritarian oppression as the Crusaders deal with an escaping prisoner in 6055 Prisoner Convoy from 1985.

As time progressed, well 1987, we see further elements developed for Castle sets enter the fray: panels running at 45º to the stud columns: printed both for ‘wattle and daub’-like constructions, as seen in 6067 The Guarded Inn, as well as angled stone panels, as seen in the 6074 Black Falcon’s Fortress of 1986.

Who is with whom? [A Beginners Guide To Factional Conflict]

You will notice in the ‘build a castle sets’ above:6080 King’s Castle, 6073 Kights Castle and 6061 Seige Engine, that each of these sets contains a solitary faction of knights, eith Black Falcons or Crusaders,while paying homage to the original Yellow Castle in their design.

I do find myself feeling curious about 6061: is it an extension of 6080 – in which case it is just more wall and knights for the Crusader’s Castle; or is it an extension of 6073 – in which case, the Black Falcon’s castle gets a sizable upgrade, but not appears to be underattack. Or, as they might ask on a TV Commercial…’Why Cant it be both…?’

We do see the Black Falcons and Crusaders appearing in the one set in 1984: 6021 Jousting Knights. It is initially unclear as to the nature of the relationship between these two factions: Friends? Enemies? An Uneasy Alliance?

However, each faction has moved into their own castle and in the background, the smaller sets give away some details. I am pretty sure that deep down, the hints were there that they were not on especially friendly terms: why else would the Black Falcons be sporting their own catapult, only to be followed by the Lion Knights getting their own ballista a few years later?

The blatant hostilities between these factions finally rears its ugly head in 1987 when we see the Lion Knights using a battering ram to attack a castle wall, manned by the Black Falcons. The Falcons were scattered after this attack, only appearing sporadically over the next couple of years, and never in large numbers. The Crusaders numbers were significantly reduced at this time too, although Lion Knights would continue to return in years to come.

With the rivalry between the Black Falcons and the Crusaders reduced to petty squabbles, going forward, it became time to introduce some new factions: Two more were to appear before the end of the LEGOLAND Era: The Forestmen, based in part on the English hero Robin Hood appeared in 1987. Living their best life hidden in the forest, they would emerge to steal from the rich, and give to the poor. This range also emphasised another feature that defined Castle: the development of landscaping features, in particular, trees.

Interestingly, although they employed the arch elements that have been used as tree branches through to the present day, the colour palette is yet to expand to incorporate brown bricks, and so the trees are black.

Forestmen also introduce the first distinctively feminine face print in the castle range, in 1990’s Forestmen’s Crossing. She is not the first distinctively female character to appear in the castle theme: Women have been present since 1979.

It would also appear, with time, that the Forestmen are at odds with the Crusaders, as seen in 6042 Dungeon Hunters…

The Forestmen are not the final faction to arise following the fall fo the Black Falcons. The Black Knight’s/Black Monarch’s forces appear in 1990 – featuring a blue dragon on a yellow field (more of this next time), the Black Monarch’s fortress appears to be perpetually haunted, with the Glow in the Dark Ghost element first appearing in these sets. The Ghost element was designed by Niels Milan Pedersen, who was responsible for the shape of many elements introduced during the 1980s and 90s – including the horse, monkey and skeleton. After the challenges in achieving a suitably happy looking skeleton, the Ghost was a relatively simple element to design.

The Black Monarch marked a new design for the Knight’s helmets, introducing a new visor design for the Black Knight’s helmets.

The Crusaders got a final run at a castle with the 6081 King’s Mountain Fortress – another haunted affair, this castle was the first to be set upon a three dimensional baseplate.

As well as introducing the base plate and featuring some of the new helmuts (and indeed, a random parrot) it was around this time that we saw the introduction of the Horse’s barding, as well as angled bricks.

Element Sharing

Up until the late 1980’s, the majority of elements that were created for a specific theme. As time went by, their utilty was seen in other themes.

Town to Castle

The inverse 3 way slope had initially appeared in Town in some of the Airport sets in 1985, but in 1987, these elements started to be used as the hulls of boats, initially in town, but they made their way over to Castle – giving the Crusaders a chance to head off to the Crusades.

Space to Castle

There were a few space elements that made their way into castle: one was the octagonal sloped element, used as windscreens for Fututon and Blacktron (amongst others), but repurposed as the top of a tent, as seen here:

Another element that made the jump from Space and Town to Castle is the flexible hose unit, debuting in in 1985, it came to castle in 1987’s 6016 Knight’s Arsenal: and 6049 Viking Voyager.

Castle to Space

I could only find one Castle specific element that made the jump from Castle to Space: the angled panel, from 1987. Appearing initially in the Bleck Falcon’s fortress (in grey) and the Forestmen’s hideout ( in black) this panel went on to become an integral part of the 6894 Blacktron Invader

This brings us to the end of the LEGOLAND era. Now, whether you choose to define Classic Castle as including sets released from 1978-1983, or to include all castle sets featuring the Yellow and blue ‘LEGOLAND’ banner on the box, there are somethings stat certainly go on to highlight things that were done first in LEGO Castle, relative to other themes:

  • Factions
  • Animals
  • Landscaping

And although these aspects were strongly demonstrated in the 1984-1990 period, we saw aspects of them in 375 Yellow Castle and the Knight’s Tournament: the multiple unnamed factions; the brick built horses and the first ever use of a novel landscape element: then Cypress tree mould.

The 84-90 period also saw an insight into civilian life, while engaging with the knights, in the medieval environment: making armor, transporting supplies, selling ale to the troops and blacksmithing.

Join me next time as we move on to the System era, where we start to see some more fantastical elements appear in the story telling.

Did you grow up in the age of Classic Castle Sets? Who was your favorite faction, and are they still your favorite in 2022? Why not leave your comments below and until next time…

Play Well!

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10305 Lion Knight Castle. Valid 3 Aug - 31 Oct

4 thoughts on “Classic Themes: Defining Classic Castle

  1. All hail King Richard – lol. You’ve done it again! An absolute entertaining & informative article on a theme close to my heart. I thought I had a lot of the Castle themed sets, mini figures & parts, only to be be very surprised at what I ‘don’t’ have. I now have to scour the planet for some of those early accessories, shields & mini figs.

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  2. What a great article! I especially loved the summary of the new bricks at that time, and also the Element Sharing part.
    I am looking forward to the next article based off the System castle sets! 😀

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  3. ‘There are no opposing forces in Space before the arrival of Blacktron in 1987’

    Well, there was the original intention of dividing them into white astronauts and red cosmonauts.

    The Crusaders (or re-enactors cosplaying as them) showed up in 1592 Town Square four years before they got their own castle. The angled panels you mention in 6894 were earlier used (in white) by 6783.

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    • I got the feeling that this red vs white was resolved before >ahem< launch, and it became more like: red- pilots; White-everyone else.
      I had missed the angled panels in 6783: This always felt like a quintessential castle element, not a repurposed space element!
      Likewise, I missed the cosplaying crusaders in the town square.
      Thanks for highlighting these.

      Like

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