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Siege warfare in the Middle Ages


In the medieval era, pitched battles were risky affairs; the work of years could be undone in a single day thanks to the vagaries of weather, terrain or simple bad luck. C.B. Hanley author of the Mediaeval Mystery series, including the latest addition Blessed are the Dead, discusses this topic...

Commanders avoided pitched battles if at all possible, which meant that warfare was characterised by sieges rather than battles. Anyone who controlled a castle had a huge advantage over their rivals. Castellans could dominate an area of many miles around their stronghold, riding out by day and then returning to sleep safely behind closed gates at night, and they could gather and stockpile stores. The lord (or indeed lady) of a castle was therefore able to act both offensively and defensively, and didn’t even need a particularly large garrison: a castle could be held by a relatively small number of men against a much larger attacking force.

If you wanted to defeat an opponent of this standing, therefore, you needed to make sure you captured his castles, because if you simply bypassed them on your way through his lands you’d find yourself subject to dangerous counter-attacks from their garrisons.

But how did you go about capturing a castle?

To put it simply, you had three basic choices in order to overcome castle walls: go over them, go under them, or go through them.

Trying to scale the walls was a difficult and dangerous task, one which required a large number of troops and generally resulted in a high casualty rate as your ladders were pushed back and the defenders rained down arrows, crossbow bolts and other dangerous or noxious substances. (But not, incidentally, boiling oil, a trope beloved by Hollywood but almost never used in real life. Think about it: why would you waste such a rare and precious substance when you could just as easily tip boiling water or hot sand on your enemies?)

Alternatively, you might construct a siege tower, a moveable structure as high as the walls which enabled your men to attack the battlements directly without climbing. But these took a good while to construct, didn’t work if there was a moat to cross, and were susceptible to fire. They also required engineers of great skill, as did mining, the only method of going under the walls.

Attempting to knock a breach in castle’s defences, so that your fighting men could pour through it in order to engage in hand-to-hand combat, was a simpler option. For this you might attack the wooden gate with a battering ram, or you might construct siege machinery to throw a barrage of stones at the walls. But, again, these methods involved either the sourcing of skilled engineers or a vast number of troops, of whom you were prepared to lose a significant proportion.

One major problem with taking a castle by storm – collapsing a tower by mining, or knocking a huge hole in the wall – was that it resulted in a damaged and indefensible stronghold. This wasn’t very helpful, because the general idea was that you wanted the castle so you could garrison it yourself. Therefore it was better to find a way of attacking the people inside, but not the building itself.

The obvious way to do this was starvation: surround the stronghold with your troops and wait for the garrison to run out of food and/or water. However, this method had its issues. If stores had been stockpiled, starvation might take months or even years, and you couldn’t move away during all that time; you therefore lost the momentum of your attack on enemy lands, while laying yourself open to the risk of a relieving force arriving and attacking you from behind. Plus you might actually run out of food before the castle garrison did, and you were out in the open so you were subject to bad weather, lack of sanitation and disease.

The best and most bloodless options for taking a castle were to persuade the castellan to change sides and surrender the castle to you, or to take it by trickery or deceit. Persuasion and threats might or might not work, as some real-life examples show. In 1216 King John told the castellan of Belvoir castle that his father – then in John’s custody – would be starved to death if he did not yield, and this resulted in surrender. However, back in 1152 a knight refused to hand his castle over to King Stephen even when threatened with the execution of his 5-year-old son, who was being held hostage. (Stephen, incidentally, could not bring himself to carry out his threat, and the child survived.)

Trickery and deceit might take any number of forms. In 1119, during wars on the Norman–French border, Louis VI of France met with the castellan of Les Andelys castle to negotiate, and persuaded or bribed him to take some of Louis’s men back with him and hide them under straw in a storehouse. When Louis approached the castle himself the next day, the men leaped out from their hiding place, pretended at first to be defenders, and then attacked and opened the gate. The confused and hoodwinked garrison fled, leaving the undamaged castle in Louis’s hands.

Women were involved in warfare much more often than is sometimes supposed: most often in defending castles, but sometimes also in capturing them. In 1140 Countess Matilda of Chester paid an ostensibly social call on the wife of the castellan of Lincoln castle, and her husband Ranulf, the earl of Chester, later arrived to collect her. As he was unarmed and accompanied by just three knights, he was admitted … at which point he and his men overpowered the guards and held the gate open long enough for a hidden, larger force to arrive. Ranulf was able to capture the castle, expel the garrison and shut the gates, leaving himself, his wife and their own men in possession of a valuable stronghold.

The measure of a siege’s success was that the castle in question changed hands, however that was achieved; it did not always have to mean victory in armed combat or great loss of life.

By C.B. Hanley

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