Buildings

Beyond the Castle Walls: Medieval Siege Techniques

Towering above the surrounding landscape, the European stone castle of the 1300s and 1400s is an imposing site to modern visitors. Now imagine the sight to would be attackers 700 years ago.

Castles were ideally built on high ground, affording the best vantage point for surveying the surroundings. This ensured that any attackers would have to navigate a hill, where they could be fired upon with ease.

The high, thick stone walls and strong corner towers were hard to penetrate and were only reached after you had broken through any outlying walls and gatehouses. Some castles also had a moat.

This is a wide, water-filled ditch, making it hard for siege engines or miners to get close to the walls. Moats are often found surrounding castles which do not have the advantage of being built on higher ground.



Capturing a castle of this scale solely through attack was unlikely although it was the ultimate aim. The castle was the seat of local power and authority and a successful siege would give the opposition force control of the region.

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As castles of this period were well equipped with a host of defensive features, battles during the Middle Ages rarely occurred on an open field. Instead, they were mostly fought in an attack and defence style. Often with the attackers laying siege to a fortified castle or town and the defenders seeking refuge inside.

Laying Siege

Because these stone fortifications were so carefully designed to withstand attack the preferred method was to besiege a castle. This is akin to a battle of attrition.

The attacking force would surround the castle, make camp, and wait for the defenders to surrender. They might mount strategic attacks periodically to tackle the castle’s defences and apply pressure in between. Or they could seek to weaken the defenders’ resolve.

In their efforts to secure a swift surrender, besieging forces might burn surrounding fields of crops or steal or slaughter livestock. They could even poison the castle water supply. By making camp around the castle, the attacking force were able prevent any food or supplies from entering.



At any whisper of an attack, the surrounding villagers would flock to the castle for safety. Any food supplies that were in the castle store would not last long. As men were injured in fighting and weakened from hunger or thirst, it is safe to assume that medical supplies (such as they were at this time) would also have begun to run out.

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This method of warfare relied upon a constant, low-intensity attack conducted over an extended period of time. It was intended to wear the defending side down. Manoeuvring them in to a position where a negotiation could take place and the terms of their surrender be agreed upon.

Siege Engines

Siege engine is the collective term for a series of missile hurling machines. The heavy artillery of their day, there were several designs in use during the medieval period. These worked on different scientific principles.

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Being both heavy and large they would have been transported in pieces and then erected on site. Objects being launched might include anything from giant rocks to rotting or diseased animal carcasses.

Portable

The ballista, first developed by the ancient Greeks, was used to good effect by both Philip II and later by his son, Alexander the Great. A very early form of tension-based siege weaponry that looked like a giant crossbow, it could launch spherical objects or javelin type projectiles.

The Romans later developed it further, increasing its power and improving the design so that the trajectory of the missile could be altered without taking the machinery apart each time.

Believed to be the original version of the ancient giant catapult, the mangonel was developed by the Romans around 400BC. It was a lighter alternative to the ballista and could launch smaller rocks and ceramic pots filled with flammable liquids which could then be ignited.

The missile was placed in a cradle which was pulled back via the twisting of ropes and then suddenly released. This weapon could not launch objects as far and high as a trebuchet. However it could be fired with reasonable accuracy at castle walls.

Lethal

The trebuchet and the perrier were both types of counterpoise machine believed to originate in the East. Versions were found in use in both Arabia and China as water raising devices for farming. Only later was it developed as a weapon.

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The perrier was smaller and looked something akin to a seesaw with a long launching arm. A team of men would pull on ropes at one end and when the ropes were released the launching arm fell forwards with huge force behind it hurling the missile (housed in a sling) forwards at high speed.

It was quicker to load and release than the trebuchet which was larger, heavier, and more complex.

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The trebuchet featured a heavy filled box at one end which provided the downforce as opposed to a team of men pulling on ropes. Though it was cumbersome and difficult to reset, it was the most powerful and effective siege weapon of its day, launching projectiles high into the air and at a potential range of 300m.

The Belfry or Siege Tower

A belfry was a very tall siege tower, ideally taller than the castle, constructed of wood with platforms inside which held hundreds of soldiers. At the top there was a small drawbridge which when lowered, would allow the soldiers to swarm across and into the castle over the top of the walls.

The belfry would have been constructed on site using local materials and was only used in the event of a lengthy siege or where preserving the integrity of the castle was important. The tower had wheels so that it could be pushed close to the castle walls and its front and sides were covered with soaked animal hides to offer those hidden inside some protection from flaming arrows or other projectiles.

There were several levels inside the tower and narrow loop windows which allowed attacking archers to fire at the castle. 

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This type of siege machinery would have been impossible to use if the castle was perched atop a high incline. If there was a moat it would have to have first been filled in with rubble. It could then be bridged so that the siege tower could be brought closer to the walls.

Siege Ladders

Not for the faint of heart! If you need to climb to the top of a high wall, using a ladder might be a logical solution.

And this was no different during medieval warfare where escalades (from the Spanish word for climb) were common. The idea being that if you could get one or two men to scale the wall successfully then they could potentially open a gate to let in a larger force of men.

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However, the use of a ladder effectively creates a funnel. It can only be scaled in single file allowing defenders to concentrate all their efforts on preventing one soldier at a time from reaching the top.



The only way for an escalade to be successful is for the attacking force to use multiple ladders at once. By doing this there was a chance of overwhelming the castle defenders.

Sieges tended to be well-planned affairs, so ladders could be constructed by skilled craftsmen to the correct dimensions in advance. They were often fitted with metal hooks at the bottom and/or the top allowing for better grip and stability.

A Head for Heights

Again, castles with moats made the use of escalades difficult. Castle builders constantly devised new methods of defence such as Taluses. These were additional bricks fitted around the base of a wall making it difficult to lean a ladder against a castle at a safe angle.

Machicolations were also developed. Wooden at first and later made from stone, these are the parapets located along the top of castle walls.

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They had holes in the floor through which stones could be hurled down at anyone attempting to climb. It is no coincidence that the etymology of this word is from two Old French words. ‘Machier’, meaning ‘to crush’ and ‘col’ meaning ‘neck’. I’ll let you put those two words together and you get the idea!

The Battering Ram

This type of siege weaponry featured in ancient Middle Eastern warfare in both Iraq and Syria. This was long before the Romans arrived on the warfare scene. In Carthage, modern day Tunisia, there was evidence of battering ram frameworks being developed and then placed on wheels.



The structure was so slow moving due to its weight that it earned the ancient nickname, the tortoise.

It consists of a vast wooden beam. At the front it was traditionally armoured with a thick piece of iron shaped like the head of a ram, hence its name.

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Ropes are looped around the beam and over another above it on a framework so that it hangs in the air. A large number of men then pull the ram back with ropes and release with a push forwards. This allows the ram to swing into the castle wall or entrance with astonishing force.

A Force to be Reckoned With

They were effective at causing castle walls to crack, eventually creating a breach which would allow the attackers to spill through into the castle courtyard and engage in hand-to-hand fighting, ultimately overwhelming the occupants.

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The framework from which the ram was hung was fitted with a curved or pitched roof. This was originally covered in wet animal hides to protect the men operating the ram from the threat of fire. It also helped with protection being pelted with rocks, stones, arrows or spears from the defenders above.

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Defenders also attempted to reduce the impact of the ram by hanging a heavily padded sack in front of it. They also used grappling hooks to reduce its momentum.

Tunnelling

If preserving the castle was not important then attackers might also attempt to mine, or rather, undermine the walls from beneath.

One method was to dig tunnels under the corner of one of the walls. When in position they would carve out a large cavern supporting the ceiling with timber joists.

These would then be surrounded with kindling and fires would be set by the miners before they beat a hasty retreat! The fire would burn through the joists, causing them and the cavern to collapse and hopefully that section of the wall with it.



This would ideally cause a breach which the besiegers could then exploit.

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Tunnelling by all accounts was very effective and prompted castle designers and builders to plan the location of new castles carefully. Rocky ground would eliminate any notion of excavating beneath the castle as would building near marshland or large bodies of water.

End of the Siege

The drawn-out nature of a siege would undoubtedly impact the morale of those inside. If the castle guardian ultimately chose to surrender then the fate of everyone would be at the mercy of the opposition. Their lives may have been spared but that would not stop the victors from sacking and pillaging the castle and its contents as a reward for their victory.  

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As with most things medieval we now view this method of warfare as barbaric and yet, the concept and practice of siege warfare was around long before the medieval period and continued long after it.

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