Siege Warfare – Middle Ages


Working trebuchet at Château des Baux


Battles were actually somewhat rare during the Middle Ages; this is because much of medieval combat did not take place on a battlefield at all. Many times one side was protected inside a castle, and thus had the advantage of higher ground and fortified walls, so that no straightforward attack on them could be attempted. Instead, a siege was required.

A siege deals with the problem of defeating an opponent who is protected inside a castle. It can refer to attacks made on the enemy’s fortifications, attempts to batter down their walls or to scale them and engage in combat. In theory, however, a siege can be carried out passively, with no direct contact between attacker and defender. The besieging army need only cut off their entrenched foe from communication and supplies, and wait for starvation to force the enemy to surrender. This requires a lot of patience on the part of the attacker, in addition to a great supply of food so that they can hold out longer than their opponent. For this reason, a siege would often become aggressive, with attacks made either to demoralize the defending garrison or to gain entrance to the castle and defeat them.

The medieval castle is a fortification that evolved to resist the siege. The basic theory behind the construction of a stronghold is to place a series of obstacles between the attacker and defender. The attackers are either discouraged, or at least slowed down to afford the defender an opportunity to reduce their numbers, fighting from an advantageous position. Thus the first thing an enemy would encounter was typically a deep ditch encircling the castle, often filled with water. The outer castle wall would be so close to this moat that the attackers could gain no foothold on the near side to attempt to scale or bring down the wall. An allure, a walkway around the top of the wall, allowed bowmen to shoot downward, and other defenders to drop heavy objects or boiling water. The archers were in turn protected from enemy projectiles by the parapet’ alternating sections of raised merlons and lower embrasures, which give castle walls their well-known shape. Towers were much taller than the surrounding walls, and gave the defenders a view of the front face and the base of the outside wall, in addition to affording a higher vantage point to keep watch from. They also served as anchor points, and it was from them that the garrison was deployed. Inside the wall was the bailey, an open area in which there may be another surrounding ditch and wall. These would both enclose the keep, a strong and well-protected tower that was the last defensive position. (Koch, 1978: 46)

Naturally, a siege against such a well-defended fortress was very costly and time-consuming, and the besiegers were often reluctant to commit to one. The first step taken would be to “summon the castle,” to address some representatives of the targeted castle and attempt to negotiate a surrender. Aside from fighting or surrendering immediately, the defenders may have been given the option to agree to surrender after a certain period of time, if no relieving force arrived to help. To capitulate when outnumbered or when the chance of victory seemed slim was not considered ignoble, and the decision was not to be taken lightly; because of the difficulty and expense involved in the siege a garrison which persisted in fighting could expect little mercy in the event of defeat.

Once the actual siege began, there was more or less a set of steps to be followed. The attackers would draw up a camp somewhere near the castle- if they were close enough, they would be able to continuously “snipe” at the enemy with crossbows, however they would probably be within range of the enemy’s weapons. The camp would be delineated by a rampart around the perimeter; a ditch would be dug and the dirt thrown up as a wall, which could have been augmented along the outer edge by wooden stakes or wicker panels. This was to protect the besiegers from sallies of the enemy garrison. At the same time, men were sent out to forage for food, building their own supplies while at the same time removing any sustenance the enemy could access. Wood was also gathered, for the camp and the future construction of siege engines or whatever would be called for, and rocks collected for ammunition. Barricades were made across all roads leading to the castle, and men were assigned to guard against the approach of a relieving force to the castle. Reconnaissance was made of the grounds to search for weak spots in the enemy’s defense. When this was completed a council was held between the commander of the siege and the nobles who had ordered it, and a plan was constructed for how to proceed.

There were essentially three ways to get into the castle: over the walls, under them, or through them. The preferred method was through: by way of bombardment by siege engines, until a section of wall collapsed. This was the safest for the attacker; they never had to engage the enemy directly, and were for the most part out of range of their artillery, except for machines comparable to their own. It was also a discouraging prospect for the castle garrison, because the only way to counter it was to make sallies out into the enemy’s encampment to destroy their engines. They could also try lowering mattresses or cushions against their walls to absorb the impact, but if the enemy were persistent this would not hold out.

These siege engines were referred to sometimes as “gyns,” and their operators as “gynors.” These preceded the invention of cannons, and were subsequently supplemented (and finally replaced) by them. It is beyond the scope of this project to go into a detailed account of the manufacture and operation of these engines, but I will give a brief description.

The espringale, known previously to the Romans as “ballista,” was essentially a giant crossbow. It served as an anti-personnel weapon, used by the defenders to disrupt the firing of the attackers’ siege engines, and by the attackers to counter this. The flat trajectory of this weapon made it very accurate, with a range of about 150 yards.

The trebuchet used a large, counterweighted lever to hurl rocks or other ammunition at the walls of the castle. These devices could be built in massive proportions, and fling giant stones. They were also used to throw Greek fire, or even plague-ridden corpses. (Koch 1978: 52)

The mangonel, known better nowadays as the catapult, used a springy timber to propel rocks of one or two hundred pounds. It was a smaller weapon than the trebuchet, and played a secondary role, eventually becoming obsolete. (Koch 1978: 52)

The wall could also be breached by battering ram, usually directed at the relatively weak door. Because this would expose the attackers to crossbow fire, as well as stones or boiling water dropped from the allure, a roofed structure on wheels, called a tortoise, was sometimes built to defend them. (Koch 1978: 49)

To scale the walls was even riskier, as the besieging men were attacking from a much-disadvantaged position. Ladders were simple to construct, but very difficult to use in battle. More appropriate was the beffroy, a wheeled tower that could be pushed up to the wall, once the ditch was filled with dirt. The tower’s platform carried soldiers who would cross onto the wall when it was in place, while more soldiers climbed the tower’s ladder to join the fray. (Koch 1978: 47)

To go under the walls meant to employ miners, whose objective was to collapse a section of wall; this method, then, is actually yet another endeavor to create a hole in the wall to attack through. Sometimes protected by a tortoise, the miners would dig under the castle wall, supporting it as they went with wooden spars. When they had finished, they filled the hole with kindling and set it on fire, burning through the beams and collapsing the wall. This was particularly hard to defend against, but the defenders could put out bowls of water around the inner perimeter of their wall- if vibrations could be observed, they would betray the position of miners. Additionally, the miners’ digging could sometimes be heard. Once mining had been detected, the garrison had to dig a countershaft, enter the miners’ hole and fight them off. Such a clash, underground in a confined space, was very dangerous.

The final method, and the one most assured to succeed, was the blockade; the besieger cut off all supply and relief to the castle and waited for its occupants to starve. This was practiced concurrently with the above tactics- while the army was attacking; it was also on the defense to prevent supplies or a relieving party from reaching the castle. But waiting for this to take effect was often the last resort, as it took so much time and consumed so many resources. It was always preferable to oust the enemy more quickly, through some combination of the methods mentioned above.

The crossbow, which was often too slow a weapon to be used on the battlefield, was ideal for sieges, and, as mentioned previously, was used both by the attackers and by the defense. The castle was often equipped with large, wall-mounted crossbows, which were so powerful they needed to be drawn by a winch. These had a long range and could be used to counter the attacks of siege engines, by shooting the “gynors” operating them.

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