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Ancient Engineering: The Art Of Siege Warfare
The word ‘siege‘ conjures up imagery of high wooden towers attacking thick stone castle walls, but in the ancient world sieges also required extreme engineering prowess. Innovations in attack catapult technology and in the building of military blockades around defending cities promoted the arts of conducting and resisting sieges. Historians and archaeologists refer to this as ‘ siege warfare ‘ or ‘siege craft‘. During the Medieval period sieges most often ended after a few months with the defenders generally starving or dying of diseases, but in ancient history sieges sometimes lasted for several years. Among the earliest ever recorded sieges, three of them represent unique military-engineering amalgams where innovations on both sides changed the entire shape of world history.
Assyrians using ‘ siege ladders ’ attack ing an enemy town during the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III 720-738 BC, carved in his royal palace at Kalhu (Nimrud). ( Mary Harrsch / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
A History of the Early Medieval Siege, c.450–1200, by Peter Purton A History of the Late Medieval Siege, 1200–1500, by Peter Purton
Sean McGlynn, A History of the Early Medieval Siege, c.450–1200, by Peter Purton
A History of the Late Medieval Siege, 1200–1500, by Peter Purton, The English Historical Review, Volume 127, Issue 528, October 2012, Pages 1191–1194, https://doi.org/10.1093/ehr/ces229
Despite the ongoing proliferation of titles on warfare in the middle ages, there remains a relative dearth of dedicated works on sieges of the era by medievalists. Why this should be so is a mystery: the geographically static nature of a siege (but not of siege strategy) ensures that its dynamics are arguably more easily captured than those of a battle or a campaign. Sieges are made all the more accessible by the endeavours of medieval writers who furnish us with dramatic and highly detailed accounts of siege operations, often from eye-witness accounts such as those of Guillaume le Breton at Château Gaillard (1203–04) and John Page at Rouen (1418–9). (Of course, while major sieges such as these could last six months or even longer, other similarly epic sieges could pass by with only the briefest mentions in the chronicles—as happened in.
The iconic crenellated shape of a castle wall doesn't just look pretty - it also serves an important purpose.
This arrangement allowed soldiers to shoot arrows and crossbow-bolts at the enemy, with a clear line of vision through the gaps. Hinged wooden shutters between the stone 'crenels' would then drop shut to protect them while they reloaded their weapons. These wooden shutters have not survived in most castles, but the stonework has, which is why we now so often see this shape at castles across the country.
Walls with all the extras
Of course, the height and thickness of the castle’s walls were important, but there were things that could be added to make them even better. Crenelated defenses on the top of a castle’s battlements are one of its most iconic characteristics. Soldiers could shoot their arrows and crossbows at the enemy through the gaps. English castles actually had wooden shutters between the stonework, offering extra protection. Throw some machicolations in there and things get even better.
Machicolations are openings in the floor between the corbels of a battlement. Not only could defenders shoot arrows through these holes, but they could drop little gifts down on their attackers. Heavy stones were always a popular choice. The holes also came in handy if part of the castle was on fire since water could also be poured through.
In the 12th century, a second inner wall was built around castles for even more protection. These walls were typically higher than the outer walls, making it possible to fire over it in case of a breach. Should invaders get past the second wall, there was one final defense, the tower keep. This was a tall, heavily fortified tower used as the last resort. (Some actually went as high as 90 feet.) Inside, attackers would have to fight their way through narrow corridors and up spiral staircases, making things difficult to the bitter end.
Lastly, rounding anything that could be rounded — towers, walls, and whatnot — made all those great defenses even stronger. Not only were blind spots eliminated, but they were better able to deflect any large stones hurled at them.
4. Carlisle Castle, Cumbria
In July 1315 Carlisle Castle came under attack from the King of Scotland, Robert Bruce. The Scots had smashed the English army at Bannockburn the year before, and now they turned their attention to Carlisle, a key border stronghold.
The Chronicle of Lanercost records that ‘on every day of the siege they assaulted one of the three gates of the city, sometimes all three at once but never without loss, because there were discharged upon them from the walls such dense volleys of darts and arrows, likewise stones, that they asked one another whether stones bred and multiplied within the walls.’
The Scots had their siege weapons, but so did the defenders, which the Chronicle says ‘caused great fear and damage to those outside’. The Scottish engines ‘did little or no injury to those within’, and seem to have been much less advanced than those of the English.
Heavy rains didn’t help either – Europe was in the middle of a run of three bad summers that caused devastating famines across the continent. A huge Scottish siege tower got stuck in the mud before it could get into position. The attackers threw bundles of grain and hay into the moat to try to fill it up, but they got swept away. They built bridges on wheels to cross the moat, but they sank.
On the ninth day the Scots mounted an assault on all three gates. When that failed they advanced on the eastern wall to provide cover for a stealth attack from the west, which seemed to have some success – according to the Chronicle, ‘there they set up long ladders which they climbed, and the bowmen, whereof they had a great number, shot their arrows thickly to prevent anyone showing his head above the wall.’
But the English regained control of the wall, apparently suffering only a few casualties. The next day Robert, perhaps after hearing of rumours that the English army was approaching, ordered his men to retreat.
An engraving of Carlisle Castle, dated 1739. © Historic England.
7 Ways to Win a Medieval Siege
Castles and fortified towns were central to medieval warfare. Their strong defensive walls allowed small numbers of defenders to hold out against much larger forces. Though armies sometimes marched past and ignored them, this created risks. Small numbers of enemies could wreak havoc in an army’s rear, and until a castle or town was taken it was impossible to control the land around it.
So how did besiegers go about seizing castles?
The most obvious answer to sturdy stone walls was to smash them down. In the earlier centuries of the Middle Ages, catapults and trebuchets were used to launch stones at the defences. These grew in size and sophistication as siege engineers developed their art.
During the siege of Stirling Castle in 1304, Edward I of England refused to let the defenders surrender until he had used his new trebuchet, one of the largest ever recorded. Named Warwolf, it took five master carpenters and ten times as labourers three months to build. Disassembled for transport, it filled 30 wagons, and it could accurately launch a stone weighing as much as 300 pounds.
During the 14th century, canons became increasingly popular as siege weapons. Their prevalence allowed for heavy and effective bombardments – over 1500 bombard balls were launched at Maastricht during the seven week siege of 1407-1408.
TrenchesA detail from the from Clampe’s map of the siege of Newark (6 March 1645 – 8 May 1646) showing in green a sap that allows Roundhead siege artillery to be placed closer to the fortifications of Newark than the circumvallation.
We associate trenches with the wars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but they played a role in earlier eras.
Both attackers and defenders fired at each other during sieges, using bows and artillery, and even hurling rocks from the walls. This made approaching the castle or town very hazardous. If there was time, pioneers and sappers would dig trenches toward the walls, giving the attackers safe positions from which to fire, and eventually getting close enough to launch attacks.
Trench works and bombardments had a symbiotically defensive relationship. It was safer to dig trenches if the defenders were forced to keep their heads down through a bombardment, while trenches let attackers safely fire from shorter, more effective ranges.
Aside from bombardment, the best way to bring down walls was to undermine them. Like trenches, this relied on the attackers having time available, but sieges could seldom be successfully rushed.
Often the work of soldiers from mining communities, tunnels started safely out of range of the defenders’ artillery. All the usual tools of the miners’ craft were used to make a tunnel safe enough for the attackers to work in. Once it got beneath the walls, it would then be caved in, undermining the foundations and creating a gap in the defences.
Defenders would try to detect tunnels by placing bowls of water on the ground near the walls and looking for vibrations. They would even dig counter-mines, trying to intercept and stop the attackers. During the siege of Melun in 1420, King Henry V of England fought in a mounted combat against counter-miners in the siege tunnels beneath the city.
Attacking a castle or town was a costly and brutal business that took a higher toll on the attackers than the defenders. If there was time, then it was almost always better to starve the defenders out. If the attackers successfully prevented supplies of food from getting in, then the defenders would eventually have to give in, as during Owain Glyndwr’s siege of Harlech Castle in 1401.
There were downsides to a protracted siege. It meant keeping an army in the field for a long time, and this was not always possible. Troops raised by feudal levies were often only meant to serve for a set amount of time, for example 40 days, and would go home after this. King Henry II of England’s successes in siegecraft came through the costly use of mercenaries, who would stick around as long as the pay kept coming.
Starvation also failed if supplies could be brought in. Joan of Arc’s famed relief of the siege of Orléans in 1429 was possible due to the French defenders bringing supplies in across the river.
Sickness could be a huge problem for any medieval army. With thousands of men living close together, and no modern medicine, disease ran rampant.
Disease was particularly deadly in the enclosed confines of a town or castle under siege. With the bodies piling up, the defenders could not get away from the sickness. Without our modern understanding of germs, there was no way of combatting the problem. Attackers sometimes encouraged such sickness by flinging dead animals or disease ridden corpses over the walls. At the Siege of Rouen in 1418-19 the English threw dead animals down wells to contaminate the city’s water supply.
Disease could also be a problem for attackers. Outbreaks in the Crusader camp besieging Acre in 1189-91 killed many men and severely weakened the attacking force.
Horrifying as they could be, assaults were often the best way for attackers to end a siege. If time was pressing, or the defenders showed no signs of running out of supplies, then an all out attack could lead to a swift victory. Scottish King Robert the Bruce is reported to have led an assault across a flooded moat during his campaign against the English occupiers.
If bombardments or undermining had breached the walls then any assault would be through these gaps. If not then attackers had to assault the battlements from ladders, while rocks and other missiles fell on their heads, or approach from the rarer but safer confines of a siege tower.
Despite all the military tactics available, the most successful sieges were those that ended with talking. Starvation was a gruelling prospect for the defenders, and assault equally unappealing to the attackers. Under accepted rules of war, a town captured by force could be ransacked but one that surrendered could not. This encouraged agreements to surrender if the defenders were not relieved within a set amount of time. This, rather than an assault, ended some of the most significant sieges, such as Stirling in 1304 and Harfleur in 1415.
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A Medieval military operation involving the surrounding and blockading of a town, castle or fortress by an army attempting to capture it
Definition of Siege Warfare
The definition of siege warfare can be described as a Medieval military operation involving the surrounding and blockading of a town, castle or fortress by an army attempting to capture it - to lay siege or to besiege. The term derives from the Middle English word 'sege' from the Old French meaning seat, blockade.
Medieval Siege Warfare of the Middle Ages
Medieval Siege warfare was an extremely expensive and time consuming business. Siege warfare was, however, a common form of warfare during these violent times. Siege warfare was a common occurrence especially during:
- The Crusades when the use of the Siege Warfare was used by the crusaders to capture towns and fortresses in the Holy Land from the Infidels, Saracens
- The Hundred Years War (1337 - 1453), when the English were claiming French lands and mounting invasions
- The fight for power in England, following the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when the building of stone castles acted as power basis for the warring lords and knights
An important requirement to ensure a successful invasion was to capture the enemies power base - their towns, fortresses or castles. Siege warfare was essential to ensure victory! There were more Medieval sieges than there were pitched battles during the Middle Ages.
Siege Warfare from the Attackers perspective
The attackers had the upper hand in negotiations as they were in total control of the siege and could withdraw at any time. The attackers force in England would have been raised by the Medieval Feudal Levy where nobles and their troops were only obliged to serve for a limited amount of time - usually 40 days. The cost and time elements were therefore critical to both sides and pressure was on both sides to achieve a peaceful agreement. The attackers fighting abroad were not subject to such strict time limits but cost was still an important factor. Laying siege was often fought with the use of massive siege weapons such as the Ballista, Mangonel, Battering Ram, Siege Tower and the awesome Trebuchet. A prolonged siege was a last thing that an attacker wanted due to the cost and the negative effect on morale due to the boredom factor.
Siege Warfare from the Defenders perspective
The defenders involved in siege warfare were aware of the cost of a siege and that a prolonged siege would cause significant problems in terms of the man power of the attackers. From the defenders perspective they had to hold out against the assault of siege weapons or survive a prolonged siege where food, fresh water and morale was of prime importance.
Siege Warfare fought according to Chivalric Code and Rules
Neither Attacker nor Defender involved in siege warfare wanted a prolonged siege. Medieval Siege Warfare was conducted according to Chivalric Rules and a truce or settlement would always be attempted, according to the Chivalric Code, before Siege Warfare commenced. The Chivalric Code regulated Medieval Siege warfare. These rules allowed surrender under honourable terms. Each side would have estimated the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition. Siege Warfare was costly and Siege Weapons and the besieging forces would not be assembled until it was believed that all truce negotiations would fail. The Siege warfare rules of the honorable Chivalric Code included the following elements:
- Siege Warfare / Time: A reasonable and specific amount of time was allowed for truce or surrender conditions to be considered. This ranged from 7 - 40 days. The shorter time period was most commonly allowed because of the problems caused by the Feudal Levy
- Siege Warfare / Honorable Surrender: An honorable surrender had to be negotiated before the start of hostilities
- Siege Warfare / Safe Conduct: Castle inhabitants could leave the castle unharmed
- Siege Warfare / Weapons: Often terms would allow inhabitants to retain their weapons
- Should inhabitants refuse to surrender no such promises were given
- Intentions - The attackers would signal the start of the siege with flags or launching arrows or crossbow bolts at the castle entrance
Siege Warfare - the Siege begins
The preparations for siege warfare were thus completed. Negotiations for possible truces or surrender had failed. The castle, town or fortress was now officially under siege - Siege warfare was about to begin.
Each section of Middle Ages Weapons provides interesting facts and information about Medieval warfare in addition to the Siege Warfare. The Sitemap provides full details of all of the information and facts provided about the fascinating subject of the Medieval period of the Middle Ages!
- Interesting Facts and information about Medieval Siege Warfare used during the Middle Ages
- Description of Siege Warfare
- Definition of Siege Warfare
- Medieval Siege Warfare of the Middle Ages
- Siege Warfare from the Attackers perspective
- Siege Warfare from the Defenders perspective
- Siege Warfare fought according to Chivalric Code and Rules
Did castle defenders pour boiling oil on their assailants during a medieval siege?
It is a popular belief that during a medieval siege the beleaguered defenders would protect themselves by pouring boiling oil on their assailants. But is this actually true?
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Published: August 6, 2018 at 11:01 am
Boiling oil is a favourite with Hollywood (and nowadays with computer war games, too). History provides some accounts of its use. The Jewish defenders of Yodfat (Jotapata in modern-day Lower Galilee) are said to have used it against Vespasian’s troops in AD 47. Other mentions include during the Hundred Years’ War siege of Orléans (1428–29), the Great Siege of Malta (1565) and the siege of Sommières in the French Wars of Religion (1573).
Some authorities claim that oil would have been hot, rather than boiling, and that it would have had the added advantage of making the attackers’ footing more slippery. Oil was expensive, but the conventions of medieval warfare held that the inhabitants of a town resisting attack could be put to the sword – so defenders’ financial priorities would change dramatically! The real reason that oil was used rarely, one suspects, is that few places possessed enough of it.
Reports of boiling water and heated sand being poured on attackers are far more common in ancient and medieval warfare. (Hot sand getting into your armour is, by all accounts, a nasty experience.)
By the Middle Ages, machicolations and ‘murder-holes’ were essential elements of castle architecture, permitting defenders to drop things onto the heads of attackers. They were also essential for throwing water of whatever temperature on any fires the enemy may have started.