Nursery Rhymes

Under Siege

Middle Ages - Lords and Ladies

Under Siege
All negotiations for truce and surrender having failed a castle, fortress or town came under siege. Sieges had to be carefully planned and the exact type and number of siege weapons had to be established to ensure a successful outcome to placing a castle under siege. Medieval Lords, knights and their Siege Engineers identified the weakest parts of the Castle or town that they needed to attack and planned the design of the siege weapons and engines accordingly.

The defenders in the castle had to prepare for their time which was to be spent under siege. Neither Attacker nor Defender involved in siege warfare wanted a prolonged siege. Medieval Siege warfare and building siege weapons was an extremely expensive business!

Description of a fortress Under Siege
The definition 'under siege' 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.

The Attackers who placed a fortress Under Siege
The attackers who placed a castle under siege had to use every weapon that might be available to them. Medieval Siege Weapons were constructed at the location of the castle which was to be placed under siege. The exact type and number of siege weapons and their design had to be established to place a castle under siege. Medieval Lords, knights and their Siege Engineers identified the weakest parts of the Castle or town that they needed to attack and planned their strategy accordingly. The siege engines used when placing a castle under siege were the Trebuchet, Ballista, Catapult, Mangonel, Battering Ram and Siege Towers.

  • The Battering Ram - the Battering Ram and the Bore were used to literally 'batter' down, pound, punch, shake and drill into the walls of the castle which was under siege
  • The Ballista - the Ballista was similar to a Giant Crossbow and worked by using tension
  • The Mangonel - Missiles were launched from a bowl-shaped bucket at the end of the one giant arm of the Mangonel
  • Trebuchet - the massive Trebuchet siege engine consisted of a lever and a sling and was capable of hurling stones weighing 200 pounds
  • The Siege Tower - A siege weapon designed to protect attackers and their ladders whilst storming a weak area of the castle wall

A castle under siege could also be attacked by undermining the Castle. It was easy to mine underneath a corner. The attackers would dig a tunnel underneath one of the corners of the castle using timber props (this process was called sapping). The tunnel would then be packed with brush wood. The brush wood would be set on fire and the corner would collapse! The structure of the castle under siege would be weakened and the weight of the castle would bring the walls caving in and the whole castle would sometimes collapse. Other methods were also used by the attackers who had placed a castle under siege.

  • Scaling the Castle walls - Men, armed with scaling ladders scaled the walls of the castle which was under siege. The main attribute of the scalars was their speed
  • Treachery - Traitors within the castle could turn on the inhabitants
  • Starvation - An effective siege strategy if time and cost was not a problem - a particularly unpleasant method used when placing a castle under siege

The Defenders of a castle Under Siege
The defenders of a castle under siege were clearly the underdogs in this type of Medieval warfare. Their main advantage was the strength and location of their castle if it had been built and designed to fight under siege circumstances. Medieval Siege warfare tactics were therefore very much dependent on the construction of the castle. Considerable engineering and building skills were put into strengthening and reinforcing the weakest part of the Castles with siege warfare in mind. The defenders of a castle under siege used the elements of their castles as follows:

  • The moat and the drawbridge. The drawbridge was capable of being raised to prevent entry into the castle and a moat filled with water or sharp pointed posts made it difficult to mount an attack against a castle under siege
  • The Barbican or 'death trap' was developed as another way to strengthen the main entrance, by adding more defences in front of it. The Barbican was an exterior walled passage with multiple gates leading to the main entrance ( the Gatehouse) - the Barbican really was a death trap! Defenders would fire arrows from loop holes in the Barbican passage walls. Only a small number of men were needed to defend this part of the castle. Should an attacker breach the first defences of a castle under siege they could be trapped in the barbican and easily killed
  • Murder Holes - Holes above the barbican was a passage with a trap door. These were called Murder Holes and allowed defenders to drop boiling water, heavy stones or hot sand on the enemy
  • The gatehouse was the entrance to the castle and defended by at least one portcullis, a heavy grilled door that dropped vertically down to protect the main entrance of the castle
  • The Gatehouse might also contain murder holes and arrow loops in the side walls
  • The Gatehouse, or main entrance, would be heavily barred - the Chapel was occasionally built in this vicinity - behind the Gatehouse. The enemy would then be seen to fire on the Chapel - God was seen as being on the side of the Defenders of the castle under siege!
  • Once the Barbican and the Gatehouse had been breached the attackers would often find themselves in an outer bailey and under attack from the bowmen positioned on the walls sheltered by the Crenellations - yet another trap!
  • The low curtain walls of Concentric Castles meant that the defenders positioned on the inner walls could monitor the progress of the attackers who had placed the castle under siege
  • The attackers would then need to attack the Inner Bailey and the Tower or the Keep. The Keep or the Tower was the most strongly defended castle building. Some were as high as 90 feet tall!

The defenders would use all the traps which were built into the castle designs to their best advantage when defending a castle under siege. The siege engines which mounted heavy attacks on a castle under siege would be attacked using fire and grappling irons. Defenders would maintain a constant assault by firing arrows, stones (from slingshots) and crossbow bolts. Defenders launched arrows from narrow, sheltered windows called loopholes. Loopholes were different designs which accommodated the shape of different weapons. Different kinds of burning materials were dropped on the hapless attackers who had placed such a strong fortress under siege including hot rocks, burning tar, boiling water or hot sand.

Siege Weapons
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