Castles were primarily structures of war and were built in strife ridden lands. Thus,
it was almost inevitable that they would come under attack. Because castles were made
with such massive defense fortifications, it was extremely hard to destroy them.
Thus, the goal of a siege army was not to destroy a castle, but to penetrate it.
However, this task was also extremely hard. Sieges often lasted for months and
could even last for years! Castles were protected by at least two
walls, and often a moat. The defender's only
hope was that either a friendly army
would come to help them, or that they could somehow defeat the attackers by
The most effective offensive weapon was hunger and
Besieging forces would attempt
to completely surround a castle and cut it off from the outside world. No supplies
were allowed in or messages sent out. The situation often got very grim
inside the castle. Even though large quantities of supplies were stored
inside, they sometimes ran out. Then the defenders were forced to eat
anything they could get their hands on. This included rats, grass, dogs,
and anything else semi-edible. Essentially, the offending army would attempt
to starve and discourage the defenders to the point of surrender. There were many
tactics used to accomplish this. They did anything they could to decrease
the enemy's morale.
Because the defenders depended on reinforcements or a direct attack by allies from
another castle, the attacking army almost always embarked on a campaign of
misinformation. They would shout that the besieged army's allies were defeated. This
was just another way of demoralizing the castle garrison that was cut off from the
Offending armies would hurl insults and jeer at the
enemy. They would throw dead animal and human body parts into the castle to spread
disease and demoralize the defenders. In fact, the bubonic plague was originally
spread by a besieging army. The offending army in this case used catapult machinery
to launch dead bodies into a besieged town. This spread the bubonic plague which
eventually killed one third of Europe. This was one of the earliest cases of
biological warfare. Besiegers also often destroyed almost all crops and buildings for
miles around the castle. They pillaged freely stealing animals and other valuables.
Harassment and the Trick
Harassment was another way by which the attackers could break
down the castle's defenses. Its effect was both psychological and physical. Many
defenders were killed which lowered the number of men available to fight.
Additionally, the other men inside the castle soon grew tired of seeing their fellow
men in arms dying at their sides. The besieging army kept a constant stream of fire
upon the castle and men manning its walls. They set up movable shields, essentially
fences on wheels, that archers and crossbowmen could hide behind. The only problem
with harassment is that it applied both ways: Attackers could easily become as
harried as those defending.
Attackers also often tried to trick the castle defenders to gain admittance to the
castle. For example, the besieging army could take their weapons and march out of
sight. Then, they could wait a couple days and send several soldiers disguised as
peasants to the castle. These soldiers could then knife the castle guards in
secret and open
the main gate. The enemy army could then enter the gate and take the castle.
Tactics for the Defense of the Castle Walls
The defenders maintained their stronghold through various means.
The only thing they could really do was react to the actions of the attackers.
They sat tight and waited for the besieging army to leave or for help to arrive. They
constantly maintained a steady fire of rocks, torches, arrows, oil, and boiling water
on the attackers at the wall. Archers were positioned all over the battlement and the
towers to help with this. By maintaining this constant barrage of missiles, they
could make the attackers grow weary of fighting. They could also take a more active
part in the defense. Occasionally, a detachment of troops was issued from the castle.
This troops wood often force small skirmishes with the enemy.
The garrison in the castle also did many things to prepare for the siege. Once word
was sent of an impending siege, food was scavenged from the surrounding area. By
increasing the food supply, they could sometimes hold out for as long at a year.
Psychological warfare was not the only warfare employed in a
siege, however. Fighting was going on constantly among the two forces. The besieging
army used a number of methods to gain access to the areas beyond the walls of the
One of the methods that they might have used involved tunneling.
middle of the night, workers would erect wooden palisades, a type of fence, next to
the wall. They
would also sometimes build a shed. They would then cover these with leather hides
that helped to keep them from catching on fire.
These fortifications helped to protect the men inside from the constant barrage of
fire from above. Additionally, archers hurried in and around the tunnel entrance to
guard it and fire at defenders above. The archers were somewhat safe behind moveable
screen erected to guard them.
After sufficient defenses were set up, special diggers called sappers
would dig a tunnel underneath the castle's walls. As they were digging they would
support the tunnel with wooden beams. These men had to be on their guard, however.
Defenders often tried to dump hot oil and boiling water down into the tunnel and onto
the other soldiers' heads. Once the tunnel was long enough, the attackers had two
choices: Continue digging until they broke into the castle courtyard or set the
on fire. Setting the tunnel on fire would cause the surrounding earth to collapse
into the tunnel, possibly knocking the castle wall down. To set the wall on fire,
attackers would pile dry brush, leaves, wood, and occasionally pigs in the tunnel.
They would then light it on fire and hope that it would weaken the wall to the point
of buckling. If they chose to continue tunneling until they reached the inside of the
castle, there were many risks as well. Defenders would place bottles of water around
the castle. If they saw tremors in the water in certain places regularly, then they
knew someone was digging there. The defenders could then dig a counter-tunnel to
intercept the tunnel the attackers were creating. Then the defenders would engage
the enemy below the castle walls and foundation.
In addition to tunneling, besiegers often created a siege tower.
It was a large structure built to the height of the castle wall. Ladders led up to a
room at the top of it. The front and top of the siege tower was covered with leather
hides to prevent defenders from catching it on fire. It was built well away from the
wall and then rolled next to it during the night. It was positioned next to a wooden
hoarding built by the defenders. Then
the attack would begin. Defensive and offensive archers would both keep up a constant
stream of fire on each other as soldiers attempted to cross over onto the castle wall.
Sometimes, enough attackers would be able to enter the wall and take the nearest
towers. Other times, they would be routed and the tower would be set ablaze.
The Battering Ram
The battering ram was another way of getting through a castle
wall. During the night a shed was erected quickly next to the gate, or a weak point
in the wall. The shed was also covered with fireproof leather. If a moat was
there, it was filled most of the way with dirt, rocks, and
logs. Then, a large tree trunk was hung from the shed's ceiling by chains. It was
sometimes capped with iron. Teams of soldiers then rocked the trunk back and forth,
knocking against the wall. This could eventually cause a weakness in the wall,
possibly tumbling it. However, defenders once again kept a steady stream of fire on
the shed and the men around it. Burning objects were thrown down on top of the shed
in an attempt to catch it on fire.
Siege engines were also often constructed to help
walls and the buildings inside. Catapults, ballistas, and trebuchets are
these. Siege engines were machines, and as machines, they could be
powered in many different ways. Catapults and ballistas used the tension
power in rope and wood. They were bent and twisted like giant
rubber bands. The resulting tension, if suddenly released, could allow
operators to hurl large objects. Catapults were generally used
to launch rocks or incendiaries high into the air, over the
castle walls. Rocks were aimed at the walls, while the
incendiaries were aimed at the wooden buildings within. Catapults could
also be used to launch dead bodies or body parts inside the castle walls.
Ballistas were like giant crossbows and shot large arrows. They were
antipersonnel weapons. They could be aimed at a group of
enemies. Sometimes defenders also had ballistas because they
didn't take much room and could be placed on a castle tower. Trebuchets
were powered by men pulling
on one side of a swiveling beam. They pulled on a rope connected to the
short end of the beam. The longer side of the beam swung upwards,
releasing the object. Missiles from a trebuchet could be aimed very
accurately. They were aimed at the same spot in the wall for hours. The
objective was to weaken the wall enough to topple it.