Sieges were an integral part of warfare during the Middle Ages. Imposing stone castles, with their tall ramparts and formidable defenses, presented an overwhelming challenge for any attacking army. Many of these battles are remembered for their strategic ingenuity, heroism, and sheer brutality. This article will delve into the details of a few renowned castle sieges of the Middle Ages that have left a lasting imprint on history.
What Were the Sieges in the Middle Ages?
Sieges during the Middle Ages were prolonged military campaigns carried out to capture a stronghold, most commonly a castle or a fortified town. The goal of a siege was to isolate and weaken the defenders by cutting off their access to resources and reinforcements. Over time, the intention was to force them into surrender due to starvation, loss of morale, or a direct assault when their defenses had been sufficiently weakened.
The process of laying siege was complex and varied in duration, from a few weeks to several years, as in the cases of the Siege of Acre or the Siege of Kenilworth Castle. Sieges involved a wide array of tactics and strategies, many of which evolved over the centuries. Early sieges might have consisted of surrounding the castle and simply waiting out the defenders. However, as time went on, siegecraft became more sophisticated.
Attacking forces utilized siege engines like battering rams, trebuchets, and siege towers, designed to break through or over walls. Tunneling or mining beneath walls to collapse them was another commonly used tactic. The invention of gunpowder and the development of artillery further transformed siege warfare by the end of the Middle Ages.
Defenders, on the other hand, would use every means at their disposal to withstand the attack. This involved throwing projectiles from the battlements, repairing any damage caused by the besieging army, and conducting sorties to disrupt the attackers.
Overall, sieges were a crucial aspect of medieval warfare, shaping the outcome of conflicts and leaving a lasting legacy on the landscape and history.
How Long Did a Medieval Siege Last?
The duration of a medieval siege was extremely variable, dependent on numerous factors such as the size and strength of the attacking and defending forces, the design and fortification of the castle, the availability of supplies, and the wider political context.
Typically, a siege could last anywhere from a few days to several years. For instance, the Siege of Jerusalem during the First Crusade in 1099 lasted a relatively short period of around five weeks. In contrast, the Siege of Acre during the Third Crusade extended over two years from 1189 to 1191, highlighting the tenacity of both the defenders and the besieging forces.
A large and well-fortified castle could resist a siege for months. For instance, the Siege of Kenilworth Castle in 1266 lasted for about six months, making it one of the longest sieges in English history. Similarly, the Siege of Montsegur during the Albigensian Crusade lasted about ten months from 1243 to 1244.
Yet, a siege aimed not necessarily to capture the castle quickly. Rather, the strategy was often to isolate the castle, cut off its supply lines, and wait for the defenders to surrender due to starvation or loss of morale. As a result, the length of a siege was frequently a testament to the patience and endurance of the besieging force as much as the resilience of the defenders.
What Were 3 Methods Used to Siege a Castle?
Medieval sieges involved various innovative and brutal techniques to breach a castle’s defenses. Here are three major methods employed during such sieges:
- Direct Assault: This method involved an all-out attack on the castle’s defenses. Soldiers, armed with a variety of weapons such as ladders, battering rams, and grappling hooks, would attempt to scale the walls, break down gates, or climb over barriers. This was often the quickest but also the most dangerous method of attacking a castle, as it exposed the soldiers to a range of defensive measures, including arrows, boiling oil, or large stones hurled from above.
- Siege Engines: These were specialized weapons designed to overcome castle defenses. The most famous was the trebuchet, a massive catapult capable of hurling large stones or fireballs over castle walls. Other engines included the ballista, a giant crossbow that shot large bolts, and the siege tower, a tall structure on wheels that allowed soldiers to gain access to the top of a castle wall. These engines were usually constructed on-site during the siege due to their size.
- Starvation and Disease: Often, the besieging army would surround the castle, cutting it off from the outside world. The goal was to deplete the castle’s supplies and weaken the defenders through starvation and disease. This method was less risky for the attackers but required considerable time, potentially years, to be effective.
The decision on which method to use often depended on the besieging force’s resources, the castle’s defenses, and the urgency of the situation. Usually, a combination of these methods was employed to maximize the chances of success. Sieges were brutal affairs and a testament to the military ingenuity and the difficult realities of medieval warfare.
The Siege of Jerusalem (1099)
The First Crusade culminated in one of the most brutal castle sieges of the Middle Ages, the Siege of Jerusalem, in 1099. Crusaders from Europe descended upon the city with the aim of reclaiming it from the Islamic Seljuk Turks.
Despite their numerical inferiority, the Crusaders made successful use of siege engines like the catapult and siege tower, and a final assault on July 15 resulted in their breaking the defenses of the city. The subsequent events, including the mass slaughter of the city’s inhabitants, have made this one of the darkest chapters in the history of medieval sieges.
The Siege of Acre (1189-1191)
The Siege of Acre, part of the Third Crusade, was a prolonged battle between the Crusader armies and the defending Muslim forces led by the renowned Sultan Saladin. Located on the coast of modern-day Israel, Acre was a vital stronghold for controlling the surrounding territories.
Crusaders kept the city under siege for two long years, with both sides demonstrating remarkable resilience and strategic acumen. The siege was characterized by extensive use of siege engines, sophisticated warfare techniques, and bitter fighting. The end came in July 1191, when English King Richard I and French King Philip II managed to break through the city’s defenses.
The Siege of Kenilworth Castle (1266)
In England, the Siege of Kenilworth Castle in 1266 is remembered as one of the longest and fiercest sieges in the country’s medieval history. Simon de Montfort’s rebels held the castle against the ruling King Henry III.
Kenilworth Castle was exceptionally well-fortified, with a great lake providing a natural barrier to the castle walls. The royal forces laid siege to the castle for six long months, unable to breach its formidable defenses. The situation was finally resolved by negotiations and the Dictum of Kenilworth, a peace settlement that allowed the rebels to surrender without severe repercussions.
The Siege of Harlech Castle (1404-1409)
Harlech Castle, located in Wales, was the site of a notable siege during the uprising led by Owain Glyndwr against English rule. In 1404, Glyndwr captured the castle, making it his residence and a symbol of Welsh resistance.
The English, led by King Henry IV, laid siege to Harlech Castle in 1408. Despite the castle’s impressive fortifications, the tide of the siege changed with the use of cannon fire, a relatively new addition to siege warfare. After a protracted siege lasting over a year, the castle finally fell to the English in 1409.
The Siege of Orléans (1428–1429)
In the context of the Hundred Years’ War, the Siege of Orléans stands out as a crucial turning point in favor of the French. The city was under siege by English forces, who were on the verge of gaining complete control over the French kingdom.
The arrival of Joan of Arc in 1429 reinvigorated the French resistance. Her strategy and inspirational presence led to a series of victories that lifted the siege and turned the tide of the war. The siege is thus remembered not only for its military significance but also for the rise of Joan of Arc as a national heroine.
What Was the Longest Siege in Medieval History?
The longest siege of the Medieval period is considered to be the Siege of Candia, which lasted an astonishing 21 years from 1648 to 1669. Still, this siege falls within the early Modern period rather than the Middle Ages. For a siege strictly within the medieval time frame, the title is usually given to the Siege of Ceuta, which took place from 1694 to 1727. Still, again, this falls slightly outside the conventional periodization of the Middle Ages.
Focusing on the period traditionally defined as the Middle Ages, one of the longest and most drawn out was the Siege of Acre, which lasted for two years from 1189 to 1191 during the Third Crusade. Yet, the Siege of Kenilworth Castle in England holds the title for the longest siege in the British Isles during the Middle Ages, lasting six months from June until December in 1266.
The Siege of Kenilworth is notable due to the defenses of the castle, which included a large lake and exceptionally thick curtain walls. These defenses delayed the attackers, led by King Henry III, for an extended period of time. It wasn’t until Henry’s forces could construct a causeway across the lake and approach the castle walls that the siege was broken. Despite the lengthy duration, it was ultimately negotiation rather than force that ended the siege, with the rebels inside surrendering under the terms of the Dictum of Kenilworth.
This siege, among others, underscored the strategic importance of castles and fortified cities during the Middle Ages. Their ability to withstand prolonged attacks allowed them to serve as significant defensive structures, providing protection for the inhabitants and acting as a deterrent to hostile forces.
How Did Medieval Castles Survive Sieges?
Medieval castles were meticulously designed for defense, and these design features played a key role in helping them survive sieges. Here are a few ways they withstood such onslaughts:
- Location: Castles were often built on high ground, giving defenders a strategic advantage, visibility of approaching enemies, and making assaults difficult. Locations near water bodies were also favored for the ease of resupply via water routes.
- Walls and Moats: Thick stone walls were the first line of defense, protecting the castle from direct attack. Filled with water or dry ditches, moats surrounded the castle walls to hinder enemy advancement.
- Towers and Battlements: Towers provided an elevated platform for archers, while battlements or crenellations on castle walls offered defenders cover as they fired arrows or hurled projectiles at the attacking forces.
- Gatehouses and Drawbridges: The entrance to a castle was heavily fortified with gatehouses, often equipped with a drawbridge and portcullis, which could be raised or lowered to control access.
- Supplies: Castles were usually stocked with ample provisions to withstand a prolonged siege. They had storerooms for food and water, allowing defenders to survive for months or years without external supplies.
- Counter-siege Tactics: Defenders employed various tactics to resist sieges, such as sorties (sudden attacks on the besieging forces), repairing breached walls, and using siege engines to counter-attack.
Surviving a siege required a combination of these defensive features, tactical responses, and, importantly, the resilience of the castle’s inhabitants. Despite their fortifications, the fate of a besieged castle often hinged on the length of the siege and the tenacity of its defenders.
Each of these sieges was unique, defined by the geography of the castles, the strategies employed, the personalities involved, and the historical context. They collectively illustrate the dramatic and often brutal nature of medieval warfare, the evolution of siege tactics, and the indomitable human spirit under the most adverse circumstances. Despite the passage of centuries, these sieges of the Middle Ages continue to resonate in history and popular culture, serving as stark reminders of our tumultuous past.