- Slides: 18
MEDIEVAL ARMS RACE War in medieval times was about the control of land. Garrisons of knights and other soldiers who lived in castles controlled the land around their stone fortresses. To conquer a territory, an attacking army would have to strike and take these central strongholds. To do so, they would launch a siege. Over the centuries, medieval armies developed military strategies to fight a siege. Weapons of war also evolved, often in response to the technological advances of the enemy. By the mid-12 th century, siege warfare had developed into a science, practiced by an engineer corps call ingeniatores. Here I will describe some of the major weapons and strategies used in what became a medieval arms race. Let the siege begin!
7 6 1 3 8 2 9 4 5 Offense: 1. Direct Assault | 2. Siege Tower | 3. Trebuchet | 4. Battering Ram | 5. Tunnel Defense: 6. Walls | 7. Archers | 8. Gatehouse | 9. Moat
Direct Assault A direct assault was the most dangerous way for attackers to try to take a castle. Soldiers either scaled walls with ladders or overran castle walls breached by tunnels, battering rams, or artillery.
Direct Assault A direct assault was the most dangerous way for attackers to try to take a castle. Soldiers either scaled walls with ladders or overran castle walls breached by tunnels, battering rams, or artillery. Sometimes they attacked two or three spots around the castle at once to surprise their foe or divide castle defenses, and sometimes they approached the wall hidden within a trench or tunnel. Archers and crossbowmen would cover soldiers while they tried to break a wall or storm over it.
Direct Assault A direct assault was the most dangerous way for attackers to try to take a castle. Soldiers either scaled walls with ladders or overran castle walls breached by tunnels, battering rams, or artillery. Sometimes they attacked two or three spots around the castle at once to surprise their foe or divide castle defenses, and sometimes they approached the wall hidden within a trench or tunnel. Archers and crossbowmen would cover soldiers while they tried to break a wall or storm over it. Defenders, perched on the castle wall or in narrow windows called loopholes, literally had the upper hand. Archers rained arrows down on attackers, while soldiers pushed ladders off the wall with forked poles, dropped rocks or firepots filled with burning tar, or poured scalding water, wine, or hot sand (which could enter armor) down onto those below.
Attacking armies sometimes blockaded a castle instead. Though safer than fighting, starving occupants out of a castle was not always straightforward. Attacking armies, which often had hired mercenaries, were reluctant to wait out a winter in northern climates without permanent housing. Castle dwellers kept stockpiles of food and drilled water wells within the castle's walls. They also had ally troops that could come to their defense, sometimes turning a battle's tide.
Siege Tower Attackers sometimes built a siege tower to scale castle walls. Soldiers lay in wait inside the structure as others wheeled it to the castle. Once there, the soldiers lowered a drawbridge at the top of the tower onto the castle wall. Some towers were almost 100 feet high, and in the siege of Kenilworth Castle, fully 200 archers and 11 catapults were crowded into a single tower. Siege towers were difficult and time-consuming to build, however, and castle defenders could burn them down with fire arrows or firepots (launched pots filled with flaming liquids such as tar). Sometimes castle knights launched surprise raids on a tower to destroy it during construction. To protect their siege engine, attackers draped it with rawhides of mules or oxen.
Trebuchet During peacetime, castle commanders used trebuchets to launch roses at ladies during tournaments. But during a siege, these missile launchers were one of the most fearsome weapons of medieval times. Early trebuchets were powered by muscle, but later versions relied on a huge counterweight that swung a long arm. When the counterweight was dropped, the device launched a missile from a sling at the end of the arm. Trebuchets could launch missiles hundreds of yards in large, lobbing arcs at or even over a castle wall. The best trebuchets fired stone missiles weighing up to 400 pounds—big enough to do serious damage to a castle wall. Attackers also used them to launch dung or dead animals into the castle with the intention of spreading disease. Sometimes they even shot out the severed heads of enemy soldiers or even messengers who delivered unsatisfactory peace terms.
If a trebuchet was set up too close to a castle, archers would harass its builders with arrows shot from bows or bolts from crossbows. Castle defenders also would try to destroy rising trebuchets with catapults shot from the castle wall or with sneak attacks to burn it down.
Battering Ram Siege armies used a battering ram to break down a gatehouse door or even smash a castle wall. To shield themselves from attack, they built a covered shed, in which they hung a thick tree trunk on chains suspended from a beam above. Carpenters tapered the trunk into a blunt point and capped it with iron. The slow forward movement as the battering ram was wheeled toward the castle wall earned it the nickname "tortoise. " Soldiers swung the hanging trunk back and forth, and the forward end of the trunk moved in and out of the shed like a tortoise's head, battering its target. Castle defenders tried to burn the shed down with flaming arrows, though attackers responded by covering the shed with animal pelts or earth to make it fireproof. Defenders sometimes dropped mattresses down to cushion the blows or lowered grappling irons to grasp the trunk, preventing it from swinging.
Tunnel Men called sappers sometimes dug tunnels to gain entrance to a castle and thereby launch a sneak attack, but more often, these miners dug tunnels beneath a castle wall to destabilize and topple it. They supported their tunnels with timbers, which they then burned to collapse the tunnel—and, hopefully, the wall above. To defend themselves, castle dwellers put out a bowl of water and watched for ripples that might indicate digging. Sometimes the castle's garrison built counter-tunnels; if the two tunnels met, fierce battles ensued underground.
Walls At first castle walls were wooden, making them cheap and quick to build, but they were vulnerable to arson. Stone walls followed, and with each generation they grew thicker and taller. From the mid-13 th century, many castles had concentric rings of walls, one encircling the other. Caerphilly Castle is the earliest example of this in Britain, and the largest castle ever built in Wales. Low outer walls served as barriers against siege towers and battering rams. If attackers managed to break through this outer ring of defense, castle defenders could retreat behind high inner walls. Corner towers stood out from the walls, giving defenders a better perspective on enemy movements. Windows were rare; instead, slits called loopholes were built for archers. Sometimes builders thickened walls low to the ground to protect them from battering rams. Often, these walls sloped away at the base to redirect objects dropped from the top of the castle wall, ricocheting them out at soldiers on the ground.
Because they had walls to protect them, castle defenders would sometimes hunker down and try to wait out their attackers. Those inside made sure they could be self-sufficient when cut off from the outside world by a siege. They built wells and kept livestock inside their walls, guaranteeing fresh water and fresh meat during a siege. They also salted foods such as bacon and fish and stored grains and beans by the barrel-full. Castle garrisons also stockpiled weapons, for reinforcements often could not get through. If a siege continued into winter, castle dwellers had more protection from the elements than attackers, and if their rations held up, also more food to sustain them. Those besieged inside a castle often negotiated time frames for surrender with the enemy. For example, a castle garrison might tell an attacking army that they would surrender if reinforcements did not appear by a specified date. This would save lives on both sides and avoid the steep financial costs of a siege as well.
Archers Both attacking and defending armies had archers, though those shooting arrows from the castle had a great advantage. First, castle archers were almost always launching arrows from a higher position than castle attackers, which extended their range and provided them with a good view of their human targets. The castle wall also protected them well. Loopholes, the narrow slits that archers shot through, were often splayed to the inside, allowing castle archers a wide latitude of targets. The design enabled archers to hide off to the side of the loopholes while reloading, giving them protection from the rare arrow that did find its way in. Horizontally cut loopholes gave castle archers an even greater range. The archer had three weapons to choose from. The most powerful was the crossbow. Barbs on the head of a bolt, the stout arrow shot from a crossbow, were often coated with beeswax to help them pierce armor. Crossbows took longer to load than the simple bow or the longbow. A longbow archer could shoot about 12 arrows in the time it took to launch a single bolt. Moreover, the longbow could send arrows as far as 1, 000 feet. But longbows took tremendous strength to shoot and much practice to control.
Gatehouse The gatehouse, the castle's entrance, was the early castle's most vulnerable point. Later, military engineers bolstered it with impressive defenses. A drawbridge could be pulled back, lifted, or pivoted like a see saw, while portcullises—iron-covered wooden grills that moved up and down in front of the gatehouse door—provided additional protection. Castle dwellers could also slide wooden beams behind the doors to reinforce them. If attackers broke down the outer door and entered the gate's passageway, they ran the risk of being trapped. Sometimes defenders would drop a portcullis behind them. Roofs above gate passages often had so-called "murder holes" through which castle soldiers could drop burning oil, hot sand (able to enter armor), or scalding water onto enemy soldiers. Loopholes in the walls of the gate passage also gave defending archers—only feet away from trapped attackers—a deadly advantage.
Moats surrounding castles protected them from siege towers and battering rams, war machines that were only effective when wheeled to the wall. It also made digging tunnels underneath the wall far more challenging. To get across a moat, the attacking army sometimes filled the moat with rocks and soil or built portable wooden bridges.