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Medieval Siege

Real Medieval Siege techniques appeared only when formal sieges by trained troops began to form a special feature in warfare. Until then, the castle inmates had chiefly to fear surprise, fire, and perhaps treachery. Against a formal siege, the Norman castle could hold its own. The passive strength of the massive keep, whether rectangular or cylindrical, was almost ideal. And with its ramifying passages and puzzling staircases it afforded some protection against treachery within. In 1135 Baldwin Redvers held Exeter Castle for five months against King Stephen.

However, the days of King Stephen, whose history is a long story of changing fortunes of the castles, are also the days when the weak points in the existing system of fortification became manifest.  In order to take advantage of this weakness, a more methodical approach was needed when conducting the siege.

Medieval Siege-Besieging A Town
Town Under Siege

From now on, the Medieval Siege methods will develop into the very art of siege-craft, as it was understood on the continent. When it was introduced into England, the attack was conducted formally and systematically by artillery, engineering and blockade. Under the head of artillery are included (in addition to the Crossbow, by which skilled marksmen picked of the defenders if they ventured to show themselves at the battlements), certain weapons of heavier caliber known as Petraria.

Failing assault, there remained the other component of a Medieval Siege, the blockade. Theoretically, the advantage here was with the attackers. Failing relief, starvation must sooner or later end the defense. In practice, however, blockade was very often, perhaps usually, unsuccessful. Castles were, as a rule, provisioned for at least six months, and it was impossible to keep a medieval army in the field for so long. Until standing armies of mercenaries were employed, the system of service stood in the way. And the besieging force melted away long before the pressure of starvation was felt within the walls.

Further, blockades were seldom effective. Most contemporary accounts describing a Medieval Siege show how easily communication was maintained between the beleaguered garrison and their friends outside.

To prevent this, and to make the defenders physically worn down, the malvoisin was employed. The malvoisin, as the name implies (from French, "ill neighbor"), was a permanent structure, sometimes of stone, but more frequently an earthen mound, placed as near as possible to the castle in such a manner as to command its gate, and to keep up a fire of missiles into its wards.

As early as William II, Bamborough Castle was unsuccessfully threatened by one of these "ill neighbors", and some traces remain of that thrown by Stephen at Wallingford during the long siege of its castle. A contemporary description speaks of two hastily erected "castles" which appear to have been mounds with defenses of timber.

Medieval Siege-Defending The Walls
Defending The Walls

Now we may look at a Medieval Siege from the defenders perspective. The first and always the chief of the means at their disposal was the passive strength of the masonry. This was supplemented by artillery similar to that of the besiegers. On one hand, the defenders’ artillery had the advantage of being positioned at a higher altitude. On the other hand, was the drawback of lack of space where to use the larger engines.

It is rather curious that the roof of the rectangular keep was apparently never used as a platform for heavy weapons, for which purpose such a roof would be perfectly adapted. When, however, the besiegers were able to bring their engines close under the walls, artillery in the earlier castles became useless, and the next resource was to attempt to destroy these engines by dropping heavy stones and combustibles upon them. When this had to be done from the rampart of a straight wall under a heavy fire, it became almost impossible, so that the next development was the provision of shelter by the construction of bretasches or brattices, and hourdes.

These were galleries of timber, temporary or permanent, clinging to the summit of the walls, supported by struts or balks of timber, protected by wooden hoarding often covered with hides. In France, these type of construction reached a high state of development, but in England it was never more than a makeshift.

This engineering work marked an essential contribution the Medieval Siege had to the development of fortifications, as from the brattice was developed the system known as machicolation.  This was a stone modification in which boldly projecting corbels carried a parapet two feet in advance of the wall, leaving openings, machicoulis, between the corbels, through which missiles might be dropped.

Against the attack of the ram, bags of wool or sand were let down from above to act as buffers, or the ram itself was caught and held in the cleft of a forked beam, while attempts were made to pick up individuals of the attacking party by means of hooks, occasionally with some success. When Stephen was besieging Ludlow, Prince Henry of Scotland was caught up in this way, and only rescued in mid-air by the great personal strength of the King himself.

The Medieval Siege became an increasingly dangerous business, both for the besieged and the besiegers. Starting with the 13th Century the whole system of military architecture was revolutionized, and the increased efficacy of the attack had to overcome a truly scientific form of fortification.  Not being a straight forward affair anymore, the outcome of a Medieval Siege will be decided also by other factors, like the ability of the attacker to keep his manpower in the field for a longer period if necessary, and the tactics employed.

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