Many movies have been made that involve castle sieges. We tend to have a romanticised view of what actually happened in these battles as heroes and heroines in full make up destroy the enemy to save the day. Nothing could be further from the truth than this. Castle sieges were very long drawn out affairs that could last for months or even years as a siege was not a short simple procedure but a tactical strategic operation that took planning and determination. Many castle sieges happened during The Middle Ages when castles were built with such impenetrable fortification that getting over the moat and into the structure was nigh on impossible.
Castles were built with invasion in mind so often had two surrounding walls plus in most cases a moat. This made it difficult for enemy armies to break through hence the time scale of sieges. Most sieges were resolved by cutting off supplies to the castle so that inhabitants would eventually run out of food and water while in some cases they would starve to death if there was to be an attitude of “no surrender”.
The inhabitants defending the castles would resort to eating anything to survive including cats or rats. Tactics used by the attackers would make life intolerable for the castle inhabitants. They would throw severed limbs over the ramparts to hopefully spread disease inside the castle or spread rumours of impending doom to demoralise further.
Outside the castle the attackers almost always destroyed surrounding areas by setting fire to land so destroying crops and animals essential to life. All kinds of tactics were applied to try to outwit the castle dwellers, such as deception by disguising themselves as innocent farmers and such to persuade defenders to lower the drawbridge. Battering rams were also used to try to break in as well as catapults that would pelt all manner of hideous objects into the fortress. Historically there have been many well known sieges. Below are a small selection.
The Siege of Castle Gaillard 1204
This is one of the most famous castle sieges of the middle ages. Castle Gaillard was built by Richard The Lionheart in 1198 being typical of a castle built during the crusades, while its remains can still be seen today. Built on the banks of The Seine it had two outer wooden circles with a stone inner circle giving it a strong defence structure. King Philip of France attacked the castle laying siege in 1203 while eventually taking the castle over in 1204.
Philips troops effectively tunnelled under the first wooden circles, while finding a way into the castle through an unguarded toilet outlet. This led into the chapel within the castles second circle. Water surrounded the third circle with a bridge overhead. The troops dug under the wall while using the bridge as camouflage penetrating the defences so that the knights plus men surrendered to the French king, so the castle was invaded.
This shows how they used tactical manoeuvring back then rather than full on fighting. It may have taken eight long months to lay siege and conquer but patience and guile won through in the end making this castle siege a tactical master piece.
Edinburgh Castle Sieges 638 to 1341
Edinburgh Castle has been besieged many times throughout its colourful history, sometimes successfully sometimes not. In the year 638 the castle was attacked by Oswald of Northumbria who not only successfully took over the castle but also the surrounding area. Edward I of England also besieged Edinburgh castle in 1296 with the castle inhabitants surrendering after only three days. This is one of the shortest castle sieges on record, while it was heavy bombardment not tactical manoeuvring that brought success. Edward pillaged the castle following the siege of 1296 taking some of the castles most treasured artefacts relocating them to England.
Following Edwards death the castle was once again laid siege in 1314 by Thomas Randolph Earl of Moray. In a surprise night attack the castle was taken over. This was a tactical campaign that saw thirty men under the command of William Francis invade the castle. These men knew of the existence of an unused path into the castle via the North side. Edinburgh Castle was occupied then reoccupied several times through history by both the Scots and the English. In 1335 by the English then again in 1341 by the Scots who gained access to the castle by disguising themselves as merchants bringing supplies. As they entered support troops who were hiding joined in the attack overcoming the castle dwellers. This was a common tactic you would think should have been spotted by the defenders but it seems not.
The Siege of Scarborough Castle: English Civil War
The siege of Scarborough Castle happened during the English Civil War of 1642-1651. The war was fought between Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads against King Charles I loyal royalists. The siege took place in February 1645 and lasted five long months. Heavy fighting ensued along with constant bombardment of the castle resulting in a bloody battle between the two forces. In fact this siege was one of the most violent of the English Civil War. Cromwell wanted control of the castle meaning the Roundhead forces would keep up the pressure until the Royalists surrendered.
Most of the castles keep was destroyed before the Royalists capitulated. The victory however was not to last long as yet another siege took place when the garrison switched sides. Control was finally gained in July 1645 with the castle staying under the control of Cromwell’s forces until the monarchy was restored to power. Most of the defenders had been killed during the siege leaving only some five hundred surviving the onslaught. The castle actually changed sides seven times between 1642 and 1648 causing a huge amount of destruction to the original structure.
The Siege of Kenilworth Castle: 1266 English Civil War
The siege of Kenilworth Castle took place between June and December 1266 lasting some six months during the English Civil War. Following the Battle of Evesham Simon De Montforts forces were expected to surrender Kenilworth Castle where the loyalist barons had taken refuge. The loyalists however had other ideas and had no intention of giving up the castle to the Roundhead forces. When an envoy was despatched to the castle asking the defenders to surrender they cut off his hand as an act of defiance.
It was inevitable that the siege would last for months as Kenilworth Castle was a superb structure that was built with heavy defences. There was a dam to the south of the castle behind which was a lake making it difficult to attack via land. The castle was surrounded on all sides by water making it a formidable fortress.
The siege proper began on May 24th 1266. There were over a thousand men stationed within the castle walls making for a strong defence force. Henry III and his son laid siege to the castle beginning the attack on June 21st . This was the largest siege in terms of manpower ever to take place in England.
Many weapons were used to try to defeat the defenders including catapults that fired rocks plus a structure that was built for archers to climb and aim their arrows over the castle ramparts. Barges also tried to attack the castle by sailing up the lake but this was to no avail. The only other avenue they could follow was that of waiting the defenders out. This meant sitting and hoping that they would run out of food and supplies so that they would eventually surrender. Also the longer the siege continued the more there was a risk of disease taking hold.
Finally on December 3rd 1266 the defenders gave up. Forced into surrendering they accepted the Dictum of Kenilworth which meant they would accept a kind of reconciliation. Once again the tactic of starving defenders out had worked as it did so many times during castle sieges.
The Siege of Cahir Castle Ireland 1599
Cahir Castle is situated in Munster Southern Ireland. The great siege that took place at the castle was during the Nine Years War between The Earl of Essex and the Irish rebels. On the 25th May Essex gathered his troops a mile outside the castles perimeter ready to attack. Lord Cahir who had gone along ahead of the attackers tried to persuade the defenders to give up the castle to the English and let them enter. Verbal insults ensued but the defenders would not give up without a fight.
The Earl of Ormond called a council of war to discuss how they would proceed. They needed to do one thing or the other as the armies supplies were depleted, the weather was abysmal plus disease was rife making matters worse. There was also the fear that rebel forces would gather further in support of the defenders of the castle. Forces dug trenches to the East while a cannon was erected only some fifty paces from the castle itself.
The cannon fire eventually breached the castle wall to the east while the English stole into the castle during the night via the castle courtyards with little or no resistance from the defenders within. Essex entered the castle on the morning of the 29th signalling the end to the Siege of Castle Cahir. Queen Elizabeth I of England was far from complimentary when commenting on the defeat of the rebels within the castle saying Essex had only defeated a “rabble of rogues”. In 1600 Cahir Castle was once again attacked, this time by the rebels who once again took up residence but this time without a single shot being fired.
The Siege of Kumamoto Castle: Satsuma Rebellion 1877
This siege took place during the Satsuma Rebellion being one of the major battles that was fought. The Imperial Japanese Army could not afford to lose the battle for Castle Kumamoto as the castle was in a strategic position between the Satsuma rebels and Tokyo the seat of power. The main garrison town of Kyushu was also under threat should the castle fall to the rebels plus other parts of Japan may decide to join the rebellion if the Satsuma forces were successful in their quest.
The first bombardment took place on February 19th with return fire from the defenders upon the Satsuma rebels. The castle had been standing since 1598 plus it was one of the strongest and formidable fortresses in Japan. Once the Satsuma army had gathered on February 22nd the main attack began. Heavy fighting ensued throughout the night but the Satsuma forces were repelled. Two more days fighting followed without success forcing the Satsuma rebels to change their tactics. They would try to starve the defenders into surrender, so dug in their forces around the castle, the siege had begun.
The defenders were in a bad position as their food supplies were low following a fire in the store place. Forces belonging to Ex Samurai gathered to support Saigo bringing his total manpower to over twenty thousand. Some fifteen thousand of these man fought in a fierce battle at Tabaruzaka against ninety thousand men of the Imperial Army suffering huge losses. The defenders of the castle took advantage of the depleted numbers by forcing through Satsuma forces to enable supplies to the castle to get through. The main Imperial Army then defeated the Satsumas on April 12th liberating the castle so ending the siege.
There have been so many castle sieges over the centuries all important at their moments in time. Some lasted so long that forces on both sides lost as their numbers depleted due to starvation, enemy fire or disease.
Find other castle sieges that may be of interest at Wikipaedia.org