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Castl-Capture-art - 5/19/12


"How to Capture a Castle" by Lady Katharine of Caithness.


NOTE: See also the files: castles-lnks, castles-msg, siege-engines-msg, blackpowder-msg, firearms-msg, Fustibalus-art, warfare-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



This article was first published in the "Apple Press" in September 2010.


How to Capture a Castle

by Lady Katharine of Caithness


There are a few tried and true methods to capture a castle. Some work better than others. Since castles were built as structures of war in a time when periods of law and order were few and far between, it was inevitable that they would be attacked. The object of laying siege to a castle was not to destroy but to capture it intact. Castles were massive fortifications, expensive to build, and labor intensive to repair.  Better to take a castle intact than in ruins.


So how do you capture a castle?  What follows are some methods to take a castle.


            Through diplomatic means.


Sieges could be costly both in money and lives on both sides of the castle walls. King Henry II gained five castles by diplomatic means. Berwick, Edinburgh, Jedburgh, Roxburgh and Sterling were part of the peace agreement following William the Lion of Scotland's capture at Alnwick in 1174. In 1461 the Scots were rewarded with the border castle of Berwick for supporting the Lancastrians against the Yorkist king Edward IV.


            Negotiation before and during a siege.


Before the attack would begin with a herald riding up to the castle offering terms of surrender wait for an answer and ride back to his lord. If the answer was no a siege would begin.


             Laying Siege to a castle involves a great deal of manpower and equipment.


Siege engines, trebuchets, archers, knights along with food, cooks, shelter, servants, and weapons. With all of this just outside ones drawbridge and surrounding the immediate area those in the castle may be intimidated to yield. This is rare as most castles have at least a year if not two years supply of food and a water source that can be accessed within the castle walls. Another psychological ploy was to take a captive’s head and launch it into the castle. This was done in the 14th century in the siege of Auberoche where an English messenger left the besieged castle to seek help. He was subsequently captured by the French, executed and his head was catapulted over the castle walls. In 1216 French besiegers of Dover demonstrated how much extra food they had to eat by setting up a market in full view of the castle while those inside the castle were going hungry. Religion could also be used. In 1266 Henry III used the Archbishop of Canterbury to excommunicate a rebel garrison at Kenilworth castle. Henry hoped that the rebels would be less willing to risk their lives if they believed they faced eternal damnation upon death. Unfazed by this established tactic the rebels dressed their surgeon in white robes had him parade on the battlements where he proceeded to excommunicate the King and entire royal army.


            The element of surprise is a good but difficult option.


It takes planning and a good deal of luck.. The Scots excelled at this in the 14th century. This was due to the old adage necessity is the mother of invention. The Scots lacked siege equipment. They staged a daring night attack in 1312 on Berwick using rope ladders to scale the walls. It almost succeeded but the castle dogs furious barking awakened the sleeping garrison. The next year they took Linlthiglow castle by hiding men in a hay cart. Sir James Douglas took Roxburgh after disguising his men with blankets and the English guards mistook the Scots for a herd of cattle. The English, not to be out done by the Scots, used similar tactics to capture Pontoise from the French in the winter of 1437. Dressed in sheets which camouflaged them against the snow they crossed the frozen Olse and scaled the castle walls before the defenders could react.


          Going over the top of the castle walls was also a popular method.


Simple and effective it did require a lot of troops to put ladders up against the walls and keep them there, but also men to climb the ladders. Everyone during the operation was exposed to the defenders who would attempt to shoot the invaders or pour all sorts of unpleasant things on them: heavy stones, red hot pitch or sand, and blinding lime on their heads.  A good commander would try to lessen his losses and dilute the effectiveness of the defenders countermeasures by attacking the castle in several places at once. He would use his archers and crossbowmen to keep the enemy heads down. Wooden siege towers were another favorite tool. One was used by the royal army at Bedford in 1224. The design was a simple enclosed tower with wheels that would be pushed up to the castle wall. A primitive drawbridge would be lowered at the top for the soldiers who were inside to run across to battlements.


If one could not go over a castle wall there was always the option of trying to go through or under them. One method of going through the walls was the battering ram. Most often used on the weakest part of the castle, the gate. As time passed design in castle defense improved and made it increasingly likely that a ram would be destroyed before it could do its job. The result was that the besiegers preferred to hurl missiles from a distance with catapults, trebuchets or a giant crossbow called a springald. Castle walls were built to take punishment but if its foundations were undermined they would collapse. One way was to for parties of miners to dig a tunnel toward the wall. Once it was completed, large amounts of flammable material were put into the tunnel to set alight the supporting timbers which would burn through causing the walls to collapse. If the castle walls were made of wood if one got close enough fire was a option. The Bayeux Tapestry shows Norman soldiers forcing the surrender of the Breton castle of Dinan by setting fire to its wooden walls.  This left no doubt to build castles from stone.


          The most time consuming way was to starve the castle out.


The strongest castle would eventually fall if its defenders were dying of hunger. The tactic was simple: surround the castle and deny them supplies and starve it into surrender. The best time to start a siege was in the early summer when the inhabitants ate most of last year’s harvest and the current year was not in yet. Another possibility was in the summer the castles well might run dry. This happened during King Stephens siege of Exeter in 1136.  The castle defenders turned to the wine cellar using wine for drinking, cooking and even putting out fires with it. Of course the wine eventually ran out and the castle was forced to surrender. With the introduction of gunpowder in the later middle ages, the days of a castle as a fortification were numbered. While cannon and shot were expensive to manufacture and difficult to transport, a king and his commanders could be fairly confident of success once deployed. The first English castle to be battered into submission was Bamburg in 1464 by the Yorkists.


  Perhaps that is why that after the late middle ages castle builders began investing in luxury as well as security.


Copyright 2010 by Kathleem May <kathleenklmpub at yahoo.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited.  Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org