Medieval Siege Warfare


This post and the flash fiction post that accompanies it (which can be found here) are the first posts I’ve done for almost two weeks. I was away from home for eight days, and since being back we’ve been invaded by family and had several outings. So I must apologise to all those people whose posts I’ve missed. I hope to catch up on at least some of them.

So, this is a brief summary of some of the methods of besieging a castle.

By the 12th and 13th centuries, castles had evolved into powerful fortresses, able to withstand great assaults. Once the portcullis was down, the gates closed and drawbridge raised, they were very difficult to attack:

Bodiam Castle throughthe trees (Sussex UK) Author Pilgrimsoldier. Wikimedia Commons
Bodiam Castle throughthe trees (Sussex UK) Author Pilgrimsoldier. Wikimedia Commons

Medieval soldiers used a variety of methods to breach the castle defences and sieges were common. Siege tactics became very complex and did not just involve attackers rushing at the castle – which would risk the loss of too many men.

To begin with, leaders would search the realm in order to employ the best archers, carpenters, blacksmiths, sappers and engineers … and once they were all in place at the castle, the procedure followed a general pattern:

First, the castle would be surrounded, thus cutting off any means of escape and all supplies to the inhabitants. At the same time, besiegers would ensure that their own encampment was fortified, sometimes even constructing an earthen embankment around it and organising a constant night watch. Then they would simply wait for the lord of the castle to surrender – which could take many months. If the lord still refused to surrender, assault on the castle would commence.

By this time, attackers would have located the castles weakest points, such as the weakest doorways and lowest curtain walls – preferably with no outer river or moat, which entailed using barges to cross them.

The River Avon acts as a natural moat along the curtain wall of Warwick Castle
The River Avon acts as a natural moat along the curtain wall at the eastern side of Warwick Castle.

It stands to reason that gateways are likely to be the weakest points, and they would be attacked first. To do this, a battering ram came in useful (of which there were many sizes and designs):

Medieval battering ram at Chateau des Baux, France. Photo: ChrisO. Commons
Medieval battering ram at Chateau des Baux, France. Photo: ChrisO. Commons

Many castle gateways, particularly the main ones, were heavily fortified by a series of structures and mechanisms (like drawbridges, portcullises and thick wooden doors, as well as ‘murder holes’ above the inner passageway, should attackers get that far). A fortified outpost or gateway, like this one at Warwick, was called a barbican:


At the same time as the gateways were being attacked, ladders would be carried up to scale the walls, often to be met by defenders who simply pushed the ladders away, or greeted rising besiegers with boiling oil. For scaling the walls, lofty siege towers (or belfries) were wheeled up. At the top of these was a drawbridge which would be lowered to allow men to stream out and attack defending guards. Sometimes, belfries were used from a distance to fire arrows down into the castle.

Medieval English siege tower. Author: Grose-Francis. Public Domain
Medieval English siege tower. Author: Grose-Francis. Public Domain

Other machines (effectively different versions of catapults) were designed to breach the castle walls and towers by hurling large rocks and missiles at them. Dead animals were also hurled over the walls in the hope of spreading disease amongst the inhabitants.

Trebuchets were built in all shapes and sizes, some with wheels so they could be moved around the castle. They were massive, gravity-powered catapults, consisting of a lever and sling and capable of hurling rocks of up to 200lbs for 300 yards. They could also be disassembled in order to transport them from place to place. This is one we saw at Warwick Castle:


The mangonel also hurled boulders, and had a throwing arm like the trebuchet, but it was less accurate than the trebuchet, with a shorter throwing range, and aimed directly at the castle walls rather than over the top of them.It worked by torsion:

English mangonel. Author: Rpanjwani. Commons
English mangonel. Author: Rpanjwani. Commons
Medieval Mangonel. From "Dictionary of French Architecture fron 11th-16th Century" by Eugene Viollet in 1856. Public Domain,
Medieval Mangonel. From “Dictionary of French Architecture fron 11th-16th Century” by Eugene Viollet in 1856. Public
Mangonel shot used in the siege of Bedford Castle in 1284. Author Simon Speed. Public Domain
Mangonel shot used in the siege of Bedford Castle in 1224. Author Simon Speed. Public Domain.

A ballista was built like a huge crossbow and designed to shoot bolts (huge,metal-covered arrows) into the castle. It was manoeuvrable and played an important part in sieges for over a thousand years, originating in ancient Greece. This weapon utilized two torsion springs and two throwing arms to launch its load along a central track.

Some ballistas also hurled rocks, like this one we saw at Warwick Castle:


While all this was going on at the top of the castle, miners/sappers would be busy tunnelling up to the castle and tower walls in order to collapse them. To do this they would remove the foundation stones and replace them with wooden props. A fire would then be lit and the miners got out quick! Once the props burnt through, there would be nothing to hold up the wall, so it simply collapsed. The corners of square castles were the weakest parts and miners would often aim for those. Inside the castle, guards would place pots of water near the towers and walls. When the water rippled, they would know that enemy miners were at work.

Needless to say, a great variety of hand weapons were used during attacks, amongst others a variety of swords, knives, axes, spears, clubs, maces, flails, halberds, crossbows and longbows. And all soldiers would be heavily weighted down with necessary armour. It’s always mind-boggling to think of the enormous weight medieval soldiers had to carry whilst fighting for their lives.

Naturally, defenders had many techniques for countering attacks on their castles, a few of which I’ve mentioned above, and not every siege was successful …


99 thoughts on “Medieval Siege Warfare

    1. Thanks, Lyn. We had a day out to Warwick Castle on Wednesday, where the trebuchet as, so besieging a castle was really on my mind. Unfortunately, they weren’t demonstrating the use of the siege machines on that day, There was a joust instead, which was excellent.

      1. Some of the pics are from Warwick the other day. I’ll do a post about Warwick Castle when I catch up with myself! Haha. I’m dying to get to your blog and see if you’ve done another post about Saudi. But my kids just don’t seem to want to go home! 🙂

      2. It’s good to be back on my blog! I hadn’t posted anything for two weeks. But now I’ll be playing ‘catch up’ for a while. But I also have lots of material for new posts from my trip.

  1. This is very interesting Millie! As I was reading it I could picture all of these things happening. Britian is rich in history! Thanks for letting us know about your country’s history.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, PJ! I’m fascinated by all history, and not just British stuff. The past just grabs me somehow. Every holiday we have is spent around historical sites. Not everyone’s idea of fun! 🙂

      1. Europe is on ‘old’ continent, so we do have history going back a very long way. It’s all fascinating. But I’d also love to do a study of the Native Americans. That must be amazing. 🙂

      2. Yes, they are very interesting people. I live right next to the Navajo Reservation. The Ute, Apache, Pueblo, and Hopi Indian reservations are fairly close by as well. About 50 miles from me is the Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings. They are the ancient homes of the now extinct Anasazi Indians. They built their homes on the side of huge cliffs. Very interesting!

      3. I’d love to get out there to see that: We have ancient caves in the cliffs at Nottingham, where troglodyte people once lived, and I’ve seen cave-dwellers in Tunisia, even today.It’s your Indian peoples that fascinate me, though. One day, perhaps I’ll get out there for a holiday. Never say never…

    1. Thanks, Leenna. There’s so much in history to inspire stories. That’s the trouble – I have too many ideas for future books! I’ve done so much about castles and the medieval period over the last few months that I have several plot ideas in my head. I know you’ll understand what I mean. (I’m reading your book at the moment, so I’ll get back to you once I’ve finish it. I only read for a short time each day, so it won’t be for a week or two.) 😀

      1. Yes, I agree there’s loads of inspiration in history–whether for historical fiction or fantasy!
        I know what you mean about all those ideas that you don’t want ‘wasted’. I keep a little idea book/file to help me. Then I sometimes manage to combine them into another story I’m already working on. Not all stories need to be novels!
        I’m really glad you’re reading my book. Take your time and enjoy it.
        Are your books up on Smashwords yet?

      2. I’m still wondering whether I should just leave my books on Amazon Select until I finish Book 3. It would probably make more sense to leave things as they are until the whole trilogy is done. I’m enjoying your book so far, Leenna, but with summer holidays and grandson here for a while reading is slow at the moment. I’ll be speeding up soon! Talk again soon…

      3. So glad you’re enjoying my book :-), I think you’re right about keeping things with Amazon for now. I’m not sure how Amazon works, but perhaps you could be on Amazon and on Smashwords too. It’s just that Amazon serves mostly Kindle readers while Kobo and other readers are out there too. Why not do a survey to see what your readers prefer/would prefer. I personally might look into keeping the newest books on Amazon Select for while with the back order books more widely available –makes bettersense to me now that I think about it:)

      4. Hi Leenna. I’d like to have all three books with as many online retailers as possible, eventually. At the moment the first two are with Amazon Select, which demands exclusivity. I could take them off the Select programme and go for Smashwords and the others, but I might as well wait until the third one is finished.I’ll see how the next 5-day promotion goes, and if I find it’s not doing me much good, I’ll hoik them off Select! Thank you for all your advice on this. I’m new to it all and any advice is invaluable to me.
        Still enjoying your book… 🙂

    1. Me too! Those trebuchets sent all sorts of nasty things over the walls, for a start! Fireballs were common – which kept insiders busy while the walls were being broken down or scaled. Thanks, Ali. 🙂

      1. I really appreciate you saying that. It’s nice to have feedback about posts, isn’t it? I never know what people will think when I press PUBLISH. 🙂

    1. Well, thank you, William. Some of the photos are from Warwick Castle, which we visited (again) on Wednesday, There was lots going on, including a joust. On some days, they demonstrate how the trebuchet is used and hurl fireballs into the River Avon. I really want to see that! 🙂

  2. I’m glad you had an amazing time with your family Millie ❤ I bet it was unforgettable to spend some good quality time with them 🙂 Thank you for sharing this informative post! I got to know Medieval Siege Warfare more than I expected and I really enjoyed it 😉 The River Avon looked marvelous and you well captured its beauty! Well done! ❤

    1. Yes, it’s lovely to have them home again, if only for a short while. I’m afraid I don’t get much writing or blogging done when they’re here, though. We just enjoy ourselves and go out a lot. 🙂

  3. I just found your blog, with so much delicious history and castles and warfare details and… and this is where I cease being a highly educated civilized adult and start blabbering OMG THIS IS SO COOL!!!!! MORE! MORE! MORE!

    So, er, nice blog. Thanks for posting.

    1. I’m not sure how to respond to that amazing comment, Joy. Thank you so much! I’m a great history lover and spend a lot of time visiting historical sites, both in the UK and when we’re on holiday abroad, So I enjoy writing posts about them. It’s really nice to know that people like reading them, so I really appreciate your kind words. I have several to post at the moment, because we’ve just had a week up at Hadrian’s Wall. (It’s also great to hear from someone with such a wonderful sense of humour!) 😀

      1. Well, I very much enjoy reading exactly the types of posts you enjoy writing, so that works out wonderfully! I love history too, especially Greek through Medieval Europe, although I’m a rank amateur and seem to forget most of what I learn amazingly (and depressingly) fast. Your posts on castles remind me so much of how I tour castles, what details I take photos of and post on Facebook later, etc. I’m the tourist whose friend is saying “That’s pretty,” while I’m saying, “Yes, but I don’t get how that makes sense defensively. Can we get a better view from over here…?.” (Cue friend’s whining about how long we’ve been at the castle already.)

        So it’s great to read your thoughts, especially since you clearly have a much better grasp of the subject! I can’t wait to read the rest of your posts!

      2. Well, you’re not alone in being that kind of tourist. But we’re a family of history lovers and often visit historical sites together. So we’re all taking photos – and at least no one’s getting impatient to leave. One of my daughters puts a lot of her photos on her own blog, but usually on photography posts rather than history ones. I agree that it’s the detail, the unusual quirky shapes and designs of castles that make photos interesting. I always look at defensive aspects, too – a habit from teaching days. Will view your post soon… 🙂

  4. I’m obviously living in the wrong era (even though I happen to own a battering ram). Dead animals, such as field mice, were also hurled over the walls in the hope of spreading disease amongst the inhabitants. This is ingenious.

    But a rock-hurling ballista is a capital idea. Don’t know how I’ve been able to manage without one.

    1. Perhaps it’s a good thing you haven’t got a rock-hurling ballista, Prospero. Using it in public could well get you locked up. As for your battering ram, the mind boggles as to just how you put that to good use (legally, that is). Perhaps living in the 13th century would suit you well. 🙂

  5. I don’t see how would one stand against a siege. It is only a matter of time 😦 Your post is amazing as always – I was completely immersed in the era.

  6. Well that was a flash fiction pic right up your street 🙂 It must have been terrifying trapped in a castle under siege.

    1. Thank you so much, Smilecalm. Those who besieged castles found many ingenious ways of penetrating the walls – and of causing havoc to those inside whilst they did so. 🙂

  7. Beautiful photos as usual, Millie. Castles are so romantic! That boiling oil sounds like it would do the job, actually it all sounds like it would work to discourage me 🙂 Those castles were probably just fine until the supplies started running out…..

    1. Thank you, LT! Besieging a castle was a marathon task and very often defenders did surrender due to supplies running out. But attackers had so many tactics and many sieges did result in collapsed walls and towers, or uncontrollable fires inside after fireballs were hurled over by the trebuchets.

    1. I imagine that Warwick Castle isn’t the only one that puts on displays, Chioma. I think you live in London (?) so there are several castles within reach where you could go. Arundel Castle in Sussex is a very well preserved castle – although I don’t think they hold any events. Leeds Castle in Kent is also great, and has events on certain days. Warwick is almost two hours (by car) away from us, but is still doable in a day. As for the siege warfare, Warwick do have days when they demonstrate use of the trebuchet and ballista, but there was a joust instead when we went.
      Thank you very much for liking my post! ❤

      1. The joust was good, but they weren’t the best jousting group we’d seen. The ones from Nottingham are the world champions (don’t ask me how they get that title!) and often come to Lincoln and Belvoir castle in Leicestershire. They are brilliant and have been used in films. The ones at Warwick were OK though. I couldn’t get very good photos (‘cos I’m such a titch) because of the crowds in front of me. Louise got some much better ones – which I think she’s already posted about. (She has a nice ‘posh’ camera with a great zoom.) I’ll get round to doing a post about Warwick, but I’ve got my Hadrian’s Wall posts to do first. I still have one to do about King John, too. ❤

    1. I bought a Samsung tablet so I could use it for photos – I already had a Kindle, but that doesn’t take photos. I found the Samsung OK, but have now ordered a sun-shield for it. Taking photos in bright daylight was a nightmare because I couldn’t see the screen. So I still relied on the trusy camera. And at first, for indoor photos, especially when it was quite dark, I found the photos were rubbish – until I realised there was a ‘Night’ setting – the equivalent of a flash! (Yes, I’m a right Dimbo!) So now I’m just waiting for my sun shield thingy and I should be OK.
      I bet you wish you hadn’t asked! 🙂

      1. In all honesty, there are so many of us that make typos, Chioma. You don’t make any more than me or anyone else. It’s good to share a laugh about them though, isn’t it. We’re only human, after all.

    1. If you do visit the UK, Irina, there are so many castles to choose from, you’d be stuck for choice! I suppose it would depend on which part of the country you come to. I love the old, ruined ones, like those in North Wales I posted about a few weeks ago. Warwick is much more well-preserved, and furnished in parts. All castles are excellent though – and very educational. I’ve taken several groups of Year 7 students to Warwick. They used to do a big piece of work about methods of attacking and defending a castle. They had to examine and evaluate all the gateways and walls and decide where to attack – and then they’d chooose the correst siege weapons and decide where to position them. They really enjoyed it, and we had some great role-play from it, too. 🙂

      1. I visited the UK as a student in 1954 and remember Culzean Castle in Scotland. I remember the huge kitchen in Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace. I remember much better the French castles in the Loire Valley I visited in 1963. Castles are fascinating. I wish I could have been in your group of students, Millie! 🙂 Alas, not well enough to travel these days. So I’ll visit the castles via your marvellous posts.

      2. Castles appeal to so many people – they have that air of romanticism about them. Old buildings, especially ruins, can also conjure up some dark and creely stories. Pictures of them are great for use as prompts in FF challenges.I have a few more castle posts lined up, but I want to post a few about Hadrian’s Wall first.I’d love to get out to the Loire Valley, too. Those pointy-towered French castles remind me of fairy tales.
        It’s funny you should mention Culzean… We moved into our present house eight years ago and it already had a name, which we just kept. We had no idea what it meant until a delivery man informed us that he’d been to Culzean Castle in Scotland. So that’s still the name of the house. Ours is a funny village – there are no numbered houses. All have names. New delivery men go crackers trying to find the right house!

    2. French castles are amazing. When I saw Chambord from a distance, I couldn’t believe it was real. It came right out of a fairy tale. 300 chimneys, all different! As we were walking towards the castle down the wide gravel path, I imagined Francis 1st coming down the same way in a gilded coach with his retinue long ago. He would have been astonished to find his castle completely bare inside. The revolutionaries looted and destroyed everything. But Leonardo da Vinci’s staircase stood out even more, I should think, in this bare environment.
      Looking forward to your new posts, Milli, and the ones I have to catch up with 🙂 

      1. I had to look this one up before I replied to you, Irina, because I’ve never visited it. Chamburd is very different to English castles and several hundred years younger than most (built 1519-47). I agree it looks magnificent and has that fairytale look about it. It’s somewhere I’d love to viist. But, strictly speaking, it isn’t a castle, but a château. I’d heard of Chamburd before, during my years of teaching about the French Revolution, but now I know a little more about the place itself. Thank you for this, Irina. I’m always interested in any old buildings. 🙂
        I’ve already read your lovely poem. I’ll be thinking about bunnies all night now. 😀

      2. Millie, I hope you can visit Chambord one day, and the other châteaux in the Loire Valley. But you’re right, Chambord is not a medieval castle, a ‘château fort’, yet the French use the word château for all categories of grand buildings, including medieval castles, royal palaces and castles, mansions, manors, stately homes and even vineyards. I looked that up too. Thank you for pointing the difference out to me. So here’s a link to a proper castle or ‘château fort’ we visited on our trip to the Loire Valley:

      3. I would dearly love to visit that part of France, and it’s not so far from the UK. It’s now on our list for sometime in the next couple of years. Thank you very much for the link!
        The French châteaux are so much ‘lighter’ and decorative than many of the dark, brooding castles in the UK. Many of ours are a thousand years old, so are very different in style and state of preservation. I love all old buildings – including monasteries, abbeys and churches. I hope to look at many of these over the months on my blog – and those in france would be great to do! (Long term plans here – take no notice!) 🙂 Talk again soon…

      4. Thank you yet again, Irina. I’ll look this one up, too. There’s so much to see in that region of France… It’s just finding time to fit another holiday in next year. I ‘ll have to make sure Book 3 is finished by then! At the moment, things are progressing very slowly – but at least they’re moving. Very best wishes to you, Irina. 🙂

      5. Thank you so much for this, Irina. 😀 The review is more than I could have asked (I’ve just had a read). I’m so pleased that you liked the story and am so grateful you’ve put the review on Amazon. I am trying to get on with Book 3 a bit more, now. I think I may have to cut down on blogging even more very soon. 🙂

      6. My pleasure, Mille. I’m glad you’re happy with the review. So if I don’t see you here, I’ll know you are busy writing your book. Best wishes 🙂

      7. I’ll keep the blog ticking over, somehow, Irina – just doing historical posts for a while, probably once aweek. We’ve visited so many sites this year, and I’ve already got a lot of posts lalready lined up. It’s the flash fiction that will have to go – unless I see a really gripping prompt! Thank you again for the awesome review, and your kind wishes for Book 3. Best wishes with your writing, too! We’re off to Malta next Friday, but when we come back it will be full sream ahead with my book. 🙂

      8. Thank you, Irina. We’ve been a few times now because (foolishly) we bought a time share there. We were carried away by enjoyment of the holiday at the time. But the funny thing is, before that we always made a point of not visiting the same place twice. Malta is lovely, but there’s so much of the world to see to keep going back to that same hotel in the same resort. Next year, my brother is using our weeks and we’re going somewhere else – hopefully the Loire Valley! 🙂

  8. Thanks for sharing this informative post. I’m happy that you are enjoying your time with your kids. :)The photos are really good, Millie. I love these posts. They would have worked hard to create such a thing – mechanics, resources, everything.

    1. That’s very true. Laying siege to a castle was a skilled operation. The ‘children’ have gone home now, Norma, but we’re now in the middle of yet another session with no internet! I’ve come through to my daughter’s house in Lincoln this morning so I can do a bit of catching up. We’ve arranged to transfer to another supplier later this week, so we’re hoping that is much better! We’ve lost connection three times in the last two months with BT, so they just have to go! I’ll view your latest posts asasp.

      1. It’s so easy to get behind but not easy to play catch up. There just isn’t the time to catch up on all the posts you miss. I’ve had a couple of weeks away recently, and missed so many people’s posts. I just do as much as I can. 🙂

      2. I can read quite quickly, but sometimes I have to read things a second time to make sure I got it right. When reading flash fiction, it’s very easy to misread or misunderstand what the writer actually means sometimes. I shouldn’t worry about catching up too much, if I were you. Just read the latest posts, as you would normally. Lots of people have been away on holidays over the summer, and very few spend time on reading posts they’ve missed. 🙂

      3. I believe you, Millie. I can only read quickly for a couple of hours at a stretch and then I need a break. Oh, yes the FF’s and all kinds of fictions are sometimes easily misunderstood and misread when reading quickly specially at such times.
        Holiday time! Read and enjoy that is a part of blogging. When I over-stress myself with Blogging or reading, I have to remind myself “blogging is fun and if you are not having fun you are not doing it right”. 🙂
        I don’t want to miss your posts, so, I’ve bookmarked them. Will be reading it soon (at a relaxing time). 🙂

      4. Yes, I agree with you that blogging should be fun. For me, it is – most of the time. I love doing all the different types of posts I do, and I reallly love talking to people! It’s just recently I’m getting a bit stressed because Book 3 is moving too slowly. I know I’m spending far too long on WP, and something will have to give very soon. I have people waiting for Book 3! Now that should cheer me up, but it has the opposite effect right now. 😦
        I still haven’t got the Award post up, and all I need to do is write out some nominees! I wrote the rest (it’s quite a short one to do) two weeks ago. It will definitely be up before we leave for a week in Malta tomorrow. Honest! 😀

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