4. Siege Warfare

Medieval Siege Warfare

On this page, you will be introduced to medieval siege warfare; its aims and effects as a strategy in war.

Here, you can also link your study of siege warfare to specific examples of battles you may have studied in order to contextualise it within an overal strategey of war adopted by a monarch or ruler. Links to the Paper 1 Prescribed Topics such as Genghis Khan and Richard I as well as Paper 2 Topic 3 that focuses on rulers and monarchs.

Siege Warfare

Siege warfare can be described as a Medieval military operation involving the surrounding and blockading of a town, castle or fortress by an army attempting to capture it - to lay siege or to besiege.

The aim in siege warfare was to scale the walls of a fortress or castle or a structural powerbase in order to take over the inhabitants and the enclosed space - often with the objective of total annihilation.

Other aims included to subdue a rebellious vassal and bring it back under the rule of the monarch.

Medieval warfare witnessed an intense use of siege-warfare as opposed to field-warfare. This is mainly due to the objective of territory acquisition which lay obtainable behind fortified complexes. Medieval landcape changed with castles and urban fortifiations protecting populations. Accessing towns and populations allows exploiting them for labour and resources. This was only possible through breaching these structures.

Siege warfare involved different aspects such as:

  1. weapons.
  2. method.
  3. tactic.
  4. effectiveness.
  5. organisation.

[1] Siege weapons: siege engines which are large constructions both mobile and immoble designed for maximum destruction and damage. Siege engines include:

Video on the siege tower:

ATL Skills: Critical Thinking Skills and Research Skills

"Siege Towers"

Read about siege towers here, here and here.

Study as well the source below which is a miniature (Gran conquista de Oltramar) from the Biblioteca Nacionale, Madrid, MS 195. It is a 13th century spanish miniature that depicts a crude assault on a Muslim fortress with a siege tower carried by knights. The Christian army are closing in on the fortress (notice the man on the tower wearing a scale coat of armour).

Prepare a short presentation on the siege tower. Include:

  • Purpose/aim of siege towers.
  • benefits and drawbacks in using them.
  • The 13th century Spanish miniature as your primary source.
  • Evaluation of the value and limitation of the source.

[2] The method of laying siege: A siege would generally be undertaken as follows:

First, opening diplomatic channels to avoid bloodhsed and loss of lives.

Failing this, hostilities would commence.

A siege would then follow from outbreaks of hostilities.

Below: A medieval German woodcut showing carrier pigeons transmitting messages during a siege.

A video renacting a medieval siege:

[3] Siege Tactics: in siege warfare, tactics included:

  • Starving the inhabitants of a fortress/castle/garrison.
  • Raids.
  • Sorties.
  • Psychological threats (threats).
  • Use of spies (espionage).
  • Relief forces.
  • Pyrotechnics (setting fire).
  • Escalade (direct assault).
  • Sap and mine (tunnelers).
  • Ram and bore (battering ram).

Pyrotechnics: Below is a miniature from the German Hauslab manuscript on fireworks c.1440 showing five incendiary arrows shot into the towers against the enemies.

In Medieval Siege Warfare by C. Gravett (Oxford: Osprey, 2000, repr.), p.47, the entry on Ram and bore states:

Battering ram: Below is a manuscript image of the siege of Jerusalem from the 'Commentaries of Hyman on Ezekiel' that includes a wheeled battering ram (c.1000, BNP, MS Lat. 12302 fol.1):

[4] Effectiveness of sieges:

The advantages of sieges include:

  • it had full-blown destruction capacity where personnel did not.
  • it did not require comitting soldiers to climb walls and be killed.
  • gains were immmense (e.g. a town).

The disadvantages of sieges include:

  • they are expensive to maintain,
  • they require alot of man-power to work them.
  • they are time-consuming to assemble.
  • losses and risk were huge.

[5] Organisation: sieges involved a variety of personnel such as:

  1. knights.
  2. light cavalry.
  3. infantry.

Each of these categories of personnel employed for sieges have a separate treatment. Cross references with those pages.

Activities

ATL Skills: Critical Thinking Skills and Research Skills

Capturing a Castle

Read the article "How to Capture a Castle" and answer the following questions:

Questions:

1] What was function of the medieval castle?

2] in the 11th and 12th century, what was one reason why siegecraft develop?

3] The article states that "the full-out siege was normally a last resort"; why was that?

4] Outline the siege of Bedford Castle in 1224 (see image below).

5] Describe the function of two medieval siege engines/weapons.

6] Study the source below from the Biblia de Maciejowski miniatura (MS M. 638. fol.10v):

a] what happened to the defenders of the fortress/garrison?

b] on the right of the miniature is a man sapping the walls. Why was this done?

c] why were infantry men wearing kettle hats with wide brims?

An Early representation of a traction trebuchet. Sicilian illustration, dated c.1180 CE.

A video of a medieval trebuchet in action:

ATL Skills: Critical Thinking Skills and Research Skills

Siege of Nicaea

Study the miniature below on the siege of Nicaea by the Crusades in early 14th century. It depicts severed heads being lobbed into an enemy fortress by catapult to demoralise the defenders (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, MS Français 2630, fol.22v).

Questions:

1] What can you infer from the source above? State two things.

2] What does this source suggest about the nature of medieval warfare? Discuss this (with another person or in groups) and share your views back with the class.

ATL Skills: Research Skills

Siege of Nicaea

Study the Siege of Nicaea in the document below and answer the questions:

Case Study: Siege of Nicaea

ATL Skills: Research Skills

English Heralds

Examine the miniature below on the English heralds arriving at the gates of Troyes in 1380 making a request for a formal surrender, MS c.1475.

Questions:

[1] What features of medieval siege warfare does this miniature depict?

Find 5 features and explain your answer.

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