Dear Year 8 Students,
Imagine sitting somewhere for hours with no certainty of success and a growing sense of the ultimate futility of all your efforts. Does this sound rather like school to you?
Well actually, I’m referring to carrying out a siege of a medieval castle.
Besieging a castle was a tedious, dangerous and messy business. All too often for the attackers, their efforts were futile.
Besiegers surrounded a seemingly impregnable castle and tried to induce the inhabitants to leave their stone refuge.
The besieging army would therefore be out in all kinds of weather, living in close proximity without proper sanitation. They would be vulnerable to castle defenders taking potshots at them from the castle wall and they would often feel cold and hungry. If dysentery broke out in the camp, everyone would become ill. The symptoms of dysentery include watery diarrhoea and vomiting. Imagine experiencing that without a toilet in the vicinity! By all accounts, the smell of a besieging army was particularly unpleasant. All in all, the sheer monotony, along with the constant danger and the lack of comfort, would lead to a constant sense of frustration.
Meanwhile, the defenders who were holed up inside the castle might well have enough stores to sit out the siege for months. They were in a highly defensible position.
Longbow • In the Public Domain • Wikipedia • This weapon was powerful and accurate at long range. It required years of training and great strength to learn to use it. A skilled archer could shoot 12-15 arrows per minute, which may explain why the longbow is sometimes referred to as “the machine gun of the Middle Ages”.
Sieges took place quite often during the Hundred Years War (which actually refers to a series of battles over a 116-year period, between 1337 and 1453). The French knights, despite their long years of training, heavy armour and daunting warhorses, were no match for the longbow archers of England at the Battles of Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt. As defenders sought protective cover in castles, rather than riding into open battle, a kind of arms race between the architects of castles and the designers of siege engines developed.
The Battle of Crécy (English on the right) • From an illuminated manuscript of the writings of Jean Froissart [Public domain] Wikipedia
Knights did not appreciate siege warfare since it provided no opportunity to show their valour. There is nothing very heroic about sitting and waiting, whether you are defending a castle or attacking it. Increasingly, such warfare involved mercenaries and peasants who were pressed into combat.
I hope that this rather unappealing description of siege warfare makes you feel slightly better about your daily fate in the halls of learning.
Kind regards from Ms Green
Quiz: The Hundred Years War and Siege Warfare
♦ Siege Warfare – Fill the Gaps (an online quiz version of this handout is available at number 3 under “Online Activities”)
♦ Handout to go with film: Siege: Castles at War
♦ Photocopy from a very old textbook, “In Search of History”: “Knights are Born to Fight” and “The Knights Go to War”
♦ Siege Warfare in Medieval Europe from Ancient History Encyclopedia
♦ Seven Ways to Win a Medieval Siege from War History Online
A Siege and Siege Engines • Deutsche Fotothek [Public domain] • Wikipedia