Medieval Siege Warfare

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.

No toilets in an age of dysentery…

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. 

Battle of crecy froissart

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

Harder Version (also displayed below) | Easier Version


The Hundred Years War – An Introduction

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”

Handout: Writing a structured paragraph about siege warfare

Online Activities

1 Key Vocabulary
Flashcards | Bingo Terms and Pics

2  Quiz: The Hundred Years War and Siege Warfare

3 Quiz on the Vocabulary of Siege Warfare

4 Kahoot: Play with the Class | Play Alone

Recommended Websites

Siege Warfare in Medieval Europe from Ancient History Encyclopedia

♦ Seven Ways to Win a Medieval Siege from War History Online

Recommended Videos

Secrets of the Medieval Siege

Siege: Castles at War

Fotothek df tg 0000158 Belagerung ^ Festung ^ Belagerungsmaschine

A Siege and Siege Engines • Deutsche Fotothek [Public domain] • Wikipedia

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4 Replies to “Medieval Siege Warfare”

  1. The combatants in siege warfare experienced cruel and brutal conditions. The soldiers outside the castle were in a very vulnerable position compared to the garrison in the castle who had great big stone walls and siege engines to defend them. During the Hundred Years War, there were countless sieges all over France. Each siege was a brutal and ghastly experience. Both the defenders and attackers had to endure discomforts such as dehydration, starvation and poor sanitation. While the castle was more defensible, those inside still had to suffer the same discomforts. The castles were designed to be impenetrable. But with the invention of gunpowder and the cannon, the besieging armies had an easier shot of breaking through the defences; the defenders still held their ground as much as they could. Both the attackers and defenders suffered losses. The only thing that didn’t lose much was the castle itself.

  2. Siege Warfare is a tactical operation in which combatants endure bloody conflict and brutality to surround a castle in the attempt to capture it. Capturing a castle in the medieval period was a sophisticated and complex feat; the objective was to enforce intimidation against the opposition until they were obliged to surrender. England and France were involved in a lengthy dispute lasting over 100 years; this war included many siege battles. These battles incorporated famine, disease, biological warfare and mortal danger. Intimidation was a key aspect to scaring your opposition. Beating your adversary psychologically gave you an upper hand in a battle. Capturing a castle was so challenging due to its remarkable structure and fearsome defenders. There were various weapons including the trebuchet, battering ram and siege tower. This was a key factor in castles being so challenging to defeat. In summary, siege warfare during the medieval period was a method of settling a dispute using planning and cunning strategies.

  3. Siege warfare is a medieval strategic operation, in which your army would surround a town, castle or fortress and form a blockade, in hopes of capturing the objective. This form of warfare is bloody and brutal, and many lives were lost in each battle. If executed appropriately, one could gain the advantage in any battle. An example of siege warfare is the ‘Hundred Years War’, where England and France were bitter rivals and both nations made heavy use of siege technology (engines and weaponry) and planning. Siege battles were accompanied by psychological intimidation, which was a key element in succeeding with battles, as well as diseases, which may have worked for both sides. Siege warfare was an incredibly powerful way to resolve dispute between nations, hence, it being used in the medieval times. The concept of siege warfare hasn’t retired yet, even today, this notion of war is still being applied.

  4. Siege Warfare was a bloody, brutal and often fatal experience for both sides of the siege. The soldiers required sheer strength and an intuitive mind. Not only were the sieges physically brutal, but also applied severe pressure to the soldiers’ mental capabilities, as they had to overcome many challenges throughout the siege. For instance, it was a very tough time when the soldiers saw their mates die brutally in battle. The soldiers also had to cope with disease, which would have lead to even more casualties as there was little medical knowledge back then. The attackers would give their all to try and get inside the castle whilst the defenders tried to hold off the attackers with everything they had. Overall, it was a bloody, brutal period of time for both parties.

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