Weird History

How To Survive A Castle Siege

No two castles were alike during the Middle Ages, and no two castle sieges were the same. The great stone structures we often associate with the medieval era were built to keep fiefdoms safe from constant conflict. Life in a medieval castle offered a fair amount of protection and stability, but since siege machines kept getting progressively more powerful, castle walls couldn't always keep the inhabitants safe. Castles during the early Middle Ages were made mostly of earth and wood, making them particularly susceptible to fire. With the increased use of stone later in the era, medieval siege technology became increasingly fierce, while the development of more devastating siege engines like the trebuchet added to the terror and destruction.

There were other risks - starvation, disease, espionage, and exhaustion could result in surrender or defeat. But there were steps one could take to pull through. Whether hunkered down in a safe corner of the castle or besting your enemy at their own game, there were options for surviving a medieval siege.

  • Throw Rotten Food And Other Detritus At Your Enemy
    Photo: Anonymous / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Throw Rotten Food And Other Detritus At Your Enemy

    There were many items and materials one could hurl at their enemy, including the traditional hot water or oil. But through the days, weeks, or months under siege, all kinds of possibilities presented themselves: animal cadavers, rotting food, human waste. Everything was fair game.

    There are several recorded instances of biological warfare being carried out, and the tactic could definitely be used by both sides. In 1340, the enemy catapulted horses cadavers into Thun L'Eveque castle at Hainault and forced the inhabitants of the castle to surrender. 

    At Caffa in 1346, the Tartars' army hurled diseased bodies - likely those with bubonic plague - at a Genoese fortress. Just a decade earlier, in 1332, a group at Strasbourg flung barrels full of bodies and trash into Schwanau in Germany. In 1422, attackers at Karlstein in Bohemia threw their fallen and animal feces. 

  • Pour Hot Liquid On Your Enemies
    Photo: Bibliothèque nationale de France / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Pour Hot Liquid On Your Enemies

    If you're stuck in a castle that's under siege, one options is to heat up whatever you have on hand and drop it down on to the foe below. There are accounts of besieged individuals using hot oil, even though it was an expensive commodity at the time. Other options included boiling water, hot rocks, heated sand, or pitch (tar).

    In his 6th-century work History of the Franks, Gregory of Tours wrote of a citadel commanded by Merovingian king Gundovald besieged by King of Burgundy Guntram and Leudegisel. On the 15th day of the siege, Leudegisel used battering rams to breach the citadel walls. In response, the defenders "threw upon them pots of burning pitch and fat and hurled jars full of stones down on them." Many of the enemies that day perished.

    Many castles had machicolations from which individuals could drop or pour anything and everything to keep foes at bay. 

  • Make Sure You Have Plenty Of Supplies Before The Siege Begins
    Photo: Biblotheque Municipale de Lyon / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Make Sure You Have Plenty Of Supplies Before The Siege Begins

    One of the biggest problems with a siege, especially an extended one, was having sufficient supplies. Enemies would engage in a campaign of attrition, cutting off supply lines and bombarding castles with siege engines until inhabitants had no other choice but to surrender.

    Being well prepared, however, was a way castle-goers could actually one-up their opponent. Before the age of professional armies, troops engaged during the fighting season and often had to return home after their period of time in service to a lord ended. This could end the siege before provisions ran out. 

    Surviving until the enemy gave up wasn't always the goal. At Orleans during the Hundred Years' War, inhabitants survived a siege from October 1428 to May 1429. The siege only ended when Joan of Arc arrived with supplies and reinforcements for those trapped inside the castle walls. 

    Another option was to keep supplies out of the hands of the enemies. As castle-dwellers prepared for a siege, it was common to eliminate resources within proximity to keep enemies from salvaging any food or materials. 

  • Take Out The Enemy's Offense
    Photo: Bibliothèque nationale de France / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Take Out The Enemy's Offense

    One of the best ways to counter an enemy force was to take down the siege engines. As forces began to scale castle walls, it was essential to find ways to get them off siege towers or ladders. Sometimes, defenders would let several soldiers mount a ladder and then push it away from the wall into a moat or onto the ground. 

    In other cases, using Greek Fire on towers and ladders was the better option. At Tyre in 1111, one of the two large siege towers built by Crusaders was wiped out using the mysterious incendiary material. When the Crusaders tried to take the other tower up to the wall, the defenders managed to set it on fire as well.