FREE Chapter from How to Attack A Castle (And How to Defend It)

FREE Chapter from How to Attack A Castle (And How to Defend It)


As the fate of a kingdom could centre upon gaining control of castles, the attack and defence of them had to be thoroughly planned.

The first approach in most situations was to try and avoid a siege by allowing the garrison to surrender. This was regarded as a chivalric move (the chivalric code was an unwritten code of chivalrous social behavioUr between knights and nobles) in part to protect the unnecessary loss of nobles and knights, but it also made sense because a siege would be an expensive process for both sides and could result in damage to the castle which would then be costly for the victor to repair.

Sometimes the reputation of a feared commander or a huge army might force the garrison to throw open the gates of a castle before they had even arrived. In other cases, diplomacy or bribery could be used so that a compromise was reached by which the castle would be spared as long as it did not then threaten the attacker’s progress.

As a monarch or lord usually had a number of castles each one was left in the hands of his castelain or garrison commander. If they were unclear on their instructions or were unable to communicate with their master, they might be more susceptible to surrender. In other cases, if the owner of the castles had been captured then he could be forced to send orders for them to open the gates. If a fight was inevitable then both sides usually had a little time to prepare.

Some commanders had access to the works of the Roman military author Vegetius and were influenced by his belief in extensive training, thorough preparation and waiting to make a decisive move when victory was virtually guaranteed.

Those defending the castle would have to make sure they had good supplies of food and a reliable source of water, as well as the materials to enhance their defences and a stock of weapons plus the carpenters and blacksmiths to make and repair them. Those besieging would need the same and as the area around the castle might have been burned or cleared of such supplies before their arrival they might have to wait some time before they could commence their attack.

Timing was also an issue for a military planner. Late spring and early summer was the best time to attack when the weather was favourable. The stock of food in the castle would be low and water was liable to run out. For a besieger, winter was usually avoided due to the wet and cold while many of those serving would frequently go back to their homes in order to sow seeds early in the year. The same difficulty applied at harvest time towards the end of the year. The commander of the garrison was penned into his castle, but even he had to consider the soldiers and knights who were serving as part of their feudal duties.

This commitment to help with the defence, known as castle guard, only lasted for a set period, typically around two to three months a year, so they were within their rights to walk out if a siege extended beyond this time. As this could be inconvenient for both parties it became common for them to give their lord a payment rather than serve, money which could be spent on better trained and dedicated mercenaries who would be expected to fight to the end.

Once the castle had been surrounded the attackers would often go on the rampage, raiding the surrounding towns and villages for loot and burning the countryside to deprive the castle of supplies if this had not already been done by the defenders.

Initially men would have been kept occupied erecting siege engines, digging ditches, raising banks and in some cases building temporary castles so the besiegers would be safe from a surprise attack. If a siege dragged on, then keeping the morale up of those inside and outside the castle could soon become a problem. The constant pounding of stone balls smashing into walls or the dead bodies of colleagues being catapulted into the castle could take their toll on the mental state of those trapped inside.

The attackers could equally become demoralised if they saw that their attempts to break through were constantly failing. A deal that was sometimes struck allowed the castelain or commander to send out a message to his master for instruction on whether to continue the defence of the castle on the promise that if he did not receive a reply within an agreed time he would surrender.

Sometimes a belligerent commander might persist with a siege despite the castle being impenetrable or the defenders might refuse all offers in the belief that they might be saved by a relieving force before they ran out of supplies. It could often take an act of treachery or a clever deception to finally bring matters to a head. Most likely though, when a siege dragged on into months, it was disease or starvation which finally resulted in the gates being swung open.

Whoever was the first to break would want an honourable end to proceedings so they could hold their heads high rather than be slaughtered in a fight to the death. The successful attacker might take his frustration and vengeance out on a few defenders and the poor townsfolk, but usually the knights and nobles were allowed to walk out unharmed.

This chapter is taken from How to Attack a Castle (And How To Defend It)

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  • Rory Batho
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