Gateway to the Classics: When Knights Were Bold by Eva March Tappan
When Knights Were Bold by  Eva March Tappan

How To Capture a Castle

In the times when no man was safe unless he could protect himself with his own strong arm or the arms of his followers, the castle of a nobleman had to be well fortified. If it was not, the chances were that it would soon change owners. The very word "castle" means a fortified residence.

At first the means of protection were of the simplest kind. A wide earthen wall thrown up around a group of huts was regarded as a valuable defense. Stronger walls were made by using trunks of trees and rough stone work for the foundation and filling in the spaces with earth. Stakes were driven down and bound together to form a stout palisade, or fence. After a time wooden forts were reared of heavy logs and beams. Stone finally took the place of wood; and it was of stone that most of the castles of the days of knighthood were built. These were far removed from the simple fortifications of earlier times. They had massive stone walls and towers, moats, or wide, deep ditches filled with water, inner courts and outer courts, chapels, cellars, dungeons, together with chambers and staircases cut out of the thickness of the walls, drawbridges, and underground passages—all of which seem somewhat romantic in stories, but which were exceedingly necessary and matter-of-fact means of protection when they were built.


a castle of the middle ages

For the site of a castle a noble sometimes chose an island in a lake, like the famous Castle of Chillon in Lake Geneva, or a low, swampy place that an enemy would find difficult to reach; but he generally preferred the bank of a river or some high, rocky location. One of the most famous castles was the Château Gaillard, or the "Saucy Castle," which was built in Normandy by Richard the Lion-hearted in the days when kings of England still held possessions in France. It stood on a narrow promontory three hundred feet above the river Seine with a deep valley on either hand. The north end of the promontory was so steep and rocky that there was little danger of an attack on that side. The south end, however, sloped, and up this gently rising ground an enemy might easily advance. It was wise, then, to make the fortifications exceedingly strong at the south. A glance at the plan shows how this was done. C represents an outwork with five strong towers whose walls were eleven feet thick. These were connected by "curtains," that is, heavy stone walls from eight to twelve feet thick and thirty feet or more in height. All around this massive outwork was a ditch, E, some thirty feet wide and more than forty feet deep. The gate was at D; but before any one could reach it, he must find some way of crossing the moat. Friends might cross by means of a wooden drawbridge; but at the first glimpse of an enemy, chains and weights were set in motion, and the bridge was pulled up flat against the wall. The gate was protected by a portcullis, that is, a sort of screen made of heavy beams, each one pointed with iron. When no enemy was at hand, this hung quietly above the entrance, but at the first sign of danger, there was a great rattling of chains, and in a moment the portcullis had dropped in its grooves.


bird's-eye view of chateau gaillard

Between this outwork, or "outer court," C, and the "middle court," B, there must have been some sort of passage way, and probably walls to protect it. The middle court had also a moat. It had towers and curtains, and within it was a chapel, F, and a well, G. Out of this middle court an area was taken about as large as the outer court to form the "inner court," A. The wall which separated the two courts was so strong that it does not seem as if it could ever have been overthrown, for it was thirty feet high and eight feet thick. This was only the beginning of its strength, however, for on the side next the middle court rounding buttresses had been added. On top of the wall there were probably battlements, that is, a low, narrow wall running along the outer edge of the main wall and cut down at points a few feet apart. The defenders of the castle could shoot their arrows through the open spaces and then step behind the parapet for shelter. The wall protected the inner court, but the wall itself was protected, for the solid cliff on which it stood was cut down perpendicularly, or "scarped" for twenty feet, so that, even if an enemy had succeeded in getting possession of the middle court, he would still have the moat, H, to cross; and on the other side of the moat there would tower up above him twenty feet of perpendicular cliff and thirty feet of solid wall.


plan of chateau gaillard

The entrance to the inner court was at I. It was approached by a causeway cut out of the solid rock; but it did not afford a very agreeable entrance to an unwelcome visitor, for there was an outer portcullis and an inner portcullis; and even if he succeeded in passing these and also the gateway studded with iron, he would find himself at the foot of a steep stairway cut in the rock, and the greeting that he would receive from the inmates of the castle would not be to his liking.

The inner court, then, stood some twenty feet above the middle court. It was protected by a wall thirty feet high with a perpendicular base twenty feet high and by a moat. Within this court was a deep well, for in case of a siege the defenders of this court might be cut off from the well at G. In this inner court was the strongest fortification of all, the castle proper, the great tower known as the keep, K. Its walls were eleven feet thick. The circular space within was twenty-six feet in diameter. In the basement was one window, but no door. The first floor had two windows, but they were small, for safety was thought of before air and sunshine. Here, however, was a door, small and well protected. It was many feet from the ground and was probably reached by a ladder or movable stairway. The keep was of a singular shape. Evidently King Richard thought that there was little danger of an attack being made from the west, for on that side was a sheer descent of cliff; but the spur of the keep that projected into the first court he made in the shape of a right angle and built it of solid masonry. The keep was the final place of refuge, and even after every other part of the fortifications had fallen into the hands of an enemy, this could generally withstand any attack that could be made by the engines of those times. Nevertheless, in order to make this keep even stronger, the lower part of the wall "battered," that is, it sloped outward at the base, while above the base rose what are known as machicolations. These were long, heavy brackets supporting a sort of gallery with a parapet. In the floor of the gallery between the machicolations were openings through which arrows could be shot downward or heavy stones could be dropped, or boiling water or oil or melted lead could be poured straight down upon the heads of the besiegers. It is thought that from the top of this keep another and smaller tower rose, and from that yet another, both probably built of wood.


keep of chateau gaillard

Joining the keep on the north was a building, K, which is thought to have been the lodging of the castellan, or governor of the castle. From this building stairs descended to what was called the postern gate, L. This was a little narrow door with heavy bars. It was from this gate that spies or messengers were sent out in time of siege. To reach it from within, steps were cut in the rock for about thirty feet. To reach it from without must have been almost impossible, for it opened upon the perpendicular face of the scarp. To let out a messenger or admit a friend, a ladder or a movable bridge was let down. Every castle had its postern, so that if the inmates were besieged, they might have some possible way of communication, dangerous as it was, with the outer world.

When one looks at the ruins of the castles of the Middle Ages, one can hardly see how an enemy ever had the courage to attempt to capture one of them. Indeed, if a foe could spare the time and the men, it was usually easier and cheaper to keep close watch of it until the inmates were starved into a surrender. No matter how full of food the storehouses might be, it would give out some time; and if no assistance came from outside, the castle would have to yield. If an attempt to subdue a castle was made, however, there were three common methods of attack. One was to force a way in through a gate if possible; a second, to get to the top of the protecting wall and overpower the defenders; and a third, to undermine the walls. If the wall was neither too high nor too well guarded, the enemy could sometimes set up scaling ladders with their iron hooks and make a furious attack upon the defenders at the top, which they resisted as furiously with crowbars, and bills and boar spears. The best way to get to the top of a high and well-defended wall was to use the movable tower. This was a wooden shed several stories high and set upon rollers. When this was to be used, there was a busy running to and fro to collect turf and trunks of trees to throw into the moat. As soon as enough of these materials had been collected to choke up the moat and make a roadway across it, the great tower was rolled cumbrously across the moat and up to the wall. It was filled with men, and the moment that it was near enough to the rampart, a drawbridge was dropped from its upper story to the top of the wall. Over this bridge rushed the besiegers, and a terrible contest was carried on. Of course the defenders did not sit quietly while the tower was being moved up. They threw upon it what was called Greek fire in the hope of setting it ablaze. Greek fire is thought to have been made of asphalt, nitre, and sulphur. Wherever it was thrown, there it stuck. It did little damage to these towers, however, for their makers had covered them carefully with plates of metal or with raw hides. Storms of arrows were shot by both sides; but the men in the tower were so well protected by its walls that little harm was done them. When the tower was in place and the bridge down, the besiegers had one great advantage, for they could march out a whole column from the tower, while the defenders had seldom room on the wall for more than a thin line.


the attack from a tower

A third way of attacking a castle was by attempting to undermine the walls. If these rested upon so rocky a foundation as that of the "Saucy Castle," the matter was far more difficult; but if the ground was soft, a mine, or passage underground, could be begun at some distance away and dug under the very base of the wall. Beams were put in to support the wall, and straw, twigs, and dry wood were heaped up under them. The miners set this on fire and crept out of the hole as fast as possible. As soon as the beams were burned through, the wall above them generally fell, and through the breach the besiegers rushed in with good hope of winning a victory. Mining did not always go on so smoothly, however, for it often happened that some one within the castle had ears so quick that he heard noises underground and suspected what was being done. Then a counter-mine was dug from within outward in the hope of intercepting the other mine. The two passages sometimes met, and the fighting between the men underground was most furious and savage.

If the castle had a firm rocky foundation, the only possible way to undermine the wall was by the use of the pickaxe. This was not easy when the defenders behind the parapets were shooting arrows and great stones and dropping boiling water or oil or melted lead down through the openings between the machicolations; and if it was to succeed, there must be some sort of protection for the men with the pickaxes. This protection was called the "cat," or in some places the "rat." It was shaped like a long, narrow house with side walls. The roof sloped sharply, so that the heavy stones and beams that would be thrown upon it from the top of the wall might roll off harmlessly. To protect it from fire, it was often covered with iron, and over this raw hides or wet earth was laid. Then, too, men within the structure were always on guard with long forks or poles whose ends were covered with pieces of wet blanket to thrust off firebrands. This was built in some place out of range of the arrows and stones and then moved up close to the wall. Under its shelter men could work in safety. They had a valuable tool in what was known as a "bosson." This was a battering ram, a long, heavy beam with an iron head. It was on wheels, and when the besiegers rolled it up and dashed it against the wall, it struck with terrific force. The defenders on the top of the wall tried to break its head off by dropping heavy stones and timbers upon it; but the besiegers leaned strong poles against the wall in such a way that these slid off harmlessly. The attempt to set it afire was usually hopeless, for it was kept thoroughly wet and was covered with mud. Sometimes, however, a narrow tunnel was dug as quietly as possible from within the fort out under the cat, and a barrel or two of Greek fire slipped beneath it. Then the defenders on the wall watched eagerly to see the flames burst out. They might well count the moments, for at any instant the stone work under their feet might crumble.


the bosson

All this time both besiegers and defenders were constantly firing arrows at each other by hand and also by machines called "balistas" which were like immense cross-bows and shot great arrows and javelins with tremendous force. To protect themselves from these the besiegers used bucklers and also a sort of screen called a "mantelet" which they moved before them on wheels. In the screen was a narrow slit through which they could send back a return fire. In the fourteenth century cannon were used to some extent, but they could fire only three or four shots an hour and had an unpleasant custom of exploding. Outside a fort, they were of some little value; but when the besieged ventured to mount them on the walls, the chief damage done was to their owners. Their recoil loosened the stones of the wall and frequently the cannon ingloriously rolled off. The most important machines were those for throwing stones, and these as well as the balistas were used by both besiegers and besieged. They were exceedingly powerful. Some of them could hurl for six hundred feet a stone weighing three hundred pounds. If they could only have worked rapidly, they would have done an immense amount of damage; but it took several days to set one up, and the best of them could throw only a few stones in an hour. Moreover, it was impossible to take accurate aim. One of these machines was called a trébuchet. It consisted of two uprights connected at the top by a bar. Resting on the bar was a ponderous beam. The shorter arm of this beam was heavily weighted; by using much force, the longer arm was slowly pulled down to the ground, and in a sort of sling fastened to it a great stone was placed or perhaps a barrel of Greek fire. Then it was suddenly let go. The short arm dropped, and the stone was hurled with tremendous power. There were other machines, the mangonel, catapult, espringal, etc., but they were not very dissimilar, and most of them resembled in principle either the balista or the trébuchet.

Many romantic descriptions of taking castles have been written, but the real thing had little of romance about it. In a real siege the air was full of heavy stones, javelins, arrows, and darts, some bearing masses of blazing pitch and tow with occasionally perhaps an arrow carrying a message from a traitor either within or without the walls to the opposing party, of barrels of the terrible Greek fire, of smoke from burning roofs and galleries and of crumbling mortar from falling ramparts. There was a wild and horrid confusion of terrible sounds, the din of armor, the shouting of battle cries, the groaning of dying men and the crash of falling stones and timbers and crumbling walls. Men shrieked in agony as they were burned by the boiling oil or melted pitch or blinded by the unslacked lime poured down upon them from the walls. The moat ran red with blood. Such was a real assault upon a castle in the Middle Ages.

The story of the fall of the Château Gaillard is full of interest. It was a pet child of King Richard, and in 1198 he called it "my fair daughter of one year old." King Philip of France declared, "I would take it if its walls were of iron." Richard retorted, "And I could hold it if they were of butter." Perhaps he could have done so, but one year later he was dead, and his brother John, who followed him, was a man of quite different mettle. Philip captured one after another of the Norman castles held by the English king, and at last he laid siege to Château Gaillard, the strongest of them all. This was early in the autumn of 1203. He captured the neighboring villages and then, having cut off all supplies, settled down quietly before the Castle to wait till its inmates should be hungry enough to surrender. "They are young birds who will have to fly when spring comes," he said contentedly.

A few months later, however, Philip became tired of watching. He succeeded in undermining the wall of the outer court and captured it. Among his followers was a poor man by the name of Ralph who was nicknamed Bogis, or the Snub-nose. Whatever may have been the shape of his nose, he had keen eyes. He noticed a little window, M, and began to wonder if he could not climb in and open the way for the others. He and a few trusty comrades crept softly around the court until they stood under the window. Ralph stood upon the shoulders of one of his companions and looked in. No one was on guard at that place, and there were no protecting bars. He scrambled in, and found himself in either the chapel or a storehouse connected with it. The defenders discovered that their enemies were in the building and foolishly set fire to it. The flames spread and the garrison escaped to the inner court. Then Ralph let down the drawbridge and the besiegers poured in. So it was that by the keenness and daring of one man this middle court was taken. Such a deed as that was not left unrewarded, and to Ralph was given a "knight's fee," that is, sufficient land to maintain properly a knight and his followers.

The inner court alone remained in the hands of the defenders. Philip's men moved up a cat over the causeway at I, and in its shelter a mine was dug under the walls. A machine for throwing stones followed the cat. A breach was made in the heavy masonry and the besiegers rushed in. The defenders were overpowered, and after a siege of six months the "Saucy Castle" fell.


the cat

The Middle Ages were a time of almost constant warfare. There were quarrels between kings, between kings and their barons, and among the barons themselves; and all these quarrels implied fighting. The poor suffered severely, and the Church came to their rescue. The French bishops tried their best to bring about what was called the Peace of God. High and low were bidden to take an oath to refrain from making war. This served as some little protection for churches, priests, and laborers; but, powerful as the Church was, it could not oblige the unruly barons to take the oath or keep it if it had been taken. Then the Church very wisely lessened her demands and called upon one and all to set apart certain portions of the year to be free from bloodshed. These were from Wednesday evening to Monday morning in every week, about twenty feast days of saints, and the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter. The bishops and the rulers of France and to some degree of Germany, Italy, Spain, and England supported this decree, and as far as possible those who broke the rule were punished. The archbishop of Cologne made a rule that if this law was violated by any noble, his heirs might seize his property. A boy under twelve who fought was to be whipped; if over twelve, he was to lose one hand. This rule of peace was called the Truce of God, and often as it was broken, it nevertheless did much to quiet the turbulent lands and protect the poor and helpless.


sanctuary door

Another way in which the Church tried to aid the oppressed was by establishing "sanctuaries," or holy places wherein it was forbidden to shed blood. In those stormy times, if a man was supposed to have wronged another, that other pursued him, sword in hand. But if he took refuge in a church, he was safe; for the clergy would keep him until some terms had been made between the two. This was called the right of sanctuary. It was an excellent thing so long as there was little real authority in the land; but after it had become established that an accused man would be brought to trial, then the right often became an occasion of wrong. If a man who had fled to a sanctuary would confess, he was allowed to "abjure the realm," that is, to swear to depart from the land and never return, a punishment which was a little hard on the neighboring countries. If he refused to confess, the law was helpless; for the clergy would brook no interference with their right of giving shelter and protection. The result was that a man who carefully planned a murder and was shrewd enough to commit it within easy reach of a church could escape; while one who committed a crime on the spur of the moment had far less chance to avoid the penalty. Nevertheless, the right of sanctuary was not entirely abolished in England until the eighteenth century.



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