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Assaulting Medieval Castles (Castles)

Instead of direct assaults, besieging a castle was more cost-efficient and effective. However, depending on the castle, sieges could last from a few months to years. The siege of Donnington castle lasted from July 1644 to April 1646. Therefore, when in haste, the invading army employed one or more of the many techniques that will be discussed below. Read about castle defenders.

Since the attackers were generally at a numeric advantage, they surrounded the whole castle or blocked strategic positions that prevented any reinforcements/supplies/messages from going in or getting out. When the attackers were determined to assault a castle, they usually besieged it for a couple of weeks in order to make siege engines. When the army marched with siege engines, they didn't wait.

The Battering Ram

The battering ram is a siege engine invented during the ancient times used to break open fortifications including doors or walls.

The battering ram is, in its simplest form, a large log carried by several people that is propelled against a target with enough force to break it. During the Early Middle Ages, when stone fortifications were rare and castles made of wood and timber much more common, battering rams were used in their simplest form. However, as stone castles with better defensive mechanisms appeared, the primitive battering rams became obsolete. Instead, they were covered by wood and the log sometimes reinforced with steel.

This wasn't enough to save the lives of those inside the battering ram as the defenders were known for having cauldrons filled with boiling oil situated on top of the gates that could easily kill the attackers. More sophisticated battering rams were covered with steel and became almost impossible to penetrate.

Those inside the battering ram were generally peasants and unskilled fighters who could be lost with no repercussions to the army. When the battering ram broke the door or wooden wall, the attackers launched a full-scale attack that usually involved siege towers (see below), catapults or trebuchets and the heavily-armored infantry that was protected against the numerous archers situated on the walls.

Siege Tower

The siege tower was commonly used before the Middle Ages to assault city walls. It was invented in Carthage and it didn't take long for all the Mediterranean to begin using it. The first siege tower was very simple being made mainly of wood and earth. As the years passed, the Romans and Greeks greatly improved the siege tower with the addition of more stories that could support archers and the incorporation of iron to make the tower more resistant.

With the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the division of the territory into independent states, the use of siege towers reached its height first against walled cities and then against castles. Many siege towers could support catapults in some stories, archers in others and hand-to-hand troops in the rest.

The bigger the tower, the harder it was to move. The bigger towers that consisted of seven or more stories were manned by up to 200 strong men. This increased or decreased depending on the fortification's location. While cities were generally constructed with little strategical regard (near water), castles were usually in hard-to-reach terrain such as mountains that were impossible to reach with a siege tower. Castles with moats were very difficult to assault and "sows", which were used throughout the Medieval Period, were armored shelters that allowed workers to fill-in moats.

Though siege towers were very effective, they had many limitations which I explained above. Therefore, attackers used many methods to jointly assault a castle.

Siege towers were almost invariantly built on the spot. The army brought equipment that facilitated the tower's development, but most of the material came from the surrounding landscape (such as wood). Sometimes armies carried heavy metals to strengthen the tower.


The trebuchet derives from the sling. The Chinese developed variants of it with the use of enormous wooden platforms armed by ropes that could throw objects at a great speed. These primitive Chinese trebuchets were manned by 20-100 workers. They could throw 60 kg objects up to 100 meters away.

Eventually, the trebuchet spread westward reaching the Arabs and later the Norse. It is said that the Vikings used trebuchets to assault some walled cities.

The trebuchet uses a very simple principle in which, like the catapult, a crew of men pull ropes attached to the short lever arm. This in turn generates pressure which rapidly moves the long arm throwing the projectile toward the target. More complex trebuchets gave total control to the engineers who could calibrate the trebuchet giving it outstanding accuracy. Trebuchets had a range of up to 250 meters.

Trebuchets had three drawbacks. First, they were very difficult to build and took skilled engineers weeks to complete. A very sophisticated trebuchet could take longer. Second, they were very heavy and could not be transported easily from point A to point B. And third, longbows, in skilled hands, could reach further than trebuchets.

Trebuchets became obsolete with the incorporation of gunpowder in the Late Middle Ages.


Tunnels could serve one out of two purposes. Some tunnels were built under walls or towers. Afterwards, the engineers carefully made it collapse by removing wood columns that were previously holding the tunnel. If done properly, the wall collapsed and allowed the attackers to enter the castle.

Other tunnels were dug so the army itself could cross underground and attack the defenders from within. One of the main problems tunnels had was water. If it rained or defenders found out the tunnel and poured water on it, it could collapse altogether killing everyone inside. Therefore, tunnels were built fast and with extreme caution.

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