Saturday, October 5, 2013

Siege Towers and Soldiers

From Wikimedia Commons - Public Domain

by Scott Higginbotham

 That low rumble is not an approaching storm; nevertheless, as it groans forward it takes on an ominous shape. Siege engines are some of history’s most feared and intriguing devices. These contraptions made from wood, steel, ropes, pulleys, slings, tree trunks, and soaked animal hides were designed to give the besiegers access to the spoils within, through some formidable obstacles. Though varied, the obstacles just to get close to a castle’s walls could be a fetid moat, a deep ditch filled with refuse, a steep berm, or a sheer rock face. And while these deterrents are being navigated an attacker would face arrow volleys, firebrands, boiling oil, and anything else that could be easily hurled or shot.

 A stout castle with a sharp, well-provisioned garrison could hold out for months against an overwhelming force. The strategic placement of round towers give the besieged not only a lofty position of defense, but the attackers, should they approach too close, could become trapped between them within a withering crossfire of projectiles fired from crenel gaps or arrow loops. Castles walls in good repair could withstand relentless bombardment from catapults with little damage, unless aesthetics count. Oftentimes, the besiegers would simply break camp and move on, cutting their losses.

 But what if that was not an option? How does a rival baron punch through those unyielding walls, especially when the surrounding land has been stripped of provender and the approaching winter is gripping the soldiers with icy fingers? Is tunneling under the walls or crawling up a latrine shaft viable? Indeed, yes, but perhaps on another day.

 Siege ladders allow attackers to climb the side of a wall, providing that one can get close enough and has armor that can withstand a few arrow volleys. There are hazards and great loss of life if this method is used, but the likes of William Marshall have bravely and brazenly employed it with success. A feint at another portion of the walls is highly recommended while ladders are being placed.

 Going over the walls using a siege tower can be even more effective.

 And this is where siege engineers show their mettle.

 Imagine strolling the battlements and watching in dismay as one of these wooden-wheeled beasts slowly rises from the earth – just out of bowshot, no less. A siege castle, belfry, or tower would be constructed of wood and covered in animal hides to protect those hidden inside and those wheeling this behemoth to the side of the wall. These hides would be soaked in urine or water as a primitive means of fire retardant.

From Wikimedia Commons - Public Domain
 The height would need to be roughly equal or slightly higher than the stretch of wall where it would be placed. The land adjacent to the wall would have to be cleared of obstructions, backfilled, drained, and made ready for the final assault. Axles would have to be copiously greased and strong men would have to push, while the besiegers waited in safety within or without the structure, depending on the type of tower in use.

 Inside, there were platforms where nervous and sweating men would wait, each level connected by ladders or stairs. Prayers would be lifted up on both sides of the conflict, in hopes that God favored their cause, for when the ramp dropped onto the top of the wall the fight would begin in earnest. The besiegers had a short window of time whereby the tower would have to be vacated and the wall secured. This meant that there was no turning back once the makeshift bridge slammed down onto the merlons.

 Imagine the mental and physical fortitude it would have required to storm the walls in this fashion, following in the footsteps of a medieval man at arms. Alas, we can, for the beauty of historical fiction is that we can live vicariously, safely, and victoriously through the lives of the characters we love and cherish.

~~~~~~~~~~~~   Scott Higginbotham is the author of A Soul’s Ransom, a novel set in the fourteenth century where William de Courtenay’s mettle is tested, weighed, and refined, and For a Thousand Generations where Edward Leaver navigates a world where his purpose is defined with an eye to the future.  His new release, A Matter of Honor, is a direct sequel to For a Thousand Generation.


  1. Interesting post! Shared.

  2. Tremendous essay, Scott. I was gripped by your explanation of how such a tower would operate, and those few sentences taking me within had my throat tighten...

  3. Shared and tweeted, Scott.


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