Monday, November 4, 2013

Castles and Siege Ladders

by Scott Higginbotham

I walked the walls for a spell, clearing my head, wishing I could catch some rest.  It was obvious who had shot Howard Tyburn.  My wife was an amazing woman.  I laughed a little, wondering how else I would be surprised. 
Still, as I strolled, I chewed my nail, trying to concentrate.  The men manning the battlements had clustered on the eastern walls and east-facing towers, loosing a quick shot when Tyburn’s mercenaries came into range.  I stopped and rested my arms on a stone block, looking right and left. 
I was alone. 
But something was out place on this deserted stretch of wall. 
And then seven. 
We had been fooled.

Your home has oftentimes been likened to your castle.  It’s a place of refuge during the storms, both literally and figuratively; it is meant to withstand the battering of the elements.  But what if your home is actually a castle?  The inside contains the hall, hearth, and heart – everything you hold dear is ensconced behind the walls. There is little difference when it comes to the things that matter, except for sheer size.

There are many ways for a besieger to get inside; however, not all are easy.  In fact, once a castle is buttoned up it becomes quite difficult.  The besieged have the distinct advantage of height from which to fire volleys of arrows, loose crossbow quarrels, drop heavy objects, or dump barrels of burning liquid.  A handful of soldiers can keep hundreds at bay with the strategic placement of towers and their adjoining wall walks.

But once a path to the battlements is secured, then the situation rapidly deteriorates.  That handful of defenders now flees from the hardened besiegers streaming onto the battlements.

Access can be gained by a siege tower, but if time is short then scaling ladders of various types can work just as well if there is a clear stretch of wall. Trees have to be felled, the straight pieces identified, the rungs made and fitted into the bored out holes on the rails. Getting close enough to the walls requires sheer bravery and heavy covering fire while two stout soldiers lug the ladder to the wall.  Sound easy?

Most of us envision a rickety set of poles with equally shoddy rungs secured with frayed rope. A handful of soldiers then scramble up the ladder, some falling to the left or right, some landing on their comrades below.  And just when a hearty soul’s kettle or open-faced helm approaches a merlon gap the ladder is effortlessly tipped backward, sending gear and men crashing to the ground.

Not so, if some thought is put toward the task.  The image below and on the right hand side depicts some ways of gaining access into a castle, ranging from scaling ladder to siege ladder, with a couple of other ingenious methods to boot.  Perhaps one method is a hasty means of escape!

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923in.
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923

Siege ladders are cumbersome and are of more stout construction than your typical ladder – they have to withstand armored men tramping up the rungs and have to endure the rigors of warfare.  If fabricated and placed correctly, they are quite stable and are a quick and easy path up and over the walls.  Simply driving the ladder off the wall with a pole or halberd in the hands of a defender is not so simple.

If done correctly.

The ladder can be secured to the wall by driving the bottom poles into the ground, often aided by spikes driven into the wood.  Also, a rope passed through iron rings driven into the wood can be secured to a wooden wedge driven into the wall with a similar ring.  This is no easy task encased in mail or plate.  Speed, coupled with sheer numbers assaulting the walls, simultaneously, can even the odds of survival and success.  The odds of a defender picking you off lessens the quicker you are and whether or not you get lost in the crowd.

Climbing 15 or more feet into the air on a ladder, exposed to various missiles and heavy objects and firebrands requires a special breed, someone stout of heart. However, those that pull the short straw and have to scale the ladder don’t have to shoulder all the risks. Covering fire can keep alert defenders down long enough for a path over the wall to be made. Wooden mantlets are portable shields on wheels that can be quickly moved into a place to defend those going over. Designs and size vary, but they can provide a short window of opportunity.

This work is in the public domain in the United States, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less

Battles can turn on a silver penny.  Like the tide, there can be a quick, overwhelming rush that destroys, or it can rapidly recede into a rout. For any siege device or weapon to succeed, timing and strategy are paramount. Sun, clouds, fog, rain, and utter darkness can be leveraged by either besieger or besieged.

The key is staying two moves ahead.

Enjoy the video.  Much is packed into such a short clip!

~~~~~~~~~~~~   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.  It is within Edward Leaver's well-worn boots that Scott travels the muddy tracks of medieval England.


  1. Thanks, Scott...a most timely article. Do you know if they were still using siege ladders during the English Civil War? (I have made an assumption they did!)

  2. wow that was very interesting


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