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Siege Warfare

Medieval life and Times

Definition of a Siege Warfare

Siege Warfare was a Medieval military operation involving the surrounding and blockading of a town, castle or fortress by an army in the attempt to capture it.  To lay siege or to besiege. The term derives from the Middle English  word 'sege' from the Old French meaning blockade.

Description of Medieval Siege Warfare
The Medieval times were an extremely violent era in history featuring battles in both Europe and the Holy Land when the crusades, and the crusaders who fought them, were numerous. The quest for power led to invasions of lands and territories, which had to be fought for. Medieval times was the era when great castles were built acting as a power base for the Kings, Lords and Knights. A new type of warfare called Siege Warfare was waged to win a castle or a walled town or city. Medieval Siege Warfare was a frequent occurrence during the Middle Ages. Medieval Siege Warfare called for a variety of different siege weapons and siege engines.

Medieval Siege Warfare
Medieval Siege Warfare was an extremely expensive and time consuming business. Medieval Siege Warfare was, however, a common form of warfare during these violent times. Siege warfare was a common occurrence especially during:

  • The Crusades when the use of the Medieval Siege Warfare was used by the crusaders to capture towns and fortresses in the Holy Land from the Infidels, Saracens
  • The Hundred Years War (1337 - 1453), when the English were claiming French lands and mounting invasions
  • The fight for power in England, following the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when the building of stone castles acted as power basis for the warring lords and knights

An important requirement to ensure a successful invasion was to capture the enemies power base - their towns, fortresses or castles were placed Under Siege. Medieval Siege Warfare was essential to ensure victory! There were more Medieval sieges than there were pitched battles during Medieval times.

Medieval Siege Warfare from the Attackers perspective
The attackers had the upper hand in negotiations as they were in total control of the siege and could withdraw at any time. The attackers force in England would have been raised by the Medieval Feudal Levy where nobles and their troops were only obliged to serve for a limited amount of time - usually 40 days. The cost and time elements were therefore critical to both sides and pressure was on both sides to achieve a peaceful agreement. The attackers fighting abroad were not subject to such strict time limits but cost was still an important factor. Laying siege was often fought with the use of massive siege weapons such as the Ballista, Mangonel, Battering Ram, Siege Tower and the awesome Trebuchet. A prolonged siege was a last thing that an attacker wanted due to the cost and the negative effect on morale due to the boredom factor.

Medieval Siege Warfare from the Defenders perspective 
The defenders involved in Medieval Siege Warfare were aware of the cost of a siege and that a prolonged siege would cause significant problems in terms of the man power of the attackers. From the defenders perspective who were 'Under Siege' they had to hold out against the assault of siege weapons or survive a prolonged siege where food, fresh water and morale was of prime importance.

Medieval Siege Warfare fought according to Chivalric Code and Rules
Neither Attacker nor Defender involved in Medieval Siege Warfare wanted a prolonged siege. Medieval Siege Warfare was conducted according to Chivalric Rules and a truce or settlement would always be attempted, according to the Chivalric Code, before Medieval Siege Warfare commenced. The Chivalric Code regulated Medieval Siege Warfare. These rules allowed surrender under honourable terms. Each side would have estimated the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition. Medieval Siege Warfare was costly and Siege Weapons and the besieging forces would not be assembled until it was believed that all truce negotiations would fail. The Medieval Siege Warfare rules of the honorable Chivalric Code included the following elements:

  • Medieval Siege Warfare / Time: A reasonable and specific amount of time was allowed for truce or surrender conditions to be considered. This ranged from 7 - 40 days. The shorter time period was most commonly allowed because of the problems caused by the Feudal Levy
  • Medieval Siege Warfare / Honorable Surrender: An honorable surrender had to be negotiated before the start of hostilities
  • Medieval Siege Warfare / Safe Conduct: Castle inhabitants could leave the castle unharmed
  • Medieval Siege Warfare / Weapons: Often terms would allow inhabitants to retain their weapons
  • Should inhabitants refuse to surrender no such promises were given
  • Intentions - The attackers would signal the start of the siege with flags or launching arrows or crossbow bolts at the castle entrance
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