Castle Defenses

The Attacking Army

Medieval castles often faced a variety of threats from attacking armies, and Middle Age architecture was always pushed to adapt new technologies to better defend the walls. The popular vision of medieval battles on open battlefields, complete with horses charging and banners flying were more the exception than the rule. It took large numbers of soldiers to storm a castle, so rather the attackers would besiege a castle in hopes of starving out its inhabitants. The attackers would not have to waste men and ammunition in vain fights against thick castle walls. Attacking armies used the following medieval weapons when trying to take a Middle Age castle by force.

Siege Engines, Medieval "engines" were often constructed by engineers who traveled with attacking armies. These heavy weapons used simple physics of tensions and torsion to launch stones, massive arrows, fire, and other projectiles at the castle walls and into the bailey. Castles returned fire with their own engines, but limited ammunition was sometimes a problem for the defending army.

Catapults are the most well-known medieval siege engine, and these constructs hurled stones and other missiles. Some projectiles weighed up to a hundred pounds, and successive shots would be launched at the same spot if possible. Blow after blow by heavy rocks could bring down early stone walls, so heavier walls were incorporated in castle architecture. Attacking armies might launch other objects, like a dead, diseased cow over the walls to spread sickness. This could often be a devastating psychological blow to starving inhabitants of a besieged castle. They would be further demoralized with rotten food thrown over castle walls. Rather nasty projectiles included beehives, and balls of human or animal excrement were launched to harass castle armies. A fortress' wooden buildings could be burned by flammable projectiles. Spies that had the misfortune to be discovered might also find themselves flung over a castle wall as a message to the other army.

Trebuchets improved on original catapult designs and were used during later medieval years, even after artillery and gunpowder became the most powerful weapons. These machines would harness the potential energy of the projectile's suspended weight and boasted a faster rate-of-fire than earlier catapults.

Ballistas looked like very large crossbows. This medieval weapon originated in Roman times but was developed over the centuries to launch up to a half dozen spear-sized arrows at a time into lines of soldiers or over the castle walls.

Battering Rams were far more complex than the simple chopped down tree. They were often protected with hut-like coverings, tipped with iron or burning pitch, and mounted on wheels. Defending castle armies used Counter Rams, a device dropped onto the attacking battering ram to avoid repetitive blows at the same spot.

Mobile Assault Towers, sometimes known as cats, could be assembled from components brought to the site or harvested from the surrounding woods. These towers gave an attacking army protection and high positions to fire arrows when storming a castle. Some cats were even built higher than a defending castle's towers to give attacking archers an advantage.