Home Forums Medieval How often did sieges fail?

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  • #111059
    Ivan Sorensen
    Participant

    I was having a discussion with the kid and the topic got to siege warfare: That storming a castle is rather difficult and costly and that it was common to try to starve the defenders out.

    We talked about reasons the siege might be lifted (reinforcements for the defender, disease, lack of money, desertion etc.) but I realized I have no idea whether it was typical sieges would ultimately fail, whether most sieges resulted in a surrender of the castle or somewhere in between.

    Any thoughts and suggestions?

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    #111076

    If you like circular thinking, I would think many/most medieval sieges (ie before gunpowder) must have failed simply because so many castles were built throughout Europe. A castle was a massive investment of resources in terms of materiel, man-hours, and money. To be a worthwhile investment, they must have had a high success rate against besiegers, holding out until relieved.

    After gunpowder weapons become common, castles routinely & quickly fell to besiegers & castles, ipso fact, had to change. Vauban fortifications were the response but I believe there was an accepted time table for a Vauban fort holding out against besiegers ultimately triumphing. Hundreds of years in which medieval castles remained essentially unchanged speaks of success to me.

    donald

    #111077
    Rhoderic
    Participant

    If you like circular thinking, I would think many/most medieval sieges (ie before gunpowder) must have failed simply because so many castles were built throughout Europe. A castle was a massive investment of resources in terms of materiel, man-hours, and money. To be a worthwhile investment, they must have had a high success rate against besiegers, holding out until relieved.

    Alternatively, might it not be the case that castles just raised the threshold for sieges to happen in the first place, making uprisings and invasions less likely to occur unless they were serious enough business to take on castles?

    In other words, how often would sieges that would have been doomed from the outset have happened at all, affecting the statistics?

    I’m way out of my depth here, and I won’t chase that line of thought any further. Just seemed an interesting counter-argument for as long as actual historical data hasn’t been presented.

    #111078
    Guy Farrish
    Participant

    Funnily enough I was just re-reading Richard Brooks’ ‘The Knight Who Saved England: William Marshal and the French Invasion, 1217‘  last night and on pp 114-115,  discussing sieges in relation to William’s history, he makes this general comment on sieges of the period:

    ‘Fortified towns and castles might hold out for months, if not stormed by a coup de main like Milli or Taillebourg. A sample of nearly fifty notable sieges from Norwich in 1075 t0 La Rochelle in 1224 suggests a thirty eight day average. Antioch and Chateau Gaillard held out longest at 226 and 187 days each. Average duration falls to a month if these freaks are omitted. Three-quarters of investments succeeded, more by negotiations or starvation than by assault.’

    I don’t remember Contamine ‘War in the Midddle Ages’ having any specific data for numbers of castles/fortified towns taken. He may have a comment on the efficacy of siege warfare but from memory, although he talks about attack and defence and the impact of artillery, he doesn’t have much about siege warfare in terms of lengths of sieges and outcomes.

    Nicholson’s ‘Medieval Warfare’ has an interesting section on the practice of land warfare which suggests that in South Wales, Marcher castles (in the early years of Anglo-Norman invasion at least) fell easily and frequently but the suggestion is that this was because the Welsh raided a castle, the Normans abandoned it and the Welsh sacked it and almost immediately abandoned it, not wanting to be pinned down in a fixed point that would see them surrounded and killed.

    The Holy Land experience suggests that no matter how ‘impregnable’ the castle – Krak des Chevaliers in 1271 for example  – it would fall if the area around it was in enemy hands for a significant time, whether under formal siege for all that period or not.

    The outcome depended on initially how well the defence was ordered and victualled, whether they expected a relief force soon, whether there was a tight investment or domination of the surrounding area and how aggressive the intent of the attacker. Castles could and often were surrendered if there was little expectation of relief in a reasonable time  (whatever that was given the above factors) and the besiegers were trusted to honour terms allowing the garrison to depart unharmed. If this was not an immediate capitulation the garrison commander could escape too much opprobrium from his own lord. That balance between enraging the attacker or the defender’s lord was of course the tricky thing.

     

    #111082
    MartinR
    Participant

    I think the main thing is that castles imposed considerable delay on an attacker, weeks, months….. and in a period when the campaigning season was so short due to the absence of any sort of semi-modern logistics train, that was critical. They were also essentially impregnable to raids etc , just vulnerable to large formed armies – which were in themselves hugely expensive and difficult to raise and maintain.

     

     

     

     

     

     

    "Mistakes in the initial deployment cannot be rectified" - Helmuth von Moltke

    #111091
    Patrice
    Participant

    Interesting question. I don’t know if there are any statistics from historical research…

    But… it depends on the castle itself, and on the area and historical period. Many castles were built by local lords as a local symbol of power, but were not always very powerful, from small manors to larger castles. Others were built or rebuilt by kings with much more money. It depends also on the garrison available. And on the troops available to the attacker.

    There are also examples of castles and towers which became a nuisance in later periods. Many small castles and towers in France were destroyed by royal orders in the late 16th C. (Wars of Religion) and early 17th C. because, although they were not really strong, any group of bandits could decide to take them for home, it was not very difficult to retake them but it took a lot of time and troops and money and that’s exactly what kings hate. Verhoeven’s film “Flesh and Blood” (1985) mentions this.

     

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    #111093
    John D Salt
    Participant

    Not my period, but Martin van Creveld’s “Logistics in War” suggests that the besieger was likely to starve before the besieged. Assuming competent local command, the folks in the castle would have stripped the surrounding countryside of edibles, and stockpiled all that could be preserved within the castle walls. In an age of hippomobile armies, fodder was a main logistical consideration; armies moved faster before the invention of the internal combustion engine that after, because they had to, their horses “eating up the country” as they moved around and always having to move on to fresh greenery. Being sat outside a well-stocked castle with an army including hungry horses in a denuded countryside is not a naturally tenable position for an army.

    All the best,

    John.

    #111103
    Guy Farrish
    Participant

    I think we need to clarify what we mean by sieges and what we are besieging. Castles? Towns? And if castles are we thinking of the apogee of the castle builders art like Edward I’s North Wales ring or Krak des Chevaliers or Chateau d’Angers etc? Or Norman Motte and Bailey works thrown up in hostile territory as part of a land grab and offensive defence network? Most sieges were probably on fortified towns and remnant late Roman defensive works for much of the period. Small castles were often overlain on earlier Roman walled sites– near here is the walled Roman town of Caerwent which has a Norman Motte superimposed on the south east corner.

    I think also we probably need to revise our instant view of what a medieval army comprised. Yes there were mounted armoured knights, when required. But how often they were directly involved in siege warfare is at best debatable. Think about it for a moment; was there a point in keeping a lot of war horses around when forage and supplies may be an issue? Medieval commanders were quite capable of leaving infantry forces with engineers and artillerists (non gunpowder variety at first) to get on with a siege while a more mobile field army worked away from the besieged place pushing on to its objective with the besieging forces masking the fortress or town, or protecting the siege from intervention by enemy mobile forces.

    Bernard Bachrach makes this point: ‘Indeed, one may even wonder if the commanders of armies carrying out sieges were accustomed to bring large numbers of very expensive and highly trained but very fragile warhorses with them. These had to be watered, fed, and guarded while waiting for the unlikely chance that they might be used. The heavily armored knight on horseback, so often erroneously highlighted in textbooks as the medieval “tank,” had at best a minor role to play in siege warfare.’ in:

    Medieval siege warfare: A reconnaissance, Bernard S. Bachrach, The Journal of Military History, vol. 58 no. 1 (January, 1994) which can be found online at http://deremilitari.org/2013/11/medieval-siege-warfare-a-reconnaissance/

     

    A quick trot through a few (12 so far) sieges in Italy, the Holy Roman Empire and Syria in the 11th century so far suggests a 66% success rate. Added to Brooks figures (in my above post) and the fluid taking and retaking of South Wales Marcher castles suggests that we should not be so sure those impressive building were as impregnable as they look to our 21st Century eye.

    [John, is ‘Logistics in War’ what I know as ‘Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton’? – if so it’s a couple of hundred years too late for medieval siege, although no doubt some of the maths is transferable. (If there is a book by him called Logistics in War covering the medieval period – sorry!) ]

    #111152
    John D Salt
    Participant

    [John, is ‘Logistics in War’ what I know as ‘Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton’? – if so it’s a couple of hundred years too late for medieval siege, although no doubt some of the maths is transferable. (If there is a book by him called Logistics in War covering the medieval period – sorry!) ]

    That’s the badger — a brainfart on my part confrobulated the title with his equally excellent “Command in War”.

    I imagine that Wallenstein was chosen as a recognisable starting bloke because that’s approx. when logistics became really professional, and armies tried to organise their own supply chain rather than merely nicking stuff, sorry “requisitioning”, from the locals. And the term “logistics” wasn’t coined until the 19th century, so there’s a dash of anachronism even there.

    Nonetheless, as you suggest, I would imagine the calculus of hunger would be much the same any time before the (second) agricultural revolution. And I would have thought that warhorses would have been considerably outnumbered by the riding, pack, or draught horses, or other equids, accompanying an army, but as it’s not my period I have no idea what the constitution of an army’s tail would be. Then again I also imagine that quite a lot of medieval armies in the countries that now make up the UK would have been quite tiny, and therefore instrinsically easier to support.

    To get a definitive answer to the original question, I suppose one could take Wikipedia’s list of sieges, whack the medieval ones into a spreadsheet, and then score attacker wins as 1 and defender wins as 0 before averaging the “wins” column to find the fraction of attacker success. Having made a start on such an enterprise, I decided to give up quickly on grounds of having much more urgent and important things to do than work through a list of almost a thousand sieges. It also became obvious that your point about defining what we mean by “siege” is an important one; several of the Wikipedia entries refer to events that may be battles in towns, or surrenders of towns, but which do not have the element of “sitting it out” that I think is essential to a siege.

    All the best,

    John.

    #111169
    Guy Farrish
    Participant

    I decided to give up quickly on grounds of having much more urgent and important things to do than work through a list of almost a thousand sieges. It also became obvious that your point about defining what we mean by “siege” is an important one; several of the Wikipedia entries refer to events that may be battles in towns, or surrenders of towns, but which do not have the element of “sitting it out” that I think is essential to a siege. All the best, John.

    Ah – cheers John! Glad we reached the same decision regarding wading through lists of ‘sieges’ and outcomes! I started off with a simple success/fail model and then as I found ones I knew something about already, realised there were ‘nuanced outcomes’, and as you say cock ups on definition – so I too gave up (after thirty or so) as my classes of action expanded.

    Castles and fortified towns fell to betrayal, ruse, coup de main, assault, formal siege, starvation, surrender  and often it is not clear where one or more methods blur into each other. Surrender when hope of relief disappeared can be portrayed as betrayal,or the civilised response in accordance with the rules of warfare depending on circumstances. When a raid succeeded by ruse or coup de main and the place was subsequently abandoned by the attackers and almost immediately reoccupied by the defenders, is that a successful siege? Two successful sieges? Or no siege at all? I am attracted by your definition of siege having to involve isolating the place and then ‘waiting’, even if this involves active preparations for storming – mining, battering,throwing large unpleasant things over the walls via engines etc. So my example would be no siege at all.

    I’m now intrigued by this question and the subsets of questions it spawns, but am manfully struggling to go and have a drink instead of spending hours trying to answer them.

    Sorry Ivan , none of this has provided a straightforward answer to the question has it.

     

    #111170
    Ivan Sorensen
    Participant

    No straightforward answers for sure, but an enlightening discussion none the less!

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