When we think of a castle siege we invariably think about an army of attackers camped at the base of the castle walls, using siege towers, ladders, catapults and trebuchets to breach the walls. Maybe we also can see a battering ram taking down the main gate to the castle. And while these things did happen there were other famous ways that castles and defenders have been taken down. This article looks at some of the sneaky ways that attacking forces have overcome, over run and over taken castles without the use of much force.
You have to give castle builders credit. They were fortresses meant to fend off all kinds of attacks and keep the inhabitants within their walls for long periods of time. And most of the time it worked. Sieging a castle could be very difficult and very time consuming. And often times it was very unsuccessful.
Consider the logistics of the problem.
To take a castle by force you might have to amass of force of soldiers that numbered ten times the soldiers inside the castle. That meant that while you were sieging the castle you had to feed ten times the soldiers that they had to feed and care for inside the castle. And the soldiers and people inside the castle probably had been storing food for a long period of time. So, it was often a very good strategy for the people inside the fortress to just wait it out. Over time, if the walls couldn't be breached the attackers would just give up and leave!
But, there were other ways to take down a castle and I will give you some famous and real examples from history.
The Pen may truly be mightier than the sword
The castle in the picture below is one of the most famous castles in the world. It is the Krak des Chevaliers in Syria (loosely translated as The Fortress of Knights). It was a central point during much of the Crusades and it changed hands over it's several century lifespan.
This is one of the ultimate castles of the world and it had many defensive characteristics that made it virtually invulnerable to attack. One thing that you can readily see is the way the land sloped away from it. This sloping is on three sides of the castle and it makes attack extremely difficult.
So, if you can't attack a castle by direct means you might be able to bring it down by other, sneakier means. And this is exactly what happened in 1271 when it fell to the Muslim sultan Beibars. They originally tried to take it by force but that failed. They created a forged document and delivered it to the castle. It was a fake surrender order supposedly coming from the knight's grand comander in Tripoli which was fifty miles to the southwest.
The knights inside the castle fell for the forged document, believing it, and surrendered to the sultan's forces.
How a bathroom was the downfall of a castle
What remains of Chateau Gaillard (photo by: Urban)
The Castle is now in ruins but during it's life it was one of the crowning achievements of Richard the LionHeart. It is Chateau Gaillard and it is located in the northwest of France. It is considered to be a masterpiece castle of it's time and it had many brilliant fortifications including three baileys which were areas within the castle grounds surrounded by walls. They were concentric in pattern which meant that if the outerwall was breached the attackers still had to breach another series of defenses and walls within to get to yet another bailey and series of defenses.
The siege of this castle lasted about six months from 1203 to 1204 and attacking forces made some progress by breaching into the outer bailey. They undermined one of the towers and it's falling caused a breach that they could pass through. The defenders retreated to an inner bailey.
Looking for weaknesses in the inner wall they found it. They discovered a chapel window in a building nestled up against the inner wall and deduced that there might be a latrine in that building. And if there was a latrine there was some way for the waste water to exit the castle. They searched the along the river bank for the latrine outlet and found it. It was big enough for men to crawl through and the other end was not defended.
A group of soldiers crawled into the chapel building through the latrine, made a large racket and set the buildings on fire. This forced the defenders to retreat into the deepest bailey of the castle and the attackers opened the gate so their comrades could enter.
At this point, dwindling supplies and their precarious position within the keep of the castle forced the defenders to surrender.
The Trickery and Betrayal at Corfe Castle
This occurred during the first second siege of Corfe Castle in 1646. The castle was under the command of the Lady Bankes but during this siege she was away. A group of allies claimed to be Royalists and had come as reinforcements. But there was treachery here. They were troops of the enemy Cromwell and as soon as they got into the castle they opened the main gates and allowed the besieging force to get in. After that was over the castle was destroyed so it could never be used again..