SciFi and Fantasy eBook Club discussion

Member Chat > Sieges and castles

Comments Showing 1-15 of 15 (15 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Ciara (new)

Ciara Ballintyne (ciara_ballintyne) | 17 comments I've read a lot of fantasy books, and for some reason I have trouble getting my head around sieges. I mean, I understand that a castle or similar defence gives you an advatantage and allows you to defend against a larger number with a smaller number, but how do these authors actually work out the odds? At what point are the odds so overwhelming you can't possibly hold out, and at what point are they so low you literally have to starve them out?

I read that Caerlaverock Castle in Scotland famously held out against 3000 with a mere 60 men, but they only lasted 36 hours (although the king was so impressed he apparently gave the castle back on condition they swear loyalty to him).

So 3000 to 60 is pretty overwhelming odds. How many defenders would they have needed to hold out against 3000 do you think? Or how many attackers do you think 60 men could reasonably hold off for any period of time? I think maybe the garrison was under strength, as the king was surprised to realise there were so few defenders, but I don't know how many men would normally garrison the castle.

message 2: by Michael (new)

Michael (michaeldiack) | 7 comments I have a castle in my hometown and every time I walk past it I look at its daunting walls, the huge gate, the narrow slits from where arrows can be fired from and I think, bloody hell, I would not like to attack that. I think although the odds may seem overwhelming, a good dozen men well-equipped with lots of arrows, and an inspiring leader motivating them could hold out - as long as they kept their heads down!

The only thing I think could be a threat were if the enemy had massive siege towers like in the Battle of Pelennor Fields in Return of the King. but if the castle is built on a steep hill, or surrounded by a moat then these wouldn't come into play actually... and then you got trebuchets which could do enormous damage. But in a straight battle between attackers and defenders, without siege, I'd always favour the defenders.

message 3: by T.C. (new)

T.C. Filburn (tcfilburn) | 20 comments There are so many variables involved, depending on the castle itself, the surrounding lands, and the skill and guile of the defenders and attackers. Living in Wales I'm lucky enough to be surrounded by castles of all shapes and sizes, and I have visited many. They all present different, unique challenges to both attackers and defenders. They were obvious all placed in positions that were considered 'strong' at the time (and build with good, thick walls), but the technology and strategy of defence and attack changed through time. I don't think it is something you can really generalise about too closely when it comes to time and numbers - it's about considering the precise settings of physical and technological context, and identifying the weakness in the castle or the attacking forces that will sway the probabilities one way or the other.

Having said that, an inferior force should be able to hold out for a while against a superior attacking force by virtue of having big, thick walls and the high ground (and possibly a moat, and/or a well-designed 'killing ground' trap for attackers, and so on), but for how long is down to all of the individual characteristics involved in the battle.

I guess the important thing is to consider the specific details of that particular castle, and things like stores and ammunition, and the tools the attackers have, and how many men it would take to actually man the walls, and how good the commanders are, and so on. I don't think there is any simple answer.

A castle manned by 3 men won't last for very long at all, because they can't man the walls and prevent them from being scaled, or rain down arrows on the attackers, or whatever. A couple of hundred men should be able to hold out for a while as long as they have good stores and good command, but that will be reduced significantly by good siege engines. It also does depend to an extent on how strong each side believes the other to be, because that will effect their strategy. If a castle is going to fall though, it has to fall for some specific reason, not just because of the numbers (though that is clearly a significant factor).

Some of the fantasy ideas and accounts about castles can be quite misleading - the reality is that no castle or fortress is 'impregnable'. Sometimes it feels like some authors research the technologies, but then just fall back on things like walls that are 'impossibly high' or 'impossible strong' and the like, which doesn't reflect reality (or real weaknesses like gates) however strong a structure is, if someone can build it, someone else can knock it down, or at least damage or overcome something sufficiently to get men inside if it isn't heavily defended with numbers of well-armed and well-led men.

As for the original numbers mentioned, 60 men is probably not enough to sustain a defence over an extended period against 3000 in a real castle. When you break it down to number of men per wall, and then account for shifts to allow them to sleep, it wouldn't give sufficient coverage to hold out against a competent and well-equipped opposition. There are obvious variables, of course, including the physical attributes of the castle and the competence and equipment (and patience!) of the foe, but for it to go on for very long would seem fairly unlikely, no matter how well built (in the real world) the castle is.

message 4: by Brenda (new)

Brenda Clough (brendaclough) | 147 comments The most important thing is to have enough assets in the castle: food, a well, and personnel. Ammo is also good; tools and materiel for repairs are nice.
That's why if I were the attacker (and had no scruples) I would use a trebuchet and start flinging rotting corpses over the walls. Especially if you can find someone who died of cholera or plague. Get disease going and thin them out a little; with luck the water source will become contaminated.

message 5: by Ken (new)

Ken (kanthr) | 165 comments If you have a supply of food and water along with ammunition (depending on level of siege) you can outlast any army.

Usually, this is not the case. And things come to a head when the besieged and siege run out of supplies. They must then attack, retreat, or die. For the besieged, the retreat option isn't available.

In the end it depends, like T.C. says, on the layout and defensibility of the castle vs. the level of siege being arrayed against it. With good defensibility you can probably staff it with a smaller force.

And like Brenda said, illness is a dire enemy.

Even in the modern wars, sieges still take place. It's fascinating in a macabre way how they play out similarly to how they always used to.

message 6: by Judy (new)

Judy Goodwin | 42 comments A good writer has merely to research history to find ideas about what works, what doesn't work, and the ideas of numbers in historical battles. While the 60 against 3000 may be an extreme example, there were other instances of armies 10,000 strong being held off by mere hundreds. A well built castle tended to have two major weaknesses--food and water. A siege could try to outlast the castle's water supply and starve them out. (Then of course if the invading army didn't have patience they could try things like digging under castle walls or using fire, another enemy, particularly to a walled city.)

But yes, basically it comes down to research.

message 7: by Brenda (last edited Nov 21, 2013 11:33AM) (new)

Brenda Clough (brendaclough) | 147 comments The besiegers are also subject to illness. In a strange country, with new diseases to get, harassed and hated by the locals. This is the moment for camp followers and prostitutes to make their impact, especially if you can find ones with venereal diseases.
And winter can be so unpleasant, if you are sitting outside the walls on a snowbank and the enemy is inside the castle toasting marshmallows at the fireplace. Since the besieged know the territory, they can select their moment for the judicious sortie, slapping around the outsiders and then retreating to the safety of the castle.

message 8: by Charles (new)

Charles (nogdog) Just for the fun(?) of it and to show a really complicated case, do some reading on the siege of Alesia. Julius Caesar besieged the town, and in turn was essentially besieged by by a superior (in numbers) force of reinforcing Gauls. The Romans built field works around the town facing it, and then another set of fortification facing outward against the relief force.

message 9: by Jim (new)

Jim | 418 comments Brenda wrote: "That's why if I were the attacker (and had no scruples) I would use a trebuchet and start flinging rotting corpses over the walls. Especially if you can find someone who died of cholera or plague. Get disease going and thin them out a little; with luck the water source will become contaminated. ..."

Historically it was done, by both attackers and defenders.

One danger with using disease is that attackers were more at risk than defenders. After all the defenders were just using their normal sanitary arrangements and their sewage was going where it always went. The attackers were in ad hoc camps and were getting their water from unsavoury sources, struggled to impose latrine discipline etc

message 10: by Jim (new)

Jim | 418 comments When discussing defence, always remember the saying of Philip of Macedon. "A donkey carrying Gold is allowed to enter the gates of any city."

If you read any of the Greek Military manuals, they tended to be more worried about treachery than assault :-)

message 11: by Brenda (new)

Brenda Clough (brendaclough) | 147 comments This is so true, and is a subset of the rule that soft power is always to be resorted to, first. The sword is the last resort. I think it was Churchill who said that jaw-jaw (i.e. negotiation) was always better than war-war.

message 12: by Jim (new)

Jim | 418 comments It was. He also said, In wartime, "truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies."

message 13: by Will (new)

Will Once (willonce) | 121 comments There is a tendency to think of history as a single time and place. So we say things like "In ancient Rome, people did X and Y". And we come up with a single assessment of how castles fared against a besieging army.

Unfortunately (or fortunately if you are a fan of the complexity of real life) history doesn't work that way.

For me, the story of castles over time is really about two competing arms races. On the one hand, we have the skill and technology of the people on the inside trying to keep the attacking army out. Set against them we have the attacking army trying to get in. And the fate of both armies has varied enormously over time - to the extent that it is a little silly to come up with a single assessment of who had the better chances taking the sweep of history as a whole.

Let's start from the beginning. What most people think of as a castle is a stone built fortification with a central keep and continuous walls. So let's put mott and baileys to one side and think about the Norman invasion of 1066. Castles in that era were the wonder weapon of the age. When the besieging army has nothing more than swords and archers, a solid brick wall is pretty much impenetrable.

Sure, the besieging army can try to starve out the people in the castle. The problem with that approach is that it gives time for the castle folks' friends to turn up with their army. That's why castles are good for defending occupied territories. The idea isn't to last out forever, it is to buy yourself enough time for your homies to turn up.

But the attackers don't just shrug and give up at this point. They look for other ways to break in quickly. And that is when we get into gunpowder and tunnelling techniques. By the time we get to the renaissance era, castles are starting to look a bit passé. That nice thick stone wall doesn't feel so comforting when the besiegers stop using arrows and start lobbing cannon balls at you. Then exploding mortar shells. Incendiary devices. Grape shot. Not so nice.

The castle designers fight back by adding earth ramparts to protect their stone walls. They experiment with funky shapes so that the attackers can't attack a flat wall, but instead have to deal with the angles and curves of star shaped structures.

Then the advent of flight brought a whole new set of problems for castle defenders. I think we are going to need a stronger roof...

But just when you thought that the castle's days were over, the battle of Monte Cassino in WW2 proves that there is life in the old dog yet. Provided that you built your castle on the top of a very large hill, that is.

And, who knows?, castles might make a comeback in the zombie apocalypse. That is, until the legions of the undead learn how to climb walls as they do in World War Z.

So there we have it. Hollywood might offer a neat packaged idea of what a castle was and how to attack it. The reality is that it all depends on the era in which your castle is set, and the relative technologies of attacker and defender.

Ultimately the best way to learn about stuff like this is to study several castles and look at how their fortunes changed over time. Taking your inspiration from Robin Hood films or the LOTR movies doesn't quite do it.

History, like language, moves and changes over time. All too often we oversimplify it.

message 14: by T.C. (new)

T.C. Filburn (tcfilburn) | 20 comments Will wrote: "There is a tendency to think of history as a single time and place. "
Exactly. The term 'castle' can refer to many different kinds of structures built over 2000 years or so, and the methods of attacking it are just as variable over just the same kind of time period. The only 'universal' thing is that it is a defensive structure, so should help the defenders, so that in any given time a modern castle against modern attackers should help a smaller group keep a bigger group out for a while (assuming that both sides are vaguely competent, but neither side has some new and revolutionary idea or method to swing things in their favour).

How much it helps, and for how long, and in what proportions of defenders to attackers, is entirely variable.

The only universal truth about Robin Hood films is that they are almost certain to be almost entirely inaccurate about almost everything!

message 15: by Al "Tank" (new)

Al "Tank" (alkalar) | 231 comments Will wrote: "There is a tendency to think of history as a single time and place. So we say things like "In ancient Rome, people did X and Y". And we come up with a single assessment of how castles fared against..."

By the time European Americans started expanding west, the walled fort (castle?) disappeared. If you visit Arizona, looking for Hollywood-type forts, you won't find any. There were no walls around those army "forts". The natives ("Indians") didn't try to attack them because "that's where the soldiers were". Instead, they ambushed columns on the march (or "ride" if you will).

back to top