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8 Most Epic Castle Battles and Sieges (Before Gunpowder)

Introduction

Between Game of Thrones and Clash of Clans, fictional castle sieges are pervasive in our culture. Often overlooked are actual historical castle sieges that were just as epic for various reasons. Granted, there is a disappointing lack of giants and dragons (and I was compelled to include the Giant scene below)--yet still, fact can be stranger than fiction. Content warning- the video is somewhat gruesome/violent.

#8. Siege of Drepana (249) and the Sacred Chicken Massacre

It's difficult to appreciate all of the events of the First Punic War between Carthage and Rome because there were so many incredible stories. Carthage and Rome were genuinely two superpowers, and the 23 year First Punic War (264 B.C. to 241 B.C.) showcased quite a few ingenious adaptions as well as some epic military might. The Siege of Drepana was a great example of that.

Map of Sicily.  Yellow stands for Carthage territory, Red for Roman, Green for Sircusian

Map of Sicily. Yellow stands for Carthage territory, Red for Roman, Green for Sircusian

Carthage dominated the Mediterranean for an intuitive reason: they knew how to build ships. On the other hand, Rome had recently unified Italy solely due to their land might. Thus was born an interesting stalemate on the island of Sicily: Romans would take important cities, leave, and then Carthaginians would sail to the recently abandoned cities and take them for themselves. The stalemate lasted simply because it was to everyone's advantage to avoid confrontation.

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Rome refused to sit idle, however. They constructed a remarkably competitive navy in a short amount of time based off a Carthaginian ship that had run aground. Roman ships slowly but surely tested themselves in battle, and it wasn't long before Carthage's main forces had to confront them.

Most Roman ships were also fit with a innovative device very indicative of their fighting style-- a large plank, called a corvus (which translates to raven), that was basically a big heavy boarding bridge with a giant nail on one end. Via pulleys, they would drop the nail end on the deck of a nearby enemy ship which permitted them to board the enemy vessel and basically turn naval warfare into hand to hand combat.

Rome won some epic sea battles with the corvus, most notably the battle of Cape Econmus. At Econmus, there were about 330 Roman ships against 350 Carthaginian ships. That may sound like a lot, but it sounds like even more when you factor in that each ship carried hundreds of men. So you have about 150,000 rowers and fighters on each side. At Econmus, there were similar casualties on each side for most of the battle (especially since they were using such similar ships), but then the core Carthage ships retreated and stranded about 65 ships (close to 30,000 men) sandwiched between all of the Romans. The picture above depicts this. Needless to say the stranded Carthage ships were forced to surrender.

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Rome's success at sea had Carthage on its heels. There were two Carthaginian strongholds left in the region--Drepana and Lilybaeum. Lilybaeum was valiantly resisting siege in 249 B.C., though Romans were still making encroaching progress while accepting heavy casualties. The Carthaginians in Drepana decided it was their duty to try and help. Well, at least one named Hannibal did. He led some small ships through the blockade...in broad daylight, probably while shouting "You can't catch me". Then he would sail back at night, effectively neutralizing the blockade. As evidenced by his success, Carthaginian ships still possessed a mobility advantage over their Roman copies.

Publius Claudius Pulcher and his Roman army decided that this blockade running needed to cease. They sought to destroy the Drepana ships in their harbor which would deliver a fatal blow to both Carthage strongholds.

Pulcher's plan was to surprise attack the harbor and to use cloudy weather to mask an approach. In theory, they could blockade the harbor before the Carthage ships knew they were there. The weather, however, backfired. When the Roman ships lost their cloud cover they were scattered and disorganized because they were not able to communicate well with each other.

Carthaginian ships quickly evacuated the harbor and took advantage of the straggling Roman ships. Final casualty count: Romans lost 93 ships, Carthage lost 0. That's about 40,000 Romans lost without gaining anything even slightly substantial--about as lopsided as battles come. Although Pulcher probably deserved serious retribution for his horrible defeat, he instead was exiled for committing alleged sacrilege. He supposedly threw some sacred chickens overboard, which clearly crossed the line.

This battle forced Rome to retreat and bought Carthage another seven or so years on the island of Sicily.

The ruins of Kenilworth.  All photos from Wikimedia Commons or own work.

The ruins of Kenilworth. All photos from Wikimedia Commons or own work.

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#7. Siege of Kenilworth (1266)

Although there have been plenty of English castles over the years, Kenilworth Castle and its unique history stand out among them. Over its entire lifetime, the castle housed romantic drama worthy of a Jane Austen novel as well as effective defenses that were anything but romantic.

It's hard to mention the Siege of Kenilworth without mentioning the Magna Carta (1215). The Magna Carta is one of those things that history books always have to mention. It was famous for being ahead of its time by limiting powers of a monarchy.

The Magna Carta may have had noble intentions, but there was fallout for trying to limit the powers of the king. People start interpreting it weird, barons ask for more power, the King (Henry III) wanted his power back, etc. Fast forward to 1258, and the Magna Carta was mostly gone. The barons were trying to get ol' Henry to sign the Magna Carta version 2.0, the Provisions of Oxford. Everyone was tense over the ongoing famine/royal debt, and one thing led to another, and there was a civil war called the Second Baron's War.

Quick summary of the Second Baron's War: Henry III and his army-leading son were defeated and captured at the Battle of Lewes, then in a boneheaded move, allowed to escape. This was a turning point in the war, and the King was able to re-establish power because his son was good at rallying troops. Henry III killed the baron leader, and forced the baron leader's son to tell all his baron friends to surrender.

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Now Kenilworth castle comes in. The remaining barons were holed up in what was a glorious castle with no defensive measures spared. As far as 13th century castles go, Kenilworth was fairly impregnable. It had man-made lakes, advanced catapults, trebuchets, archer towers, etc. In a bitter irony, this was all paid for by the King and his royal predecessors.

The rebellion's leader's son had signed over the castle officially to the crown, but it's hard to convince people to leave a comfortable castle to be tried as criminals. They sent in a poor envoy to negotiate the surrender of the castle, and his hand was promptly cut off.

The regal force attempted a pretty pathetic siege after the envoy incident. Kenilworth's occupants used their superior artillery to throw dodgeballs at the King's force. By dodgeballs of course I mean large, bonecrushing rocks.

The King's force went back to the capitol and bought a bunch of trebuchets with money he did't have. They returned about four months later, knocking on the castle doors again. Despite their brand new toys, they weren't able to oust the 1,200 strong garrison in Kenilworth on multiple attempts (some including boat attacks).

Ultimately, they were patient enough to use the classic siege technique of starving out the baron leaders. Kenilworth's defenses did their job, but its food production techniques did not. I personally think the whole story would make an awesome movie.

Used my outstanding photoshop abilities on this one

Used my outstanding photoshop abilities on this one

#6. Siege of Paris (885–86)

If you lived in 9th century Paris, you lived in a small village on an Eiffel Tower-less island. Although quaint, it was strategically important and fairly well defended. As with most 9th century strategically important but quaint European villages, Vikings were a constant nuisance. Of course by nuisance I mean there was a constant threat of being mercilessly pillaged.

In 845, about 5,000 Vikings showed up on the horizon at Paris. Earlier Viking attacks had been made by amateur Viking organizations, and were successfully defended. The 845 raid was the real deal. The leader in Paris, Charles the Bald, had quite a few issues on his plate besides Vikings. Issues like he couldn't trust anyone around him, and he had other external war threats. He had trouble organizing any sort of defense.

So despite a plague among the Viking camp that would've helped on the defensive front, Charles the Bald decided it was best to appease the Vikings by paying them a ton of money. The Vikings were appeased, especially after they still ravaged the city, and then they went on to plunder surrounding villages. Three more times before 885 they went back to Paris to get loot and bribes and pretty much anything they wanted.

40 years later, in 885, different Vikings showed up on the horizon. It turns out these new 10,000-20,000 or so Vikings were not appeased by prior tribute (estimates on the strength of the force vary wildly, but there were a lot). Apparently pillaging Vikings are greedy, who knew.

Doing as Vikings do, they knocked on the door and demanded a bunch of money. Count Odo, acting ruler of Paris had enough of this Viking stuff (the sovereign, Charles the Fat-literally his name-was away with his army). Despite having only 200 men-at-arms (200 according to the only primary source), he did not oblige the Vikings. In other words, he was either stupid or badass or both. The Siege of Paris had begun.

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Odo had some help--the locals had decided that they would start preparing themselves more for Viking attacks. As a result, Paris had a new secret weapon...two bridges. One was stone and one was made of wood, and they were built so that no boats could pass them (thus making Paris even more strategically important). Defense of the shore was ideal because walls were placed right next to the waterfront, and so there wasn't much room to attack on land. Perhaps more important that the defensive advantages, the bridges also ensured that Paris would never be completely surrounded or cut off.

Probably not expecting much trouble, the Vikings began by attacking the northeast tower (which guarded one of the bridges) with giant crossbows and catapults. Unfortunately for them, the 12 men in the tower began dumping hot wax and pitch on them. That's probably one of the worst ways to die. The Vikings decided to hang it up and try again another day.

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The next morning, the tower was not only resupplied, but another story had been constructed on it. They not only failed to bring the tower down, the tower actually got taller! That had to be fairly demoralizing. The second day saw more Viking attacks with some secondary siege equipment, and those attacks failed as well.

The Vikings knew they would be in it for the long haul. So they built camp on the opposite shoreline to construct additional equipment. Over the course of two months, the Vikings launched a few all out attacks that simultaneously included fireboats aimed at damaging the bridges, siege engines to attack the walls of the city on the shore, and other siege groups to attack the bridgehead towers. A couple of failed all-out attempts led to quite a few Vikings leaving to go plunder elsewhere. They even tried building bridges to other parts of the island with any resources they could find (including dead bodies).

Eventually the Vikings damaged a bridge enough that a storm caused it to give way, and so they isolated a tower and killed everyone inside. By that time, however, Charles the Fat was on his way back to Paris after Odo's troops managed to get the message to him that they were under attack. Charles's troops scattered peripheral groups of Vikings, and surrounded the remaining Viking force. However, much to the dismay of anyone in Paris, Charles didn't plan on fighting. He struck a deal with the remaining Vikings where he paid them a bunch of money and allowed them to row downriver to plunder other villages.

Odo, in one last act of defiance, still did not let the Vikings pass on the river. Thus they had to carry their boats over land. It is not surprising that when Charles the Fat died, Odo was given reign of Paris. This was historically very notable because it usurped a very longstanding tradition of succession.

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#5. Château Gaillard (1203)

Château Gaillard is near Normandy, France in a region known for epic battles. Although in France, it was built by an Richard the Lionheart the Englishman. Richard the Lionheart was an important man in the 1100s, in fact he was simultaneously Duke of Normandy and King of England as well as a bunch of other cool titles. He earned his Lionheart nickname even before he gained power--so you know he's legit. His Wikipedia biography is a worthy a bedtime read if you're into that kind of thing (and if you made it this far, I assume you are.)

A king that is known for war is probably going to have some outstanding castles, and Château Gaillard is no exception. It strategically overlooks the famous Siene river, on a hill above a town called Andely. Phillip II was the French King who wished to attack it (and as a side note, was also building the Louvre as well as uniting most of France). Phillip II and Richard the Lionheart had quite a history together. They paired up to rebel against Henry II, a.k.a. Richard's father. The double-team tactic worked, and Richard became the official heir to the throne of England. Phillip increased his position and assets in France. Both Richard and Phillip II wanted to participate in the Crusades, but rightfully didn't trust each other to not take over France if one of them left. As a result, they went Crusading together.

Richard was captured on his way back to England, and then the opportunist in Phillip II helped Henry II's other son John take some of Richard's castles in France. It was quite literally a Game of Thrones, and Phillip II was savvy about it.

Effigy of Richard

Effigy of Richard

It's easy to get lost in the strategic marriages, dramatic splits, and prevalent warmongering of the period. My revisionist version of that setting: If someone was able to take castles from you, they would find a noble cause to do it. If someone wasn't able to take castles from you, they'd find help to do it, and then backstab. It's not a perfect rule of thumb, but pretty close.

Okay, so the Siege of Château Gaillard. Richard the Lionheart died because a boy shot him with a crossbow in the neck. The boy said it was revenge for Richard killing his father and two brothers. Richard survived for awhile, but the wound became infected. He forgave the boy, but when he passed one of his captains flayed the boy alive and then hanged him.

Richard's brother John was either not very enthused or not capable of defending all of his brother's Normandy castles. As a result, the opportunistic Phillip II started taking them. Château Gaillard was a true military masterpiece, and so Phillip II saved it for last. He competently laid siege to surrounding lesser castles so that Château Gaillard would not be supported.

Inner Bailey is on right, Château on the left.

Inner Bailey is on right, Château on the left.

Civilians were trapped between the armies when Phillip stopped accepting them.  Many died from hunger while arrows were being shot over their heads.

Civilians were trapped between the armies when Phillip stopped accepting them. Many died from hunger while arrows were being shot over their heads.

King John wasn't completely apathetic; he sent a relief force. It did not succeed at least in part because of a poor battle plan. The attack on the French relied on two theoretical simultaneous attacks that in practice were not simultaneous. The French defeated one prong, and then turned around and defeated another. The French shook off the attempt entirely and proceeded toward Château Gaillard. King John was forced to tuck his tail and regroup.

Another factor besides no hope of being relieved that did not help the Château Gaillard defenders was that the castle became overrun with refugees from the town in the valley below. The refugees outnumbered the garrison about 4 to 1, and quickly depleted its food stores. This ultimately led to the castle captain, Roger De Lacy, to force them out. The first few groups were mercifully accepted and fed by the French. Phillip II became very reluctant to let out more, however, because it was to his advantage for them to stay.

After a lone brave French soldier swam across the Siene and set an island garrison on fire, Château Gaillard was completely isolated. King John's last attempt to draw off Phillip II was to raid nearby towns and castles, but Phillip did not take the bait. John then sailed back to England.

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Château Gaillard was divided into two main sections, the outer bailey and the inner bailey. The outer bailey was very large and imposing, complete with protruding machiolations from which rocks and whatnot could be dropped on attackers. About 75% of the outer bailey was surrounded immediately by steep cliff, limiting Phillip's attack to one direction.

Phillip's men built cover to approach the castle. They had archer and siege support to help provide covering fire. Their men set up ladders to climb the outer bailey wall, but in a rare mishap, the ladders were too short. Some soldiers were still able to climb to the top, but many perished waiting in line on a ladder. Ultimately the decisive blow came when Phillip's men mined underneath the outer bailey wall, causing a portion of it to collapse. English forces were forced to retreat to another position.

Very famously, Phillip then sent out probes to look for easy access to the middle bailey. Their efforts were rewarded when a lone latrine chute was discovered. A couple of nights later, a special team climbed through the human excrement, arrived in the middle bailey bathroom, and then managed to set fire to some important buildings. They then were able to open the gate to allow the entire French army through.

All that remained was the inner bailey, yet still surrounded by a moat. Roger De Lacey only had about 20 knights and 120 men at arms left, and they were unable to defend the rock bridge that permitted access to their position. After five months total Château Gaillard had fallen.

This was a major piece in King John losing popularity and in turn being forced to sign the Magna Carta. On the other hand, Phillip II was able to regain almost all of Normandy.

Mongol Empire 1300 A.D.

Mongol Empire 1300 A.D.

#4. Siege of Baghdad (1258)

Interestingly, modern day terminology like "Arabic numerals", "Algorithm", and "Algebra" are not English nor French nor German. Even the concept of zero was imported to Europe. Those great tools of math all originated or came to prominence in the Islamic Golden Age. Baghdad in particular during those times was an international cultural and science center. The mastery of the Tigris and Euphrates river helped support an advanced agricultural system that fed close to one million people in Baghdad alone.

The various unique riches of the Middle East at that time gave rise to plenty of political strife. Everyone wanted a piece of the proverbial pie. There were plenty of complicated regional quarrels of Islamic sects, like there seemingly always has been and will be, and additionally of course there was some pressure from the Crusades. The fatal blow to the intellectual riches of the region, however, did not originate from internal fights or Europe. The force that would subdue Baghdad for hundreds of years instead rode on horseback from the Steppes of Asia, the Mongols.

Hulagu Khan

Hulagu Khan

The Mongols were on a legendary rampage that led to casualties not see again until the World Wars. They obliterated Kievian Rus city by city, army by army. It took them about three years to rape and pillage all of Eastern Europe. They spread south into Asia like a plague, and soon overran Muslims in Turkey and most of modern-day Iran. It wasn't long before they had their sights on the prized city of Baghdad.

A Mongol by the name of Hulagu had assembled what was probably the largest Mongol army ever, according to historian John Joseph Saunders, author of The History of the Mongol Conquests. He took one out of every ten fighting-able men from across the empire, which totaled about 150,000 men. On top of that, he brought along some Christian armies that were seeking revenge on Muslims. That's not all either. There were Chinese artillery experts as well as foreign engineers and auxiliaries. It was probably about as powerful of an army as there could be in the mid-13th century.

A Caliph named Al-Musta'sim was the sovereign in Baghdad. Hulagu basically demanded a complete surrender, reasonable tribute, as well as a military detachment. Al-Musta'sim must have felt pretty comfortable with his own 50,000 men. He was also almost certainly disillusioned by Ibn al-Alkami, a top ranking yes-man adviser near him.

Baghdad 1258

Baghdad 1258

A vicious lesson on the importance of scouting was quickly learned. Caliph Al-Musta'sim brazenly rejected Hulagu's terms, inviting a Mongol attack. Not only did that undermine future attempts at negotiation, but he also refused to gather Islamic militants from the nearby areas and strengthen the city walls. He probably could have forced a long, dramatic siege if he had prepared Baghdad for what he was actually facing.

Piling on mistakes, he sent 20,000 of his best cavalry out to take care of the 150,000 + Mongols. No matter how much you train on horseback, it's hard to have about a 8:1 kill to death ratio against a nomadic foe that is skilled on horseback. The Mongols probably chuckled, and then their engineers cut dikes to flood the area behind the Baghdad cavalry to prevent retreat. The Mongols quickly slaughtered a valuable 40% of Al-Musta'sim's total garrison.

It took a little over a week for the Mongols to effectively neutralize Baghdad's defenses. Considering the circumstances, it's a wonder they survived that long. Not surprisingly, Al-Musta'sim then tried to re-open negotiations. His numerous envoys were all mercilessly killed. The city had no hope.

Quite a few atrocities then took place. Perhaps most historically consequential was that we lost a huge knowledge base when the Grand Library of Baghdad was destroyed. Cool priceless things like the recipe for Greek Fire and countless first hand knowledge was thought to be housed there. Waterways, including the Tigris, were said to have been black with ink. Infrastructure and buildings that dated hundreds of years were also flattened. The earth was sewn with salt, which when compiled with irrigation systems being destroyed, complicated agriculture to the point that it could not support even a modest settlement.

Abbasid Library, Baghdad, 1237

Abbasid Library, Baghdad, 1237

And then there was the human toll: 200,000 to 2,000,000, depending on your source. The Mongols famously had to repeatedly move their camp to avoid the stench of the city. The Caliph was symbolically locked up in his treasury where he starved. Before he died, however, he was symbolically rolled up in a rug (so the ground wouldn't feel his blood), and then symbolically trampled.

Perhaps the only small bright spot was that Huglagu's wife was Christian, and so the small Christian sect was spared. Also, the Mongols did leave 3,000 behind to rebuild the city. It became more or less a marketplace for the next few hundred years.

Note 1: You might recognize the term "Caliph" from ISIS terminology. That's because this was the last Caliphate before ISIS.

Note 2: Yes, the Mongols were one of the first groups to use gunpowder. Around this time they had more or less bombs that could be hurled via traditional kinetic means. There was no mention of it used in Baghdad (although it probably was in a limited way), and so I decided to still include it in this list.

Carthage ruins today

Carthage ruins today

#3. Battle of Carthage (149 B.C.)

The two year siege of Carthage was about as epic as sieges can come. It was the final showdown of the massive Third Punic War.

After approaching the area with about 50,000 men, Rome made increasingly aggressive demands on the populace of Carthage. Carthage accepted the first series of demands, which included releasing POWs as well as turning over some weapons. Ultimately Rome requested that the entire city completely surrender. This was too far, and a motivated 500,000 Carthaginians to prepare for siege. Although Romans moved relatively freely around the city, Carthage was still not cut off from resupply at this point.

Carthage's walls were mostly surrounded by water. A three mile wide isthmus was the only land approach to the city. Rome's first attempt on the city was a simple one; ladders. One prong of the attack would be on land and the other would be on the walls on the water. The Romans were able to reach the walls with their ladders, but were repulsed there. Carthage managed to raid the Romans as they retreated and caused some extra casualties.

Not to be denied, the Roman force decided to try two gigantic battering rams manned by thousands of men apiece. Again, one would approach by land, and the other by sea. Paul Revere would have been confused as what to do. One of them was actually able to slightly breach the wall, however, the resulting bottleneck of Roman troops was handled by Carthaginian soldiers inside the gates. Rome once again had to retreat. It was here that a simple Roman captain, Scipio Aemilianus, began to prove himself to be a hero. Interestingly, his grandfather (Scipio Africanus) was the one to defeat Hannibal in the Second Punic War. Over the course of the next year, Scipio Aemilianus repeated his heroism and eventually was placed in charge of the siege despite not meeting the age requirement for the position.