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The mouse that squeaked – or the story of a VERY short siege

There’s something about sieges, isn’t there? An encircled fortress—or city—and it is all one long waiting game as the cat outside wonders just how long the mouse will stay in its hole before lack of food and water forces it to venture beyond the safety of its walled haven.

Caerlaverock Medieval-Siege-Warfare

Mind you, I don’t think the people who experienced a siege were all that thrilled. Take, as an example, the poor citizens of Calais who one day woke up to see themselves besieged by Edward III’s army. English, English everywhere and not a Frenchie to be seen. Even worse, the English king was in a foul mood and determined to make an example out of Calais. Not good. That particular siege lasted for 11 months. People ate their pets. They ate the rats. They started gnawing on their shoe leather. And then they gave up, despite knowing that the English king was planning on executing quite a few of them because of their stubborn opposition. Fortunately for the citizens of Calais, Edward’s queen came to their rescue, pleading the king to show mercy. Which is why the streets of Calais did not run red after their surrender.

Today, I’d like to introduce you to a much more unknown siege. Plus, it was way shorter, likely due to the size of the garrison versus the forces opposing them. So, allow me to grab you by the hand and drag you back to the year of our Lord 1300. The mighty Edward I is king of England, has recently vanquished  Wales—a brutal affair that extended over several years as the Welsh did not roll belly-up just because Edward had executed their last prince and locked up said prince’s sons—and has since some years focused on Scotland.

Those of you who know your history know we are in the time of the great Wallace. Scotland was in the throes of a civil war, with some of the nobles siding with Edward I, some loudly voicing that Scotland was no vassal state to the English king, but an independent state. Problem was, Scotland was leaderless, this due to Alexander III having died in 1286 and his only heir, Margaret, dying at the age of seven in 1290. Suddenly, the Scottish throne was up for grabs and for some strange reason the Scottish nobles invited Edward I to help them choose their new king out of various claimants.

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The unsuccesful John

Edward chose John Balliol but insisted that the new king recognise Edward as his overlord, thereby effectively making Scotland a feudal fief under his heavy foot. Did not go down well, let me tell you, and as John quickly proved to be a rather spineless dude, soon enough the more forceful among the Scots had forced John to abdicate. Instead, a council of twelve was to rule the realm, shored up by an alliance with France.

Edward threw a fit. Scotland was his! Err…No, not really, but our Edward was good at claiming other’s stuff as his, as evidenced by what he did in Wales. So, in 1296, Edward invaded Scotland thereby kicking off the First Scottish War or Independence. It was an uneven fight—at least on paper. The English army was larger, better armed and provisioned and had ample battle experience. But the Scots were fighting for their existence, and as we all know a cornered beast is a dangerous beast. Plus, this is when William Wallace steps into the limelight and defeats the English at Stirling.

Anyway: things went back and forth, and in 1300 Edward was determined to once and for all stamp his dominion over Scotland. So he amassed his army in Carlisle and in late June began his march north. It was his intention to subjugate the southwest of Scotland, and along the way he came upon Caerlaverock Castle. We have a rather detailed description of this in the contemporary The Siege of Caerlaverock Castle:

In our Lord’s year thirteen-hundred, on St. John’s day, at Carlisle Edward held great court, and ordered that all men in little while should prepare to march on Scotland, ‘gainst his foemen of the north. Ready were they to the hour, and the good King led them forth. Not in coats and surcoats  rode they, on their chargers dearly-bought, but well armoured and securely, wary of surprise assault. There were richly broidered trappings of or silk or satin made, many a lovely lance-head pennon, many a banner proud displayed.

Caerlaverock Castle, anno 1900 – six hundred years later…

According to the herald who wrote the above, King Edward was accompanied by no less than 87 barons, after which follows a long, long list of all these barons and what they wore and what their coat of arms looked like. Among those who rode with the king was none other than his son:

The fourth squadron was commanded by young Edward, the King’s heir;  Seventeen, he was, and handsome, sensible and debonair. Well his charger he could manage, and in this his first affray eagerly a chance he looked for, proof of prowess to display. Arms he bore of the good King his father, with a label azure. May God grant him grace and courage to his royal father’s measure! (He wasn’t seventeen, he was just sixteen, but what difference does a year make, hey?)

Back to Caerlaverock: This was a relatively new castle. Seeing as Edward was keen on building castles, he may have taken some time to admire the well-built little fortress and its unusual shape. You see, Caerlaverock was a triangular castle, with a massive gatehouse at one point and two impressive towers at each of the other points. Sort of unusual, one could say, but effective as the construction allowed for the archers in the tower to shoot along the walls at any attacker.

According to the medieval description: Mighty was Caerlaverock Castle. Siege it feared not and scorned surrender. I rather like that our medieval writer expounds a bit on the setting in general: Ne’er was castle lovelier sited : westward lay the Irish Sea, north a countryside of beauty by an arm of sea embraced. On two sides, whoe’er approached it danger from the waters faced; nor was easier the southward — sea-girt land of marsh and wood: therefore from the east we neared it, up the slope on which it stood.

Caerlaverock_Castle_2016 De Facto
Photo by DeFacto (Creative Commons)

While the ruins of the castle lie some distance from the sea in our time, back in 1300 the castle protected a small harbour. Harbours were always good to control when launching an invasion, which may be why Edward decided that this relatively insignificant castle was to be taken.

So: imagine a nice July day. Imagine you’re doing sentry duty at Caerlaverock and in the far distance you see something resembling a dust storm. You know the English king is on the move—all of Scotland knows—but why would he come this way? Except, that apparently he is, because soon enough you can make out the sun glinting on blades and shields, on the emblazoned coat of arms of the barons and foreign knights riding with the English king.
“Shite,” you likely mutter. Before you, a sea of men—so many men!—and at the last count Caerlaverock has approximately three score defenders (one score is twenty) You, dear sentry, hurtle down the narrow stairs, yelling for the constable…

The constable of Caerlaverock rushed up to the gatehouse and stared out at the host assembled before him. Three thousand men led by the king in person. Gulp. But our constable was a brave man so when the king called for their surrender, the constable replied that yes, they’d surrender if all his men were allowed to ride off unharmed and with their arms. This did not please Edward. Who dared demand terms when it was evident just who was going to win? The constable should be cowering at the royal feet, not requesting a royal boon!

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And so, dear peeps, the siege of Caerlaverock began. Our medieval journalist expends a lot of time describing the English camp, how the surrounding countryside was scoured for flowers and herbs to make things nice and cosy, but I suspect this has an element of poetic license as no one was expecting to hang about Caerlaverock for long. Mind you, when medieval barons rode to war (and especially medieval kings) they rode in style: embroidered tents, pots and pans to man a kitchen expected to deliver delicacies despite the situation, beds that were assembled and disassembled, mattresses, chairs, goblets and pitchers, maybe the odd tapestry to really make the tent look like home.

According to The Siege of Caerlaverock Castle, the fighting started when the foot soldiers started shooting arrows at the gatehouse and the men lining the walls. To do so, they needed to approach the castle, and apparently the defenders were quite good with bow and arrow, with throwing spears and hurled rocks as, according to our chronicler, many of the footmen were killed or seriously hurt. This, dear readers, is when the tough really got going: when faced with peril of a well-manned castle many were the brave knights who decided to join in. Silk surcoats fluttered in the wind, pennants snapping overhead as the king’s loyal warriors roared their challenge. A certain Thomas Richmond, for example, called his men together for a frontal assault:
He, too, raised a force of lances, but they showed nor sense nor care, and, as though inflamed by arrogance and blinded by despair, to the very bridge advancing, there admission loud did claim. Straightway in huge stones and heavy the defenders’ answer came! Shield disdaining, Willoughby received a bolt within his breast. Resolute FitzMarmaduke endured as much as all the rest, standing like a stock, his banner marred by many a stain and tear. Hamsart fought so fierce that fragments of his shield flew in the air.

It seems the attackers were attempting to hurl stones upwards, against the defenders. Not the best strategy: gravity is a bummer like that, and it is much easier to drop a huge boulder than throw it. Well: unless one has modern technologies at hand—which Edward did. OK: modern from a medieval perspective. Into the story now enters the enigmatic Friar Robert.

To judge from his honorific, Robert was a monk. Given the king’s fondness for Dominican friars (something he’d inherited from his wife and would pass on to his son), I suspect this Robert was wearing an unpractical white or undyed habit. He was also in charge of the siege machinery, the trebuchets. Seems odd, doesn’t it, that a man of God should indulge in violence, but there you are: Friar Robert was deffo into using everything he had in his arsenal to pound the stubborn defenders of Caerlaverock into submission.

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On the second day of the siege, the trebuchets sent rock after rock flying at the castle. The damage was not that great: trebuchets were imprecise weapons that required a lot of fine-tuning between each shot. The stones hurled could smash through a roof or crush a wooden building into firewood, but the walls were generally difficult to breach. However, from the garrison’s point of view it must have been terrifying to dodge the huge boulders. One shot apparently flattened the roof of the gatehouse, and somewhere there the defenders lost heart. By the end of the second day, the garrison submitted, the garrison submitted, placing themselves entirely at the king’s mercy.

According to The Siege of Caerlaverock Castle, Edward was magnanimous in victory, giving the survivors their freedom and a new set of clothes. The Lanercost Chronicle states that several of the garrison were hanged, the others sent off into captivity. Modern historians tend to lean towards this version of events.

For two days, 60 men faced off against an army of several thousands. For two days, a small, triangular castle has the powerful English king gnashing his teeth in rage. It did not end well for the castle—or the men defending it—but as we all know, Edward, Hammer of the Scots, did not succeed in breaking the Scots. In 1314 Robert Bruce taught the English a hard and bloody lesson at the Battle of Bannockburn, one that definitely brought home that Scotland was free. By then, the handsome, sensible and debonair Edward Jr was king, a humiliated king who fled for his life in the aftermath of Bannockburn. But that, I think, is a story for another day.

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