Home to some of the most influential people in the country, castles often attracted brutal opposition from enemies who were fighting for revolution, political reform or the dirtiest motivator of them all, power. Among the 66 castles in the care of English Heritage, many have faced some of the country’s toughest sieges and their ruins today reveal scars from their violent pasts.
This season we’re celebrating the history of castles with our #LoveCastles campaign. Here you can learn more about the castles we protect – from their turbulent pasts to the way we care for them today for future generations.
In this blog we’re exploring the stories of five of the most brutal sieges in England’s history. Find out which northern fortress never fell to the Scots, learn about the Roundhead leader who survived a 200ft fall only to die in battle, and discover how bad weather can scupper siege weapons.
1. Prudhoe Castle, Northumberland
Prudhoe Castle was once the undoing of a king. The first castle was built here in about 1095 by Robert d’Umfraville as the centre of the barony of Prudhoe, and to control a crossing over the River Tyne. But ownership of the border lands between England and Scotland was frequently contested by the two countries, and Prudhoe was dragged into the dispute during sieges in 1173 and 1174.
In 1139 King Stephen of England granted the earldoms of Northumberland and Cumberland to David I of Scotland and his son Prince Henry to keep the peace along the border. The northern English barons often visited the Scottish royal court, and there were marriages between noble families on opposing sides of the border. But Henry II reclaimed the earldoms in 1157, going back on his oath to David I and kicking off generations of conflict.
Robert’s son, Odinel d’Umfraville, had been brought up at the Scottish court, but had married the daughter of the English justiciar and was loyal to Henry. This infuriated the Scottish king, William the Lion (reigned 1165-1214), and when England was thrown into civil war in 1173 and 1174 he twice attacked Prudhoe as part of an attempt to regain the northern counties from Henry II.
Jordan Fantosme, clerk to the Bishop of Winchester, witnessed the sieges. In 1173 he tells us that ‘the king of Scotland had his pavillions, his tents, and his marquees pitched there, and his earls and barons assembled’. And he said to his noblemen: ‘My lords, what shall we do? As long as Prudhoe stands we shall never have peace.’
William left to besiege Carlisle Castle and returned the next year with Flemish and French mercenaries swelling his ranks. Odinel had been warned and had stocked up on provisions, and he slipped out to gather reinforcements to lift the siege. William’s men destroyed the castle’s farms and orchards, but could not take the castle. He left after three days, but on his way to Alnwick, Odinel and ‘four hundred knights with shining helms’ and ‘sharp lances’ caught up with him.
William was captured and imprisoned. In return for his release he had to hand over his castles to the English crown, and pay homage to Henry II.
Today you can enjoy explore the keep, great hall and the towered walls that now enclose a Georgian mansion.
2. Dover Castle, Kent
King John came to the throne in 1199 as the head of an empire – but by 1204 he’d lost Normandy, Anjou and much of Poitou to the French king. He spent the next 10 years building up the funds to pay for an army to recapture the lost territories, but heavy taxation made him unpopular with his barons. Many of them refused to help him fight his campaign in France in 1214, which he lost. When he returned to England, many of his barons rose against him to get him to sign a charter to enshrine their rights and force John to act according to the Common Law of England.
In May 1215 they seized London and forced John to sign their charter, later known as Magna Carta. But by the end of the summer John had convinced the Pope to annul the charter, arguing that he’d signed it under duress. Fed up with John, the barons rebelled and offered the throne to Louis, the eldest son of the king of France. A party of rebels seized Rochester Castle in September, but John captured it after a brutal siege that lasted well over a month.
John and his mercenary army marched through the country with ease, pillaging rebel lands and recapturing Carlisle from Alexander II of Scotland, who’d marched south in support of the rebels. By spring 1216 the rebels were left with little more than London, but on 21 May Prince Louis landed at Thanet in Kent. John hesitated, worried that his foreign mercenaries, many of whom came from France, would defect to the prince. He retreated to Winchester.
Louis recaptured Rochester and entered London on 2 June, capturing Winchester a month later. Even barons previously loyal to John defected now, and by late summer the rebels had recaptured most of their lost territory and all the castles in the south east – but not Windsor or Dover.
Dover was one of the most advanced castles in Europe with strong towers and curtain walls. It overlooked Dover’s port, so it was also strategically vital. Although there wasn’t much the defenders could do to stop an invading fleet, it could be used as a base to supply or disrupt an invading army.
John had made sure the castle was well provisioned before he retreated from Kent, leaving behind 140 knights and many men-at-arms. John chose the loyal Hubert de Burgh to command the castle. Hubert told his men to carry on the defence of the castle even if he died, ‘for it is indeed the key of England’.
The siege began in mid-July. Louis bombarded the outer walls of the castle with mangonels and erected a siege tower. He used miners to dig through the soft chalk and undermine the timber barbican. The French stormed it, killing its commander, and the defenders retreated behind the stone walls.
A new mine was dug to bring down a tower of the main gatehouse, and the defenders dug countermines, but that didn’t work – the tower collapsed. There was bitter hand-to-hand fighting as the attackers tried to enter the breach, but the defenders won and ‘closed up the place where their walls had fallen, with great timbers, and crossbeams and palisades of oak trunks.’
A frustrated Louis struck a truce with the defenders, but in late October news arrived – John had died of dysentery, leaving his 9-year-old son, Henry III, as king. Still the defenders did not surrender, and Louis left Dover to fight further north. But by Easter 1217 many English barons began to desert Louis for Henry – they’d been happy to fight a tyrant, but not a boy.
The garrison at Dover were supported by guerillas from the Weald of Kent, who began harrying Louis’ lines of communication. Louis split his forces and besieged Dover again in May 1217. He built a trebuchet called ‘Bad Neighbour’, which was probably the first in the country. But ten days into the siege he found out that the other half of his army had been routed at Lincoln. Louis abandoned the siege once again and retreated to London. Reinforcements were sent from France in August, but an English fleet, led by Hubert de Burgh, destroyed their boats near Sandwich. Louis renounced his claim to the throne in September and returned to France.
Today at Dover you can climb the Great Tower, explore the medieval interiors and take in the views from the top of the famous White Cliffs. With a rich history that stretches from the Romans to the Cold War, Dover’s story comes to life with every visit.
3. Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire
In the mid-1260s England was again at war with itself. Disaffected barons, led by Simon de Montfort, were fighting Henry III in a bid to curb his power. The barons had some early success – they won the Battle of Lewes in 1264 and took Henry and his son Edward prisoner. But Edward escaped, and de Montfort couldn’t consolidate his position. He was defeated and killed at the Battle of Evesham in August 1265.
But the rebels fought on, and they still held Kenilworth. With its outer walls, towers and vast defensive mere, or lake, it was one of the strongest castles in the country. Henry tried to persuade its defenders to surrender, but they refused – even cutting off the hand of one of the king’s messengers.
The garrison was well stocked and had managed to secure supplies, weapons and ammunition, but so too had the king. He had 2000 wooden ‘hurdles’ to screen his men from missiles, 60,000 crossbow bolts and nine siege engines.
The siege began on 25 June 1266, with efforts concentrated on the northern defences. The two sides fired their siege weapons against each other. It was said that there were so many missiles flying about that some of them collided in mid-air. Henry had to send for larger machines, but even these don’t seem to have caused any serious damage to the walls. One of his siege towers, nicknamed The Bear and said to have held 200 crossbowmen, was destroyed by the defenders’ catapults. The king tried to launch a waterborne assault across the mere using barges, but the defenders held them off.
The king turned to religion to break the defenders’ morale. The archbishop of Canterbury (or perhaps the Papal legate) formally excommunicated the defenders in July, effectively condemning them to hell if they died. The rebels were unimpressed. They dressed their surgeon in white, and had him excommunicate the attackers.
Henry tried to come to terms of agreement with the rebels. In October 1266 he gave them the chance to regain their lands in return for paying large fines, but they rejected his offer. The siege dragged on.
On 14 December, as Henry was making preparations for an all-out assault, the castle surrendered. There was almost no food left, and disease was beginning to spread through the garrison. They were given the same terms offered to them in October, and they left the castle with their arms, horses and equipment.
Visit Kenilworth Castle to learn more about the siege, discover the tower built to impress Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century and explore the Norman keep. There’s also an Elizabethan Garden and an exhibition in the gatehouse that tells the story of the royal relationship between the queen and her courtier Robert Dudley.
4. Carlisle Castle, Cumbria
In July 1315 Carlisle Castle came under attack from the King of Scotland, Robert Bruce. The Scots had smashed the English army at Bannockburn the year before, and now they turned their attention to Carlisle, a key border stronghold.
The Chronicle of Lanercost records that ‘on every day of the siege they assaulted one of the three gates of the city, sometimes all three at once; but never without loss, because there were discharged upon them from the walls such dense volleys of darts and arrows, likewise stones, that they asked one another whether stones bred and multiplied within the walls.’
The Scots had their siege weapons, but so did the defenders, which the Chronicle says ‘caused great fear and damage to those outside’. The Scottish engines ‘did little or no injury to those within’, and seem to have been much less advanced than those of the English.
Heavy rains didn’t help either – Europe was in the middle of a run of three bad summers that caused devastating famines across the continent. A huge Scottish siege tower got stuck in the mud before it could get into position. The attackers threw bundles of grain and hay into the moat to try to fill it up, but they got swept away. They built bridges on wheels to cross the moat, but they sank.
On the ninth day the Scots mounted an assault on all three gates. When that failed they advanced on the eastern wall to provide cover for a stealth attack from the west, which seemed to have some success – according to the Chronicle, ‘there they set up long ladders which they climbed, and the bowmen, whereof they had a great number, shot their arrows thickly to prevent anyone showing his head above the wall.’
But the English regained control of the wall, apparently suffering only a few casualties. The next day Robert, perhaps after hearing of rumours that the English army was approaching, ordered his men to retreat.
5. Scarborough Castle, North Yorkshire
Scarborough Castle endured one of the longest and bloodiest sieges of the Civil War. In 1642 Sir Hugh Cholmley was sent to Scarborough to hold the castle for Parliament, but he became disillusioned and switched to the Royalist cause after five months. While Sir Hugh was in York, his cousin launched a surprise raid and took it back for Parliament, but Cholmley persuaded him to give it back. For the next two years Scarborough was a vital base for the Royalists, and a real nuisance in the north for Parliament. Royalist troops raided local Parliamentarian estates, and their ships intercepted shipments of coal bound for London.
In 1644 Parliament defeated the Royalists at the Battle of Marsden Moor and captured York, leaving Scarborough isolated. The Parliamentarians, commanded by Sir John Meldrum, closed in on Scarborough in August that year, but Cholmley opened negotiations to buy himself some time and improve the castle’s defences.
He managed to hold the town for three weeks before retreating into the castle on 18 February 1645. Remarkably, the siege was put on hold after Meldrum fell 200ft from the cliffs – apparently he stumbled over the edge while trying to catch his hat, which had been blown off by the wind. Even more remarkably, Meldrum survived the fall.
He recovered and resumed command in May, and the bombardment of the castle began. He set up the country’s largest cannon in St Mary’s Church beneath the castle, and pounded the walls with cannonballs weighing 25-29kg. The Royalists had their own artillery, and fired back at the church, which was badly damaged.
The bombardment was so intense that within three days the massive walls of the great tower sheared, and half the building collapsed. The Parliamentarians launched an assault, but it was repulsed. Meldrum was shot and killed in the fierce fighting.
Meldrum’s replacement, Sir Matthew Boynton, decided to wait it out. They blockaded and bombarded the castle from land and sea. Cholmley’s supplies and ammunition were running out, and he surrendered on 25 July – five months after the siege began. It’s thought that only half of the castle’s 500 defenders survived, and only 25 were still fit enough to fight.
These days the castle looks markedly different, but you can discover 3000 years of history in the Master Gunner’s House and play on the grassy 16-acre headland. The 12th-century great tower still stands, but its damaged ruins stand as a reminder of one of the bloodiest sieges of the Civil War.
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