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Wednesday, September 14, 2016
A Siege Mentality (Gonzo)
If you are a king and want to destroy your enemies, then your life is going to involve a lot of warfare (spoiler alert!). After all, your foes won’t destroy themselves now, will they? Nope! That is where you come in—Mr. King: you gotta slay ‘em; gotta slay ‘em all! (What a messed up motto.)
But, here’s the thing: warfare is fairly time consuming and it is a hassle on the body (swinging the sword and chopping off heads and what not). So, sometimes you need to think smart instead of swinging hard; smart like laying siege to your foes’ fortresses. Why? Well, you’re about to find out.
I’m gonna level with ya: laying siege to an enemy was an expensive affair but it was also a unique kind of warfare in and of itself.
Castles controlled the countryside. They were the forward bases for knights and lordly troops and gave protection to the local population. Usually garrisoning the best of the best in terms of soldiers, castles were the centers of commerce and economic life. Unsurprisingly, they were well endowed and defended; if you could, you would avoid laying siege to castles due to the hefty cost in war material (got an emperor or captured king lying around to trade for castles?) but if you absolutely had to lay siege, then there was a sort of protocol for doing so.
Before laying siege, it was customary to give the inhabitants of the site a chance to negotiate: to peacefully surrender and save their lives and honor, or to resist and risk their town and lives upon a defeat. Believe it or not, things were more complicated than the defenders giving a yes or no answer. In fact, in the case of a castle or fortification manned by a vassal of the king, it was not uncommon for the attacking force to allow the defending force to send for advice from the absent king; this makes sense: you, as the attacker, did not want to spend a large temporality and amount of goods in laying siege to something if that same prize could be caught with simply allowing word to be passed between underling and king.
If word could not be sent, however, then the defenders would be at a loss on what to do and the garrison commander would have to make the hard decision on whether to resist or surrender. To force a decision, it was not uncommon for attacking forces to play all sorts of psychological games; building gallows, making grandiose threats, even promising wealth and honor to those who defected—the idea, remember, was to seize something which would normally be won under painful circumstances without any pain.
Sieges were usually laid in the spring or summer. Winter sieges were tricky to pull off since fire would be harder to catch, should you want to burn a wooden structure, and the slippery and tough ground made transporting equipment more arduous. Sometimes, however, winter sieges could be successful if a general knew the landscape and how to utilize forces under their control, but more often than not, with the timetable of feudal troops an always looming issue hanging in the background of war-leaders minds, what would tend to happen is the building of siege-castles to blockade the site while the main force would go on to a new battlefield. War may be hell, but it sure isn’t cheap!
So, as you can imagine, from these basics sprung a wide sort of tactics, strategies, and maneuvers which medieval commanders could form to win the day. How successful they were, and how many lives were saved in the process, would be up to their brilliance or their enemy’s dull-witted ignorance. For the sake of the lowly warrior, however, we pray that it such sieges were won with the least blood.
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