Beyond the Barbican
A Tale of Siege and Slaughter, Continued
Though apparently a piece of fiction (the castle is certainly imagined), I aim in this to educate as much enliven the various parts of a castle which were employed to destroy an attacker's army.
As this is a Medieval Siege, I need not, but will, point out that this contains heavy violence.
Eadmund had watched bitterly when the battering ram and its escort vanished through the mouth of the barbican. Fresh levies, despatched against the barbican without hope of success, not only were they untrained, but the army was not behind them to lend their support. The main force cowered in the shadow of the walls, beneath wooden shelters adorned with hides to deter the flames hurled against them. And under those shelters, they waited for him, Eadmund, a nobody bearing a torch.
The tunnel of the mine ran from behind the camp’s palisade, beyond the eyes of the rebels, to beneath the foundations of the southern curtain wall. There was no moat of water there to weaken the ground as there was to the east side, nor did the tower rest upon foundations of stone as the walls did to the north and west. At Caernarvon Castle the towers were built many-sided with all the more corners to withstand undermining, but here on the east side the towers rose as sturdy cylinders, without a single point of weakness and capable even of deflecting catapult fire. Thus it was that a tower upon the southern wall was chosen, old mortar, square in shape, easy to undermine.
At the mouth to the mine tunnel, Eadmund ushered to those who brought the pigs, ‘In ’ere,’ he commanded as they led them from their cages. The pigs went into the tunnel first, Eadmund followed. They were stubborn at the start, yet when he waved the flaming brand at them they squealed and hastened down the passage as if he were a butcher preparing the King’s bacon. That would have been a kinder fate.
The tunnel was long but fairly straight, dropping down steeply at first but then rising steadily as it drew nearer the curtain wall. It was roughly hewn, fragments of stone and loose soil trickled down from the ceiling above yet for the most part the packed earth and stone that made up the roof seemed stable. The supporting beams were strong but dry, and would hold long enough until it was time for them to burn. He passed a large stone as he urged the pigs forwards, fallen from the ceiling or wall perhaps, shaken loose by the many footsteps, those of man and animal.
The end of the tunnel was notably wider and better supported, the ceiling held up by at least a dozen thick posts and crossbeams. In the roof Eadmund thought he spied a fragment of the tower’s foundations, that or a piece of natural rock. He urged the pigs forwards with mutterings of, ‘In yer get, it’ll all be over soon,’ and they appeared to comprehend that well enough. In the room a mound of kindling sat, just enough to start the fire, let the animals do the rest. He pitied those pigs and mourned the meat they could alternatively be providing, they may have been deemed an inferior batch, but he wagered they would have provided a finer meal than what he was used to. He cast the torch towards the kindling and hastened to block off the pig’s escape, using a spare plank of wood and wedging it carefully.
As he turned his back on the flames, the squeals reached an unbelievable pitch, he felt the heat on his back as the fires gorged themselves on wood and flesh; he broke into a run, the smoke chasing him. He tripped on a loose stone and scrambled to his feet whilst the dying screams rang in his ears, as terrifying as the claustrophobia that was gripping him. He heard a distant rumbling, like thunder roaring during a storm, the earth seemed to tremble underfoot and he heard wood snapping. Shaken loose, a stone fell from above. It was just heavy enough to knock him into oblivion.
From his vantage point atop the belfry, the rebels manning the battlements appeared to be easy targets, yet the siege tower beneath Nicholas’ feet was being pushed closer and closer to the enemy and for each foot it moved, the more the tower seemed to shake. The top of the belfry was open to the elements with the wooden walls cut not unlike crenellations, providing the crossbowmen with some thin form of cover as well as gaps to shoot through. Nicholas peered through one of these gaps, resting his crossbow on the wooden wall, angling it at the enemy’s general direction. He wasted no time in pulling the trigger, feeling horribly exposed when he stood with his body visible for all the archers to target. The bolt flew straight, but Nicholas was out of sight before he could see if it had met a target.
Taking cover, he placed the tip of the crossbow on the floor, slipping his foot through the stirrup at the tip of the weapon and, grasping the cord with both hands, he wrenched it along the length of the shaft, working it around the hook of the trigger. The cord required all his strength to manipulate and chafed his fingers as he worked it into place, yet once it was locked in position by the trigger it took no further effort to keep it primed. He loaded a bolt into the groove in the shaft and patiently waited for a crossbowman to take his turn at the gap in the wooden wall. When he stepped back to reload, Nicholas stepped in, again using the wooden wall to support the crossbow. Keeping low he peered down the length of the shaft, targeting a lightly armoured longbowman who stood in a crenel. Gently, he released the trigger and with a click and a whoosh the bolt hurtled along the groove, the cord providing its momentum, it shot free of the crossbow and flew straight. A gust of wind knocked it slightly off course but Nicholas’ aim had been far from perfect and the bolt angled slightly northwards, cutting through the air, passing between two tall merlons, slamming into an archer’s leather jerkin and throwing him backwards. He fell to the stone ground and tumbled off the edge of the wall, trailing a trickle of blood as he went; his body slammed into the roof of the stables standing behind the curtain wall, tiles shattering and bones breaking.
When Nicholas next rose to aim at his foe, he noted the numerous deep square cuttings just below the crenellations of the walls and towers – putlog holes to hold timber beams for supporting hoarding – yet the rebels had neither found time nor resources to put them to use as they had done on other segments of the walls. Typically, when the threat of war was over, hoarding would have been taken down by the lord of the castle and hastily replaced if the threat returned. However of greater concern to Nicholas was tower looming to his left, the peak of which was as tall as his own position. With the side facing outwards rounded it had not been chosen for undermining, but now it posed Nicholas a threat as projectiles began to steadily be loosed in his direction. He ducked down as one sailed overhead and raised his readied crossbow. His shot aimed at an archer hit a merlon but his next struck true, striking a longbowman in the neck and tearing open an artery.
The number of archers on the battlements was thinning now that the belfry was drawing close to the wall. As infantry took position behind the crenellations with shields raised to protect their upper bodies, Nicholas noted that the belfry had stopped and that the rumble of its movement had been replaced by the shuffling of heavy footsteps below him as his companions readied themselves in front of the closed drawbridge, which would fall to span the gap between tower and crenellations.
Hold fire, came a command from below as Nicholas stretched the cord of his crossbow around the trigger mechanism. Cowering atop the tower they were given ample time for each of them to reload before the next order was issued, yet as he waited, Nicholas found himself crouched in a corner of the belfry parapet, striving to make himself as small a target as possible as the enemy became emboldened by the absence of returning fire and the rain of missiles increase. Time dragged as they awaited the next command, yet when it came, Nicholas wavered.
Fearful but determined, Nicholas took a deep breath and rose to his feet, turning as he did so to face the wall ahead and the enemies manning it. To his right a ball of lead slingshot smashed into a crossbowman’s eye socket and with a bloodcurdling cry he fell back. Nicholas rose to his position, aimed hastily and pulled the trigger, then ducked back down to reload. Below he heard the crash of the drawbridge falling open, the thunder of heavy footsteps upon the wood, the roar of voices and then the clash of steel. He readied another bolt and his eye fell upon a bloody ball of lead shot rolling on the floor of the belfry.
Upon it, two words had been carelessly engraved by the slinger, crudely spelling out,
Guillaume de Normandie arose from the protection of the shelter, shield before him, angled to catch the arrows aimed at his head. There were few of those though, the arrows had ceased, no doubt stunned by the chaos that had befallen the tower. The sappers had done well, he observed, the tower lay in ruins. Crumbled stone stood still where they were supported by the curtain walls, yet the front and rear of the structure had been reduced to a rugged slope. It would be hard work, but he had faith in his men that they would scale the breach without issue.
Guillaume quickened his pace, fearing the return of the arrows and, dodging fallen missiles, black with died-out flame, he came at last to the ditch before the curtain wall. It had been designed to funnel attacking forces into areas devoid of such a defence, yet with this part of wall deemed weakest, Guillaume and his men were forced to navigate the dry moat. It was no easy feat, the sides sloped steeply, descending at least four feet with stakes protruding from the banks, the points staring Guillaume in the face. He moved cautiously, careful to keep his shield in position as he placed one armoured foot down then another. The armour itself did not aid matters, being heavy and hindering his agility, but as the arrows returned, their barbed shafts raining down, Guillaume felt suddenly comfortable encased within that costly mail. The shower of projectiles quickened, the archers behind the remaining hoarding having recovered from the shock of the undermined tower. One arrow slammed into his shield, another flew past his shoulder, the next glanced off his greaves but they were naught in comparison to the rock that struck him next. With all the force of a swordsman’s muscular arms behind it, the blunt fragment of stone struck his exposed side, throwing him off balance, he teetered for a moment on the slope of the ditch, and then fell forwards. The stake did the rest.
The barbican which, to the men who had preceded him, seemed to be the jaws of hell, were to His Majesty the doors of opportunity and victory. The crenelated extension of pale stone which previously garrisoned foe was now held by friend and the rain of projectiles was now non-existent. The approach of the King was planned to be the last stage of the siege, his advisors had called it rash and dangerous, but he sought to inspire courage in his men and fear in his foes and he could not do that back in camp, not with the towering yet broken walls between him and his army. Once they had passed through the breach he had neither sight nor control of his army and it was not a situation he relished, even though the order to prioritise the capturing of the gatehouse had been successfully performed.
The smell reached him before the sight. They littered the ground, skin charred , mouths gaping open, frozen in eternal silent screams, what words came to dying men’s lips, the King wondered, mother, no doubt; they always called for the one who gave them life. They awaited their sovereign on the inner side of the portcullises, some offered him frozen hands, like pilgrims desiring the touch of a holy relic, like creatures clawing at the heavens for their saviour. One of his bodyguards crossed himself, the King vowed to offer prayers to them that night when the battle was done. The second portcullis opened slowly, letting a body slumped up against it collapse to the ground. Its pale eyes stared up at the King as he rode by, jaws gaping open, black skin rent with bloody crimson cracks.
When he emerged from the tunnel, even the fresh air couldn’t eradicate the smell of burnt human flesh from his nostrils yet there were issues of greater concern which took his mind off the stench. His bodyguard formed up either side of him, brave lords each of them, and he surveyed the scene ahead. The Norman keep, captured by the foe, towered in the centre. Once a motte had stood there, a wooden keep atop; yet that man-made mound, unable to support a heavy stone keep, had been removed and a new, stronger and more permanent stone structure stood in place. Standing about this stood a chapel, a stables holding a few terrified destriers, a small smithy and a structure to house a larger garrison, though most soldiers would be housed within the keep itself.
The keep was rectangular in shape, with a square tower at each corner save for the westernmost one. At the lowest level these were nonexistent so that arrows could not be fired in yet higher up narrow openings were visible which splayed out internally to bring in as much light as possible to the dark chambers within. The walls themselves were stone, hardly a material that would retain the warmth in the keep, but being a few feet thick, they would certainly withstand a determined assault for some time. The King noted the gargoyles atop the Keep, roughly fashioned but sufficient to channel any rainwater out of the crude mouths of the stone creatures and away from the mortar of the walls which otherwise would be weakened by the rain. Yet of foremost concern to the King was that it had but one entrance, accessible only by a stair which climbed up the east side of the keep to this door. The stair was narrow and fortified against attack, yet there was no other way in, and in the killing field between the Keep and the outer curtain wall, the rebels made a last defiant effort, holding back the flood of soldiers from the breach and the siege tower. He couched his lance and at his side the other lances fell down, one after the other, the last bore his banner at the tip. The lion’s mouth was rent in a roar.
‘Charge!’ he cried, but likely it was not heard over the din of battle, but the spurring of his horse was seen and with stern discipline the mounted men spurred their steeds ahead, lance tips glinting in the light of the fires. Ahead men scurried aside, but many were too engaged to sight the oncoming threat until it was a shadow above them. The distance was too short for the full force of a cavalry charge, but it would be sufficient. Body leaning forward and eyes following the line of his lance, the King saw one figure dart aside, saw another take his place. The lance tip struck wood, all the weight and momentum of horse and King was thrust into a soldier’s shield. The lance shattered, sending splinters of wood flying in all directions but not before doing the same to the shield, renting it into shards and breaking the arm that bore it. Then the King’s destrier was in the midst of the fray, overrunning its rider’s victim and trampling all else in its path. The King hurled aside his useless stick and unsheathed his sword, arcing the blade down then up, striking a helm, knocking the wearer unconscious and blunting his blade. Oblivious he pushed on, striking again, catching a rebel in his back with the point of his blade. A spear was thrust up at him and he knocked it aside with his blade, encouraging the horse forward to allow him to reach the foe. The spear came again and this time he caught it with his other hand, releasing the reins and wrenching the spear from the man’s grasp, then he thrust it down, striking by fortune his eye socket.
‘Pull back!’ a rebel cried and after that the shout resounded around the courtyard. The retreat was disorderly, those at the frontlines cut down by the Royal army as they routed, those behind more cautious. As the rebels reached the steps of the keep they turned to form a wall against their foes, retreating slowly, one step at a time. The King watched as his men made to follow, as the arrow-fall grew heavier, as trapped in the narrow stair, their numbers became worthless. He gritted his teeth then pulled his horse away, raised his eyes to the keep and bellowed over the din, pleading to the rebelling Lord, ‘Surrender!’
‘Surrender now else I swear to God in heaven that every man who protects you, every woman who serves you and your wife who loves you, even every one of your bastard babes shall be put to the sword. I shall grant no mercy, the storming of the Keep shall see blood run as high as the bridles of our horses and none shall pray for your immortal souls.’