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8-08-2015, 16:51

Breaching the Walls

h ese defenses were at i rst adequate to the task of keeping a local lord and his family, supporters, and servants secure from assault. However, attackers rapidly devised ways of getting past the outer walls. One of the earliest was to employ scaling ladders, which were made of wood and tall enough to reach the tops of the battlements. Speed was of the essence in climbing these ladders, as the defenders naturally tried to knock them away as quickly as possible. Usually several besieging bowmen and slingers raked the battlements with covering i re just after the ladders were raised. h is was intended to keep the defenders back long enough to allow the climbers to make it to the top without interference. Another method early attackers used to breach a castle’s walls was to tunnel beneath them. Unless they were erected atop solid rock, as was the case with only a few castles, the walls were vulnerable to sapping operations. Most often the goal was to get inside the structure by causing sections of its walls to collapse. “Driving a passage through dangerously unstable earth, the sappers used timbers to prop up the roof,” historian John Burke explains. “When they reached the target area, the tunnel was packed with branches, brushwood, rags, grease—anything which would burn—and the whole mass set ablaze.”26 h e i re destroyed the timbers, causing a cave-in, which in turn brought down the portion of wall above. Digging such tunnels could be painfully slow, as shown by English monarch King John’s siege of Rochester Castle in southeastern England in 1215. h e operation took almost seven weeks of grinding labor to complete, while the besieged, consisting of local rebels who opposed the king, managed to hold out against other forms of assault. A writer of the time, known as the Barnwell chronicler, was prompted to exclaim, “Our age has not known a siege so hard-pressed, nor so strongly resisted!”27 Nevertheless, John’s tunnel proved a success in the end, as described by researcher Roy Ingleton. h e sap, he says, ran “under the curtain wall to the tower on the southeast corner of the keep, to which the beleaguered [stressed and exhausted] garrison had retreated. John then used the fat of forty pig carcasses to burn through the tunnel’s timber supports, causing it to collapse, taking the huge tower above with it.28