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How to defend your castle

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As part of the Year of History Heritage and Archaeology ‘Classic Castles’ month we caught up with Nicki Scott to discuss what would be required to build a castle which could withstand a siege or attack – here is what she advised:

You’re designing a castle that will need to provide comfortable accommodation for you and your household, but also keep any enemies at bay. Here are a few tips to help siege-proof it.

1) Make sure there aren’t too many doors in your curtain wall

Doors are weak points and the fewer you have to defend the better. An imposing main entrance and a discreet postern (back door) for your staff to use are really all you need. And make sure they are well protected.

2) Get a strong door

This is an absolute must for your main gate. You can use a big draw bar to secure it shut. Add another layer of defence by having a portcullis or a yett (iron grid gate). This can be in front of or behind your door but it helps make it all the harder for unwanted visitors to get in.

Portcullis Gate at Edinburgh Castle

Yett and studded door at the Portcullis Gate, Argyle Tower at Edinburgh Castle

3) If you can, have a drawbridge

It’s a lot harder to break your door down if it can’t be reached in the first place.

Drawbridge at Dirleton Castle

Drawbridge at Dirleton Castle

4) Install a guard chamber in your entrance passage

From here soldiers can defend the main entrance by firing arrows or other projectiles, should your door and gate be breached.

A drawing of the main curtain wall at Tantallon Castle as it was built

The main curtain wall of Tantallon Castle, as it was built, with a fine arched entrance defended by a portcullis, a drawbridge and three pairs of doors in the passage.

5) Make your curtain wall as massive as your budget allows

The outer wall around your castle needs to be thick and tall. This will help to prevent enemies scaling the walls using ladders. A thick wall will also resist bombardment from siege engines such as trebuchets and mangonels. Efficient use of such machines can quickly breach your walls. The mighty Caerlaverock Castle withstood an onslaught by the English army’s siege engines for only days.

Illustration of siege at Caerlaverock Castle

Illustration of siege of Caerlaverock Castle

6) Build the base of your walls so they slope outwards

Enemies might try to use moveable towers to gain access like the English did at Bothwell in 1301. Your flared walls will make it harder for them to do this – and put them in just the right position for you to drop heavy objects on them.

Reconstruction illustration of Bothwell siege

Reconstruction illustration of Bothwell siege

7) Build a fancy parapet with machicolations (projecting platforms or boxes) or crenellations (battlements that alternate high defensive walls with gaps to shoot through)

These will provide both protection for your own soldiers and spaces through which to drop defensive objects.

Clackmannan Tower

Clackmannan Tower

8) Alternatively, build a simple timber hoarding, or ‘fighting platform’

This will do just as well, allowing your forces to overlook the enemy, raining arrows, hot oil or heavy objects down on them.

9) Install strategically placed arrow slits

Your soldiers can use longbows and crossbows to target any attackers who venture too close. You’ll need arrow slits that can cover all approaches to your castle. Keep them narrow on the outside to make it more difficult for attackers to fire through. But a wide angle on the inside ensures your own archers will have maximum coverage.

Flaming arrows can be used against timber siege engines – but be aware, damp animal skins are often used to protect them. Crossbows are easier to use and require less training so keep a stock handy.

Re-enactor, Rusty Bodkins, giving visitors some archery lessons

Rusty Bodkins our castle archer re-enactor

10) Stock up on supplies

A siege can last over a year. If you are going to withstand it, you are going to need lots of provisions. Famine is as likely to kill your troops as any attack. If you don’t have big cellars like Dirleton Castle, use any available space. At Kildrummy Castle they used the great hall to store grain during the siege of 1306.

Dirleton Castle cellar reconstruction

Dirleton Castle cellar reconstruction

11) Protect your water supply at all costs

No-one can survive for long without water, so your well is in some ways your castle’s greatest asset. Beware: enemies may try to poison it, possibly with dead animals or even human carcases. Disease is just as much a danger as starvation.

12) Keep your defenders loyal

The most crucial step you can take to defend your castle is to make sure you can trust your defenders. In 1306, Kildrummy Castle was well prepared and defended by none other than King Robert’s brother, Neil Bruce. But the garrison was forced to surrender when a treacherous blacksmith set the grain stores on fire.

Kildrummy Castle

Kildrummy Castle

However sophisticated your design, castles were only as good as the people defending them.  

So now you should be an expert in defending castles – keep the kids occupied this weekend and build your own castle and even make a mangonel to defend it! 

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About Author

Nicki Scott

Nicki is a cultural resources advisor with our Cultural and Natural Resources team. A historian by trade, Nicki mainly gives historical advice relating to our properties.

1 Comment

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