King Stephen’s Siege Tactics
By John Hosler
Paper given at the 2009 International Congress on Medieval Studies
Introduction: It is a truism that warfare in the Middle Ages featured far more sieges than field actions. Each century was littered with hundreds of sieges of castles and fortified towns. And yet we ought to spend more time studying the range of sieges that occurred. Like battles, sieges were important events with political, strategic, and social consequences; moreover, they were equally or more complex in terms of logistics, troop types, weaponry, and tactics. How a commander attacked enemy fortresses reveals much about attitude towards conflict.
Few periods highlight the importance of siege actions as the anarchy of Stephen’s reign in England. That Stephen was a prodigious besieger of towns and castles is well-known, as is the rapid multiplication of legal and illegal castles in the mid-twelfth century. The present study is an outgrowth of the author’s recent efforts to gather all available data of a military nature on his sieges in England and Normandy. However, because much of the evidence is vague on method and procedure and hampered by questions of bias, proximity, and accuracy, only those sieges described in operational detail are under consideration at this time. Here, “operational” refers to data and descriptions that relate to specific siege tactics, army maneuvers relating to the employment of said tactics, and/or human and physical elements relating to the general conduct of a siege operation.
Of Stephen’s many siege operations, a full twenty-eight are described in such detail: Bampton and Exeter (1136); Bedford (1137-38); Hereford, Cary, Harptree, Dunster,Shrewsbury, Bristol, and Dudley (1138); Corfe, Ludlow, Devizes, South Cerney, Trowbridge, Malmesbury, and Wallingford (1139); Ely (1140); Lincoln (1141); Oxford (1142); Lincoln, Malmesbury, and Winchomb (1144); Faringdon (1145); Wallingford (1146); Pevensey (1147); Worcester (1151); and Wallingford (1152). These were all English operations; Stephen’s sieges during his 1137 Norman campaign (Lillebonne, Villers, Mézidon, and Grossoeuvre), although noted by both Orderic Vitalis and Robert of Toriginy, are unaccompanied by specific operational details. Only those siege operations directed personally by Stephen or in conjunction with his war council are considered.
Today I will describe Stephen’s siege tactics in three general areas: (1) indirect assault, (2) direct assault, and (3) non-weapon engineering. I will conclude with some brief comments on what I believe was his deliberate, studied, and systematic approach to the assaulting of fortified targets.