July 20: Smashing the Castle

2016/07/20 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1304 Stirling Castle fell in a siege.

It was a dark day for the Scots as King Edward I of England finally took the fortress after a four-month sustained attack.  Perched on a naturally fortified craggy site, the castle had been occupied as a stronghold going back to the seventh century.  At one of the thresholds to Scotland on the River Forth, it had long been seen as an essential guard post by the Scots–and a significant hurdle for the invading English.

The storming of the castle in 1304 (a few years after William Wallace made himself famous) marked the final resistance against the English for one major phase of the Scottish wars for independence, although it was no pushover.  During the siege of 1304 twelve massive machines hurled fury at the walls of the stronghold for weeks on end.  Why, after four months, did the Scots finally give in?

Theories abound, but there is an undeniable link between the castle’s fall and an achievement in a particular kind of architecture to which we turn our attention: the military kind.  In particular, 1304 saw the construction of the Loup de Guerre, which is an awfully delicate and elegant name for the deadliest trebuchet ever built.  That is probably why most people refer to call it by a name that better expresses the general badassery of this thing: Warwolf (or better yet Warwulf, which would also make a great metal band name).

The terrible machine was ordered by King Edward who, frustrated at his army’s lack of success, directed his military architect, James of St. George, to do whatever it was going to take to bring down the walls of Stirling.  James’ answer was a trebuchet of awesome scale, 56 feet tall.  It required five master carpenters and several dozen craftsman to assemble and was carted around on a dozen wagons when it was in pieces.  It could hurl 250 pound lead balls (made from melted church roofs) over 200 yards.  Just to keep things interesting, sometimes they would mix it up by loading stone or something called “Greek Fire,” a fearsome incendiary device. (The fact that no Mythbusters recreation of thing exists is beyond me.)

Although trebuchets fell out of use sometime after the fifteenth century, and while no one is eager to return to the days of sieges like the one at Stirling, it’s hard to deny the elegance of this deliverer of disaster, as you surely have witnessed here.

Image: castle in its glorious landscape


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You are currently reading July 20: Smashing the Castle at Clio’s Calendar: Daily Musings on Architectural History.


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