Tuesday, 25 October 2016
Six weapons of war in castles in the Welsh Marches
As far as I know Caerphilly wins the body count with 4 Medieval siege machines in its grounds (to the left as you enter.)
The trebuchet is probably the best known and many parents will have helped their child construct one out of the inside of loo rolls as a school project. Although the machine started off as a traction engine with men pulling at it (15 to 45 were needed), it later became what is known as a counterweight or counterpoise trebuchet, capable of flinging projectiles of up to 90kg or even more about 300 metres and its use continued well after the introduction of gunpowder.
This later version has a gravity-powered lever using potential energy so that when the weight box falls, the throwing arm (4 to 6 times the length of the counterweight portion) hurls the object contained in the sling over the castle walls. It could fire a stone every 15 seconds but sometimes plague-ridden corpses were thrown - an early act of biological warfare. Even after it fell into general disuse, it was employed when cannon had too short a range and, I am delighted to relate, there are pumpkin chunking [sic] competitions in the USA which keep it going.
The mangonel was a type of catapult with poorer accuracy than the later trebuchet and with a lower trajectory and higher velocity. It was used to destroy the walls of a castle rather than hurl objects over them and the items used might be rocks or firepots (vessels filled with burning material to create a fireball) but, when they were employed to send something over, that could be a human or animal carcass or head, probably diseased. This was very effective as conditions inside were cramped, with poor hygiene, shortage of food and crawling with vermin, ideal for the spreading of epidemics. It needed about 20 men pulling on ropes attached to the counterweight and its effectiveness depended largely on those troops being well-trained. No-one wants a bovine head ricocheting!
The ballista was a highly accurate missile weapon, mentioned in the Bible circa 783-742 BC. It shot darts or spherical stones and assisted the Greeks in warfare and later the Romans in their conquest of Europe. After the time of Julius Caesar, the ballista became a permanent feature of the Roman army, being constantly modified to improve performance usually as an anti-personnel weapon.The largest in the 4th century could fire a dart more than 1200 yards (1,100 metres). It gave way to the trebuchet and mangonel in the Middle Ages and to the cross-bow as a sniper weapon: armies needed machines which were simple and cheap to make and easy to maintain - the ballista needed anointing.
The perrier (sometimes called a traction trebuchet) had its origins in Ancient China where it needed 6 men in the crew and had a range of 110 metres, a projectile weight of 5 kilos and did damage to walls or attackers. The one in Caerphilly Castle was fired for a TV programme by Dan Snow when it was - as we can see on YouTube - innocuous. It was a counterpoise machine which propelled objects from a sling as did the trebuchet but the perrier was lighter and more transportable than other throwing engines and its use spread to the west during the Crusader wars of the 12th century.
This nifty but powerful little number was built especially for the siege of Goodrich Castle during the Civil War. Colonel Birch ordered the mortar to be made, probably by a local manufacturer near Lydbrook, Howbrook furnace. in 1646. The owner, John Browne supplied the Parliamentarians with arms.
It has a 15.5 inch barrel diameter, could fire a 2cwt hollow ball filled with gunpowder and was instrumental in the capture of Goodrich Castle by Sir Thomas Fairfax. It is reported that Colonel Birch was so over-excited by this new implement that he insisted on firing the last 19 balls himself. (You can see a pile of cannon balls nearby.) The gun was then taken to Raglan Castle where it was effective in bringing about a bloodless truce.
In modern times the gun has received homage in Monty Python in a scurrilous joke which I blush to repeat and will hide further down below the links so that the onus is on you not to look!
Caldicot Castle: Nelson's gun
Just as you go into Caldicot Castle, you pass a gun from Nelson's flagship, HMS Foudroyant, which my schoolgirl French tells me means "blaster" or "thunderer". Designed by Sir John Henslow and constructed in Plymouth, she was launched on 31st March 1798, one of only 2 British-built 80-gun ships of the period, (the other being HMS Caesar). She was Nelson's flagship from 6 June 1799 to the end of June 1801 but it cannot be boasted that she took part in any major fleet action. After serving 17 useful years she became a boys' training vessel.
Under Nelson, in 1799, she was involved in attempts to return the Neapolitan royal family to Naples and it was there that Nelson began his affair with Emma, Lady Hamilton. The Neapolitan king and queen later boarded her as well as the Hamiltons. There was some involvement against 2 French ships during the Napoleonic Wars.
After her period as a gunnery training vessel from 1862-1884, she was placed on the Sales List in 1891 and went for £2,350 to J. Read of Portsmouth who resold her to German shipbreakers. This caused public protest and Wheatley Cobb bought her as a training vessel for boys. The restoration cost £20,000 and the money had to be found somehow.
HMS Foudroyant was therefore taken on tour to be exhibited at British seaside resorts and was being towed to Blackpool in June 1897 when a huge storm blew her ashore, damaging the North Pier and needing the lifeboat to rescue all 27 men aboard. It was impossible to refloat her and so the guns were removed and the wreck sold for £200. December gales caused further final damage and local craftsmen used the flotsam to make furniture and wood panelling: the bell is in Blackpool Town Hall and a gun here in Caldicot.
You can see all these machines by visiting the castles by bus but, unfortunately, they will not let you fire them for fun unless you happen to be Dan Snow. Details of transport are given on the blog articles for each castle: Caerphilly Castle, Goodrich Castle and Caldicot Castle. Raglan Castle is also worth a detour.
Monty Python joke: "The whole garrison banged roaring Meg and shot their balls into the French." I did warn you - and now that you have taken a naughty peek you do not deserve any CAKE.