The Hundred Years War wasn’t just about battles, it was also about sieges. It was more about sieges than battles, in fact. Early in the war the English proved that they could defeat the French in a pitched battle. This meant that the French avoided battles, and sieges became more important as the war went on. As a result Edward III’s strategy increasingly included sieges.
The first great siege of the war was a resounding success for him, even though it lasted almost a year. When it finally fell, Calais was a great prize, being on the northern coast of France and a very short distance from England. It was the last piece of France that the English surrendered when it was lost in 1558.
Sieges were difficult for besiegers and besieged alike. The besiegers needed a good supply line in order to keep an army outside a town. A siege could last several months.
The English struggled most with a siege, both as besiegers and besieged. If they were besieged there was less likelihood of an army arriving to rescue them. When they were the besiegers they rarely had enough supplies to carry out long sieges, nor the means to create a viable supply line. The siege of Calais in 1346-47 was the exception. Edward III’s navy was able both to cut off supplies to the besieged and to bring supplies to the besiegers.
The besieged had difficult decisions to make. If they surrendered this might mean that they would live. Usually this meant just that; they would be allowed to leave the town alive, taking with them whatever they could carry. They would not be allowed to return to their homes. For some this was little better than a death sentence.
If a garrison surrendered, it could be seen by their lord as a betrayal. When Limoges surrendered to the French after a mere 3 days in 1370, the Black Prince got off his sick bed and had himself carried to the town in order to exact his revenge. According to the chroniclers it was a terrible revenge, with thousands dying. By some this is seen as a stain on his chivalrous reputation; at the time it was regarded as heavy-handed justice. Froissart says that 3,000 people were killed, but it unlikely that it was more than 350, the majority of them civilians. This siege was also notable for the devastation wrought by the besiegers on the town, as they destroyed what they could not take with them and burned the town.
Few sieges in the Hundred Years War were this short. The siege at Calais in 1346-47 lasted eleven months. Orléans was besieged for seven months before it was relieved by an army led by Jeanne d’Arc in May 1429. The siege at Rouen in 1418-19 lasted a little less than six months. It was during this last that the inhabitants of the town expelled thousands of the poorest inhabitants to save food for the better off. Henry V refused to let them pass through the English lines, so they died in the ditch surrounding the town.
Sieges could lead to diseases on both sides. The dangers to the besieged are obvious. They were kept in an enclosed space until the food ran out. As the food they ate became older, staler and more rancid, the more prone they were to disease. The inhabitants of Rouen became so desperate they ate mice. The besiegers were rarely in more sanitary conditions. They, too, were confined to a small space for a long period of time, although they could be relieved. Henry V became ill during the siege at Meaux in 1422 and refused to leave until the town was beaten. He died on his way back to England. A large percentage of the besiegers in that instance died of dysentery and smallpox.
The besiegers were also exposed to attacks from the town’s inhabitants and any army that came to assist them. A town’s defences would be focused on keeping the besieging army so far from the town that they couldn’t make a conclusive attack. The defenders would fire burning arrows at the wooden siege engines and their attackers. When the besiegers did manage to get close enough to put their ladders against the walls, they had to contend with heavy objects and boiling water being dropped on them as well as arrows being fired at them.
Besieged cities could often be relieved by a friendly army arriving to fight off the besiegers, as at Orléans. Philippe VI tried to relieve Calais, but failed and gave up.
The besieging army often employed siege engines. At the beginning of the war these were mainly trebuchets, massive counterweight catapults. There is a frightening demonstration of one in the Secrets of the Castle DVD showing the distance a projectile could travel and the force with which it could strike its objective. Trebuchets were used to break down walls, or to throw things over them. In the siege at Caffa in the Crimea in 1346 (not part of the Hundred Years War) plague infested bodies were catapulted over the walls into the besieged town. Trebuchets could also hurl burning objects into the town.
During the course of the Hundred Years War trebuchets gradually gave way to cannon. At the battle of Crécy in 1346 they did little more than frighten the horses. By the end of the war they were one of the main siege weapons.
Blockades were the most effective way of winning a siege, but they took time. It was difficult to ensure that a town received no supplies so that it could be starved into surrender. Even a large army found it difficult to surround a town completely.
The quickest way to take a town was to storm it, as at Limoges, but fortifications became more effective and attacks of this nature became more difficult. Walls were made taller and thicker. Ditches were built outside the walls so that siege engines could not be brought close enough to be effective and means were developed to enable the defenders to shoot arrows whilst themselves being more or less invulnerable to attack. This is also illustrated in the Secrets of the Castle DVD.
During the siege of Rouen in 1418 the ditch outside the town not only prevented Henry V from entering the town, but became home, until they died, to the poor of the town who had been expelled.
Miners were used during many sieges. The walls of Limoges were weak and English miners built a mine beneath a tower and set fire to it, causing the tower and part of the wall to collapse.
Mining was a dangerous occupation in a siege. If the besieged became aware of a mine they could dug their way to it and fight the miners or flood the mine. In addition there were also the normal problems of mines that collapsed, killing the miners.
Just as soldiers made money from ransoming their captives so they also made money from sacking towns that surrendered. Anything and anyone within a conquered town was fair game.
When a siege began, no one could predict how it would end. The only thing that anyone knew was that many people would die.