Siege!


A few weeks ago I spent 9 days at Corfe Castle leading vast gaggles of tourists around the ruins on guided story walks for the National Trust. People tend to think of castles as military and their history to be one of warfare, ultimately ending with the assault that has left them in the state of disrepair that we see them in today. However, the great majority of a castle’s activity was domestic or civic, the entire concept of castles being to provide maximum protection for the incumbents whilst engaging in the minimum of active combat.

Corfe itself was only besieged three times in 600 years. The first time at the beginning of the first English civil war (oh yes, there was more than one) called, rather dramatically, The Anarchy, when royal cousins Stephen and Matilda slugged it out for the crown in a fifteen year war of excruciating pointlessness. The thing is, in the days before cannons (and for some time after they turned up as well), once one side had locked themselves up in a well stocked castle there was relatively little one could do to get them out. We’ve all seen the films in which a ladder is raised against the wall and Errol Flyn runs up it, jumps over the parapet, stabs a hapless guard on each side, grabs the (strangely convenient) rope, swings down and opens the drawbridge. That never happened. A pitiful handful of castles were actually taken by full frontal assault.

Corfe castle, laughing in the face of it’s enemies.

The three escapes of Matilda give a much more realistic view of how things went on. When surrounded in Devizes, Matilda was in trouble because the people of Devizes were not on her side. They said “You’ll never get out alive”. Soon after that Matilda’s servants were seen visiting the apothecary. Rumours that Matilda was ill became rumours of her impending demise, followed swiftly by lamentations for her death. Messengers were sent to the besieging army asking for free passage to carry her corpse to a place of burial. Wrapped in a winding sheet, the body was carried on a bier through the enemy lines with great solemnity. Once clear, Matilda sat up, laughed and said “Never get out alive? Great idea!”

Sometime later Matilda was surrounded in Oxford. This time it was winter and food was running short. Things were not looking good. The winter was so cold that the Thames froze. Matilda dressed in white and, slipping out through a postern gate, walked along the icy river until she was safely past Stephen’s lines. The following summer she was ensconced in Wallingford. With the harvest due and Stephen’s army on the way Matilda pulled a master stroke: using her own army to get the harvest in she fully stocked the castle, then hid her men in the barns of the surrounding countryside so that when Stephen arrived and encircled the walls he soon found himself surrounded in turn and had little choice but to go away again. The whole tedious dispute was brought to an end the next time the armies met as both sides refused to fight and made Stephen and Matilda sit down and talk out a settlement.

The simple fact is that the easiest way to win a siege is to be on the inside. The most reliable and efficient way to win for the attackers is to pay someone on the inside to open the gate. This was how Corfe was eventually taken at the end of the (official) English Civil War. So why is it ruined? Like all English castles it was demolished by Cromwell who was heartily fed up with having to besiege them.

Is there anything to be learnt from this? Well yes, dear reader, for if you are in a dispute with a family member you will almost certainly find that full frontal assault will get you no where, a drawn out siege is equally fruitless and, like Stephen and Matilda, the best policy is to talk to one another, and if they won’t come out to talk get someone on their side to open the door.

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

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