How frequently were castles besieged during the Wars of the Roses?

(A photograph of Skipton Castle in Yorkshire, besieged three times between 1461 and 1464)

Castle warfare and sieges are not as a rule associated with the Wars of the Roses. Admittedly some events, such as the siege of the Tower of London in 1460 or Bamburgh Castle in 1464, are well-known, but these are often seen as exceptional.

Instead modern narratives of the Wars of the Roses often focus on battles. The era is indeed unusual for the number of battles that took place, which sets it apart from other wars in the Middle Ages. Most medieval conflicts were characterised by siege warfare and skirmishes. Henry II, for example, despite his martial prowess and renown never fought a battle, with military commanders often reluctant to risk defeat on the battlefield.

The late Middle Ages has also been perceived as a period in which castles were in decline, with the growing effectiveness of gunpowder weapons and social changes reducing their military effectiveness.

Yet my research has shown that this is not the whole story.

At least thirty-six sieges of castles took place in the years 1455 to 1487, along with a further seventeen possible sieges (the latter are instances where there are grounds to believe that a siege took place but it cannot be proved for certain). This can be seen from the chart below:

(Note that sieges which spanned two calendar years have been rounded up to the end date. E.g. the siege of Alnwick castle in December 1462 to January 1463 has been allocated to the year 1463).

The years 1460 to 1464 were characterised by an especially high frequency of castle sieges, with these five years accounting for 24/36 of recorded sieges, and a further 8/17 of possible sieges. As many as twelve sieges alone may have taken place in 1462.

If the Wars of the Roses had ended in 1464 (or even in 1468 with the fall of Harlech Castle to the Yorkists), then it is probable that later historians would have recognised that castles played an important part in these military campaigns.

That the vast majority of castle sieges took place during these years is not surprising. The first half of the 1460s saw the most prolonged and lengthy campaigns of the whole period. This was also the phase that involved a territorial struggle for control of the kingdom of England (including Wales) between the Lancastrians and Yorkists.

By contrast, the campaigns of later years, such as in 1471, or 1485, were comparatively short, and were less territorial in nature. The control of castles was, as a consequence, of less importance during these military operations.

Furthermore, given the gaps and limitations in the sources (which is especially marked for the second half of the fifteenth century), the real number of castles that were besieged was probably far higher.

Therefore, castles did play an important role in some phases of the Wars of the Roses.

I hope you enjoyed reading this post. If you want to find out more castles during the Wars of the Roses, then consider checking out my book.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is front-cover-for-ig-2.png

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