The Siege of Caerlaverock Castle

Edward I was one of England’s most formidable kings – he is respected by historians for his legal reforms as well as his wars – but he is remembered rather differently in Scotland. In the last years of his reign he waged a series of bloody campaigns, seeking to impose his rule over the Scots by force of arms. In 1298 he won a crushing victory at the Battle of Falkirk, avenging an English defeat at Stirling Bridge, although this failed to bring him the ultimate outcome he craved. Thereafter the conflict became a war of attrition, as many Scots continued with dogged opposition.

In the summer of 1300 Edward summoned an army to assemble at Carlisle. The plan was to establish English control in the south-west of Scotland – traditionally a volatile region which was then proving especially troublesome. There was a centre of Scottish resistance at Caerlaverock Castle (to the south-east of Dumfries), whose garrison enjoyed regular skirmishes with English forces. Scottish lords who were influential in this area included members of the powerful Comyn family, who were Edward’s foremost enemies at this time.

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Caerlaverock Castle (Gernot Keller)

An important source for the ensuing campaign is an anonymous poem, The Song of Caerlaverock, which describes the early part of Edward’s expedition. The poet, who was probably a herald, took pains to record the names of the leading men who took part, along with their arms. His work is therefore a useful source for the composition of the English army. The poem also includes brief pen portraits of some of Edward’s commanders, such as Nicholas Segrave, whom ‘nature had adorned in body and enriched in heart’.  Special praise is reserved for Robert Clifford: ‘If I were a young maiden, I would give him my heart and person, so great is his fame’. King Edward’s followers are presented here as if they were the heroes of a chivalric romance. That is not to say, however, that the author could not also be a keen observer of military events.

Edward himself arrived at Carlisle on 25 June, and the army marched north in the first week of July. Here is a translation of the Caerlaverock poet’s description of the scene, as the campaign now began in earnest:

There were many rich caparisons embroidered on silks and satins; many a beautiful pennon fixed to a lance; and many a banner displayed. And afar off was the noise heard of the neighing of horses: mountains and valleys were everywhere covered with sumpter horses and wagons with provisions, and sacks of tents and pavilions. And the days were long and fine.

Edward and his army advanced into Scotland via Annandale, stopping off at the royal pele of Lochmaben. At length, on 9 July, the English forces bore down upon Caerlaverock, where Edward laid siege.

Tents and huts were put up for the soldiers, enhanced by ‘leaves, herbs and flowers gathered in the woods, which were strewed within’.  As usual, the Caerlaverock poem conveys an impression of splendour: ‘and one saw gold and silver, and of all rich colours the noblest and the best, entirely illuminating the valley’.  One might well imagine there is more than a pinch of poetic license here, although other sources do suggest that a military encampment could be an impressive sight – at least before mud and perhaps rain had quenched some of its glamour.

The tents of noble warriors could be spectacular, embellished with beautiful embroidery and distinctive features such as cloth towers. They could also be very expensive. In preparations for his first campaign, in 1307, Edward’s grandson Gilbert de Clare spent the large sum of £39 on five tents: these included a hall (which was forty feet long); a wardrobe chamber; a combined pantry and buttery; and two stables. Having set up camp, servants would work hard to ensure their masters were well catered for; we also know that Gilbert travelled with a wide range of cooking utensils, including bronze pots, a gridiron and two enormous cooking pans. Of course, though, despite the provision of certain comforts and welcome flashes of colour, life on campaign was still a long way removed from the existence the elite enjoyed in times of peace.

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An aerial view of the castle (Simon Ledingham)

In 1300 Caerlaverock Castle was a still a recent addition to the local landscape. It had been constructed in the 1270s, when the lords of Caerlaverock, the Maxwells, had abandoned a smaller site nearby which was prone to flooding. The new castle was unusually shaped – as our poet describes it, it was a fortress in the shape of a shield – and it incorporated some of the latest facets of design. There were round towers at two points of the triangle, which enabled enfilade shooting along the length of the wall, but these were dwarfed by Caerlaverock’s most significant feature: its formidable twin-towered gatehouse (which also housed the lord’s apartments). A powerful gatehouse of this type was also a feature at Kildrummy Castle, which was later strengthened on Edward I’s orders, as well as at his great castles in Wales.

Caerlaverock, it must be stressed, was not one of Scotland’s largest castles, but it was well-sited for defence. The Caerlaverock poem explains that it could only be approached from the east, because on the other sides it was protected by the sea, woods and marshes. After drawing our attention to the ‘good walls’ and deep moat, the poet tells us it was a ‘strong castle, which did not fear a siege’.  The defences at Caerlaverock appear to have been further strengthened by a brattice, or hoarding: this was a wooden shed-like structure, providing additional protection and shooting opportunities for the defenders, which was attached to the top of the walls and projected outwards.

At the beginning of the siege a parley took place. None of the Maxwells were present (the current lord was at that time a prisoner in England), but the constable, Walter Benechafe, was prepared to seek terms. The defenders offered to give up the castle if they would be permitted to depart unharmed with their goods (including their arms and horses). But as the chronicler Rishanger tells the story, Edward responded to this suggestion ‘like a lioness whose cubs have been taken from her’. Given that the Scots were facing overwhelming odds, the king was infuriated by what he saw as Benechafe’s effrontery, and no agreement for surrender could be reached. Thereafter the English onslaught began.

Edward did not risk his own person under the walls of Caerlaverock, but his men-at-arms were keen to prove their valour; whilst a frontal assault might seem foolhardy, a successful escalade could bring great honour to the men who effected an entrance to the castle. English exploits were diligently recorded by the Caerlaverock poet, as the garrison provided a stubborn defence. We learn, for example, of the fortitude of Ralph de Gorges, ‘a newly dubbed knight’: Gorges was knocked to the ground several times by stones hurled from the walls, but ‘he would not deign to retire’.

Gorges, of course, was not acting alone: many others, we are told, braved arrows or bolts from crossbows. As the poem depicts the English attack, there would seem to have been a strongly competitive element; the author took great pains, again, to record the arms or banners of the knights and nobles involved. From a more practical perspective his work appears to suggest that Edward’s men focused most of their efforts on the gatehouse, although it is not clear what methods they employed. This is largely due to the poet’s emphasis on the deeds of great men. There is no mention, for instance, of Englishmen using crossbows or longbows, although these must surely have been in evidence.

We do learn that the castle was also subjected to a bombardment from Edward’s siege machines. The engineering corps was under the direction of ‘Brother Robert’, who was perhaps a Dominican friar. Evidently this bellicose clergyman knew his business, as records show that he was employed by Edward for several months.

Brother Robert’s efforts began with a machine called ‘the Robinet’, which hurled stones against the castle, although at the same time he was also supervising the fabrication of three much larger weapons.  The parts for these engines were landed at Caerlaverock’s small harbour (the sea has now retreated from the castle), along with a welcome replenishment of supplies. These weapons were almost certainly trebuchets: the most formidable machines that could be deployed by a besieging army before the introduction of cannon.

Replica trebuchets at Château de Castelnaud (Luc Viator)

Brother Robert’s siege engines wreaked havoc on the castle’s defences. The wear and tear on the mechanism ensured that it was not possible to maintain a continuous rate of fire – medieval sources suggest that trebuchets might launch between ten and twelve missiles over the course of a day – and few trebuchets possessed the capability to smash their way through strongly built walls. Nevertheless, a well-directed trebuchet would make short work of wooden hoardings or other additional structures; the key role played by such machines was to undermine the effectiveness of the defences as fighting platforms, making the castle more vulnerable to escalade.  It is also very likely that the majority of missiles were sent over the walls, rather than against them directly. Apparently Brother Robert’s most significant achievement was to bring down the roof of the gatehouse. According to the poet, the beleaguered garrison saw this as a decisive moment.

After a day and a half of gruelling punishment, the defenders now considered their position was untenable, and they could take no more. The sixty-strong garrison put themselves completely at Edward’s mercy, and their surrender was now accepted. The Caerlaverock poem implies the defenders had won Edward’s respect: not only were the garrison granted ‘life and limb’, they also each received a ‘new robe’.  For the author of the poem, with his clear emphasis on chivalric mores, Edward’s generosity provided a fitting end to the siege. Unfortunately, however, modern historians have been unable to find any evidence of Edward’s largesse in administrative records.

Other sources suggest the Caerlaverock garrison was harshly treated. The constable and twenty-one others were imprisoned in northern England; the Lanercost Chronicle tells us specifically that ‘many’ of the defenders were hanged. Moreover, whereas the Caerlaverock poet presented the siege as a marvellous spectacle, Peter Langtoft was rather less impressed. His account provides a rather less heroic impression of the siege. He tells us that heavy rain caused flooding, which caused Edward to go a different way to the one planned. It was thus the English came to Caerlaverock, which Langtoft describes as a ‘poor little castle’. In Langtoft’s work the stalwart defenders of the Caerlaverock poem become ‘ribalds’, who were ‘vanquished at the entrance’.

In truth, Caerlaverock Castle was no match for the English royal army, but Langtoft surely underestimated the importance of Edward’s victory. Today Caerlaverock is a pleasant backwater, but in the Middle Ages the sea-lanes were more important and the castle’s coastal location was significant. We have also seen that its garrison had hindered English attempts to establish secure control of the wider area. It is therefore very likely that Caerlaverock was a key target. That said, it can be safely assumed that Edward hoped for further gains, although a skirmish by the River Cree was inconclusive. The English campaign of this year achieved little else of note.

Later campaigns did lead to the submissions of most of the Scottish leaders, and by 1305 it must have appeared that Edward had won. The execution of William Wallace was probably intended to mark a symbolic end to the conflict (at least in part), but Robert the Bruce’s rebellion meant the war began again. Edward made a final attempt to subdue the Scots in the summer of 1307 – he set out from Carlisle on yet another campaign – but the effects of age and illness were now increasingly clear. He died at Burgh by Sands on 6 July, bitterly aware that a final victory remained as elusive as ever.

Adapted from The Hammer of the Scots: Edward I and the Scottish Wars of Independence 

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David Santiuste

David Santiuste is a historian of late medieval Britain. His interests include Anglo-Scottish relations, pilgrimage, and the Wars of the Roses. His most recent book is The Hammer of the Scots: Edward I and the Scottish Wars of Independence.