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Defensive features of Beaumaris Castle

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The main feature of this castle, quite evident from any cursory look, is the concentric nature of its defences, even taking into account that its strongest parts are the two gatehouse-complexes, the north and the south. But even within this scheme, we can see a number of other features which reinforce the effectiveness of the defences both concentric and linear – i. e. those which would have to be approached and overwhelmed in a line or sequentially. Let’s go back in time.

Let us assume that we are a Gwynnedd-Nationalist force of about 1,000 men and teenage boys over 13, and about 50 to 100 horsemen, and a couple of stone-throwing-machines, approaching the castle from the side where the dock is. It’s all we can hope to raise in a summer, from the 1,500 farmsteads and hutments that comprise the heart of our Principality, and the men and boys will have to go home in mid-August in any case to harvest what passes for our fields and to “do” the animals for the winter.

Lllewellyn has melted his four gold and silver cups into coin, and mortgaged his best manors to Aaron of Lincoln for i?? 1,000 for five years (an eighth of what it is said that the enemy Castle at Harlech even cost, that was finished four years ago) and we have 1,100 men and 100 horses and the draft-beasts and two “machines” and that’s it, and they all must go home in three months and it’s mid-May. We face, first of all, a wide moat so that we cannot get right up to the outer curtain walls of the castle even though these are quite low-built.

We also face a defended dock area with a couple of turrets, and a high-level walkway on which we can probably see archers (who can shelter) who can “see” our commander and could try to knock him down. We have our “Long-Bows”. These are made of the Yew-tree’s wood, that we get from our cousins the Basques of north Spain, round Lyonnesse (old “British , ie Welsh name for Cornwall) and over the Biscay water. This is our main weapon of war.

We hunt and kill with it. It’s a spar of yew, about the height of a man or rather more ideally, and takes all his body-strength and more to draw. About five cubits is a good length for it, and we get two, or even only one, out of a yew-branch that’s a handspan in diameter. If we can do it at all, we can send an arrow right through the front door of the castle, four inches of English Oak, and spike the butt of the soldier who braces it the other side.

We could “keep their heads down” for a bit, but it takes thousands and thousands of arrows, and more iron tips than we can afford to buy (from the English) and lots of time and money, to do this for more than a few hours at a time, and we are a poor Principality that relies on subsistence-sheep-farming in the mountains of Snowdonia. Our tax-raising powers are not limitless. So unless we should be able to get some alliance with the French (as our cousins the Scots do sometimes) who also hate Edward I king of England, we will have to disperse in August at St Swithin’s Feast.

And the French are not very reliable at best, and might be bribed by Edward to betray us at the last moment, as he has more money available in taxation-powers than us. Unless we have lots of engineers, we cannot construct a pontoon-crossing-device, for when we try to manoevre it into position to storm across the moat, our men will get raked by the archers again. The engineers can’t wear full armour which could protect them as they would then move too slowly and could be attacked even by ground-troops from the castle gates, and would drown in less than their own height in the moat.

So what shall we do? I say we divide our archers and we send 400 round the back to either side of the outer-North gate. In order to try to reduce us, the garrison have no choice but to go there and expend arrows and missiles against our men there, for we shall employ fire. Fire is the ultimate enemy of English castles, even here in the perpetual rain, for they have so much combustible stuff, like straw, roof-timbers, grain, dried peat (for fuel) dried-midden-heaps (ditto) candlewax, paper (for clerks) etc. We’ll take one engine and throw burning pitch-soaked hay at them for a bit.

It will stick to anything and will at least be inconvenient and painful and will take up their attention ad time. Meanwhile, some suicidal fellows, whom we have been plying with strong ale for some hours now, will assault the front gate directly and with ladders, from pontoons, while others try to climb up ladders onto the “gunner’s walk” overlooking the dock. If we could sweep the defending staff off the walls for about 20 yards either side of the front gate, we might be able to get 50 men over the water to rush the “Barbican” – which is the “defended killing-ground” just in front of the main gatehouse.

Of course, plunging fire, arrows, stones, heated quicklime and scrap-metal from the top of the main gatehouse building, not to mention the swords and axes of the defenders on the wall when we get up to them, will be our main enemy, but God is On Our Side and we should not fear death in these circumstances, for the souls of those of our men and young boys who fall will be transported directly past Purgatory and straight to heaven.

So now we are sitting uncomfortably on the outer wall and we hold a quarter of it precariously, and we overlook the Barbican where a good fight is still going on in front of the main Portcullis! English men-at-arms are assaulting our flankers at either end of “our” bit of the wall, retreating back into the corner-towers every time we growl at them or hack at an arm or exposed hand. They have 200 more men inside, and it’s their castle, and their well is deep inside the building in front of us, and we are dying of thirst by now and it’s late evening; we can get another 20 men up here at best before nightfall.

So what next? We’re committed now. We either have to go on or retreat permanently, and there’s no money to restart the assault tomorrow – not because Llewellyn does not have enough Silver Pennies and Marks to pay the men for as long as he budgeted for, but because having got this far for so much loss and having to go back to our ground because it’s night, and the defenders will sort themselves in the meantime for sure – but because our men and their boys will simply refuse.

They’ve got wives and girlfriends and sisters and farms and animals – and it’s not as easy as it looked, and the English are not going to give way and let us take their best castle in Wales, simply because we turned up with all we could muster. We’ll have to go back. Why? What still lies in front of us? We still have not even got very near the Main Portcullis. This is “down”. Our men in the Barbican are under fire from inside the portcullis and are kept away from it.

The English only have, still, Shortbow-fire, to be sure, but at 3 yards range still lethal – just like our longbows but which we cannot deploy in the confined space that we have held onto so far. We can’t get the portcullis “up” unless we can somehow overwhelm the upper-defenders in the main gatehouse complex. And we can’t do this without bridging-machinery to bring the bulk of our remaining force up onto the outer wall parts that we hold, and quickly.

And we have none and we have not the money to buy the time to have it built. Even if we got in under the portcullis, we would face another one inside, and we would be under the “murder-holes” leading up to the first floor, from where they could tip boiling oil (expensive and unlikely) quicklime, cow-poo, their own poo, mouldy animal-parts and other nice stuff onto us, without our being able to do anything much at all about these as they are about 20 feet up and rather small.

Once inside the inner courtyard – even assuming that we could get that far, we would come under fire from un-neutralised defenders on the inner walls, which are even higher up, and who therefore could not easily be dislodged except one-by-one from lucky archery at our ground level – we all the while being vulnerable to theirs. The stairwell, too, there, would rotate the wrong way for us right-handed swordsmen to “fight up” – these would rotate to the advantage of the upper defenders and not to our advantage.

We face the outer portcullis and we have already lost 37 dead and 120 more-or-less-wounded in an afternoon, and 18 horses. That’s about a sixth part of our force out of commission and we have only been here five hours. We’ve held onto about a quarter of their outer wall and we are still under fire from either end and from the towers inside and from the gatehouses, which we stand no chance of carrying away whatever.

We can bring up no water for our men, who are all gasping, nor more arrows and missiles except what we can collect of theirs and re-use. We shall simply have to evacuate our positions as fast and as cleanly as we can, taking those of our les-badly-wounded with us whom we can carry, and putting the rest whom we cannot, out of their misery as painlessly as possible.

The same goes for the English wounded among them, or else I suppose we could leave them for their friends to help as best they can. Our small State simply can’t support this kind of loss-rate of its manpower, against the English, who are far more numerous and far-better-funded in the longer term. We shall simply have to come to an accommodation with them about whose Writ runs in the Islands as a whole, and whose runs here under the best circumstances that we can get.

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