Did you know that the largest artillery piece of pre-modern era machinery was built in Scotland (the Warwolf Trebuchet)? And have you heard the tale of the brave soldiers who defended the stronghold of Stirling Castle against the expansionist designs of King Edward Longshanks in 1304. Unfortunately, the end of the siege was less glorious, as the defenders begged to be allowed to surrender, but the request was refused by King Edward!
Lead-Up to the Siege
In 1286, Alexander III, a long-lived King of Scotland, died without leaving a reliable chain of succession. In fact, his only successor, Queen Margaret, was a child living in Norway, who died before arriving in Scotland in 1290. After the death of Her Majesty, the Scottish nobility could not agree on anyone, leading to a period of political chaos known as the “Great Cause”, for this was the situation which triggered centuries of nearly-ceaseless warfare between England and Scotland in the future. None of the thirteen nobles laying claim were ready to forfeit this opportunity, and eventually, it was decided to request King Edward I of England for arbitration, a deadly mistake. The ambitious Edward was already more than aware of the situation and decided to take full advantage of it. Before announcing his decision, Edward had all the nobles involved recognise his authority as the Lord Paramount of Scotland, a humiliation which the divided group of Scottish nobles accepted out of necessity. Edward never took his eyes off his northern neighbours again.
Finally, Edward announced that John, from the House of Balliol, has the best claim in his opinion. The decision was respected by all involved and Balliol was formally crowned on the 30th of November, 1290. Unfortunately for the Scots, Balliol proved to be a loyal puppet of the English King, as he had expected, and was seen as a disgrace nationwide. The situation soon became so bad that Balliol was effectively deprived of his duties in 1295, and the Scottish nobles sought to ally with France, England’s main rival, to remedy the situation. The scheme failed, however, and instead ended up giving Edward I a clear reason to intervene militarily.
Edward concluded a temporary peace treaty with France with the clear purpose of invading Scotland in the spring of 1296 (yes, Philip IV did not care a bit about the Scots), and did so in the March of that year. The campaign was a huge success and after defeating the bulk of Scottish forces at the Battle of Dunbar, Edward removed King Balliol from his throne and sent him to England, even though it was his own decision to make him the King of Scotland in the first place. During this campaign, one of the important Scottish strongholds which were easily captured by the English was the Stirling Castle, which was surrendered by the Earl of Strathearn without a fight.
By the next year, however, Scottish resistance had become stronger than ever, and with Edward out of the country, his forces were defeated by a combined force of Andrew Moray and William Wallace at the Battle of Stirling Bridge on 11th September, 1297. The Castle was conveniently retaken by Scotland in the aftermath, but was captured once again by Edward himself after his victory at Falkirk (22nd July, 1298). Edward, however, failed to conquer Scotland in any meaningful way and the Stirling Castle again changed hands in favour of Scotland next year. Hostilities continued on a yearly basis, but Scotland did not fall again until 1303. By this time, the Stirling Castle had already been besieged four times in this war (the “First War of Scottish Independence”) alone.
Scotland’s Stubborn Tenacity
Contrary to the previous four times, the occupants of Stirling Castle decided to put up a strong resistance when Edward besieged the castle once again in the month of April, 1304. This siege at last showed what the Castle was actually capable of. Faced with the prospects of a long and costly operation, Edward started bombarding the walls with over 15 siege engines, but the efforts proved futile. Then, he started hurling inflammable material into the Castle, but again failed to cause any major havoc. Frustrated, Edward gathered a huge sum of over 40 pounds and ordered his best and most trusted engineer, Master James of Saint George, to prepare a trebuchet so large the likes of which the World had never seen! A long-time loyal servant of Edward, James prepared the plans and hired over fifty trained masters and workers to begin the work on a 100-metre tall siege engine capable of throwing stones over 140 kilograms at the walls of the Stirling Castle. The weapon was so enormous that it was estimated to require 30 wagons to transport its disassembled parts.
The Monstrous Warwolf Trebuchet
It took about three months for Master James to finally complete the siege engine, which was named Loup de Guerre (or ‘Warwolf’) in French by Edward. When the trebuchet was brought up to the walls of the Castle on the 20th of July, its sight was so terrifying that the garrison, which had held so steadfastly for four months, immediately offered their surrender. Edward’s impatience had reached levels of insanity, however, and he refused to pack his gigantic weapon without using it in combat. Eventually, a deal was struck and a small part of the garrison was sent back to ‘defend’ the Castle in a mock siege while the Warwolf bombarbed it. The Castle’s gate was crushed by the huge stones in no time, giving deep satisfaction and pride to the English King. Having fulfilled its purpose, the Warwolf was disassembled and packed, never to be seen again! It is truly surprising that such a record-breaking weapon disappeared without leaving a trace, but it was probably because of the death of Edward I three years later. His son, Edward II, did not share the enthusiasm of his father for conquests, and might have permanently disassembled the Warwolf and used its wood for other purposes. Alternatively, it is possible that the machine fell out of use and simply rotted or was consumed by fire over the course of decades. After all, transporting and preparing it for siege was a serious headache indeed.
Image: example of a wooden trebuchet