Chateau Gaillard and the Cabulus, the Great Horse Catapult

Chateau Gaillard, Les Andelys, France. Richard the Lion Hearted claimed to have built his “cocky castle” on the border of Normandy in only a year, but no one believes he did. The walls, towers, and courtyards of the huge castle cover the narrow hill top, creating a system of barricades known as a defense in depth. An independent fortification at the left blocks access to the main structure, whose great tower still rises above the walls at the right. The area is roughly the size of two modern football fields.

By most accounts, King Philip Augustus of France was an unusually dour king. He was severe, stern, rather unfriendly, and he was certainly not known for any particularly sharp wit or sense of humor. Philip Augustus was king of France during a roughly forty-year reign centered around the year A.D. 1200. Perhaps his ill temper was due to the fact that his fame and reputation never quite matched that of his English rival, Richard I. In terms of reputation and world opinion, Richard outshone the Frenchman. Even their nicknames show the difference-while Richard was known as Richard Coeur de Lion (Richard the Lionheart) , Philip’s appellation was merely Philip Augustus. Philip Augustus was certainly a fine name, but not nearly as evocative as his rival’s.

But in terms of results, of lasting effect, Philip Augustus was head and shoulders above contemporary kings, especially the wonderfully named but slow-witted Richard. At the time of Philip Augustus’s ascension to power in 1180, the English kings held far more territory in what is now France than the French royal family did. A map of land holdings for the year 1175 shows English control of French land from Normandy in the north, down through Anjou, west through Brittany, and south through the large and powerful land of Acquitaine, and into the southern reaches of modern-day France, to a land called Gascony. Philip Augustus’s father, Louis VII, held only the “demesne” (demesne means “royal territory”) of Paris.

But by the time Philip died in 1223, the situation had changed immensely. The English were driven out of Normandy, Anjou, Brittany, and most of Aquitaine. These lands were now in control of the French royal family. And who was most responsible for removing the English from all these lands? The dour, unheralded, overlooked by history Philip Augustus. The English were pushed out of France, mostly because Philip Augustus was a better king than Richard the Lionheart. An able military strategist, he managed to do what his predecessors could not-consolidate most of France into one royal domain. Through military action and diplomacy he seized the territories of Maine, Touraine, Anjou, Brittany, and Normandy from the English crown.

It was unfortunate for the English that their king loved to fight and hated to govern. He chose to spend almost all of his time outside of England, making war on whomever he could find, often without any particularly good reason. His heroic exploits in the Crusades make good reading, but while he was off fighting the Muslims, the power the English had held in France had become very shaky.

While Richard roamed Europe and the Levant in search of a good fight, back in London his advisors were alarmed. “Richard,” said the correspondence from his cadre of dukes and earls, “Stop running around Europe and Asia. Come back and attend to matters here at home! Your kingdom in France is at risk!” It took some convincing, but finally Richard did understand that his country ‘s interests in Brittany, Anjou, Gascony, and the rest of France were in danger, and he took some big steps to shore things up. Perhaps the most important thing he did in this regard was to build castles in France to defend his land holdings.

Castle building was a tried-and-true way to protect your interests and make it very hard for another ruler to come in and attempt to take over land. Richard, thick-skulled as he was, understood this very well, and therefore designed one of the most impregnable castles ever built. It was located on the River Seine near the key town of Rouen, situated such that any invasion of the English territories in France by Philip Augustus would need to go right past this castle. The castle was built high on a solid rock bluff in such a way that there were cliff-like natural rock faces on three sides of the castle, and on the fourth, the river. This imposing, unassailable castle was called Chateau Gaillard.

Chateau Gaillard was huge. It was built with three separate rings of tall walls surrounding the inner ward or “keep.” The outer walls were built with large rock towers thirty feet high and walls eleven feet thick! If the English defenders, high on the ramparts, dropped stones, the walls below were set at angles such that the stones would roll and ricochet wildly, making an assault even more dangerous than normal. Indeed, Chateau Gaillard was a very solid and powerful castle, and one that Richard felt sure would save his empire in France.

In 1199 Richard heard that one of the subjects of the Viscount of Limoges had discovered a hidden treasure of Roman gold. The valuable treasure was found in the Duchy of Aquitaine, one of Richard ‘s holdings. No rule of “finders-keepers” applied then, so Richard claimed the gold as his own.

Not so fast, said the Viscount, and yet again Richard was involved in the siege of a French castle, this time called Castle Chaluz, that took him away from England. In terms of tactics or intensity, the Battle of Chaluz wasn’t particularly memorable. In fact, the siege was so ordinary that Richard became bored. So, to amuse himself, he took to riding around the castle on horseback, deliberately offering himself as a target to the archers inside. Richard had a fine time dodging arrows and exchanging insults with the besieged Frenchmen. But things didn’t work out too well.

One of the defenders, a man named Bertrand de Gourd on, was evidently a very good marksman. Upon seeing the helmetless Richard riding around the castle yet again, yelling insults, he took careful aim with his bow and arrow and shot Richard in the neck.

Richard had been injured before, and this particular wound wasn’t nearly as bad as some previous ones he had survived. But medieval battle conditions were quite dirty, and the doctors of the time were more harmful than helpful, so the wound became infected. Richard hung on for a while, but gangrene set in and he died from the wound on April 6, 1199.

Richard had no heirs, so with Richard dead, the throne of England passed to his brother, John. King John, while not nearly the fighter that Richard was, was perhaps a little more practical, and over time he moved to shore up the English holdings in France.

Regardless of whether John or Richard was king of England, Philip Augustus wanted the English out of his backyard. France is ours, he said, and set out to drive the English out of the territories they ruled on Philip’s side of the English Channel. Wars and skirmishes between Philip Augustus and John erupted and then faded, this going on in an up and down pattern of activity for years. Things came to a climax in the year 1203, when Philip decided that Chateau Gaillard would be taken by whatever means necessary.

King John’s commander of castle, or castellan, was a trusted man named Roger De Lacy. De Lacy, a determined sort of man, resolved to hold the castle no matter what the cost.

Philip was equally determined to take the castle. He decided to spare no expense and brought forth a large and well-supplied army. He instructed his royal engineers and carpenters to begin work on siege engines, big mangonels, smaller onagers, and one very, very large trebuchet. It was called Cabulus, the Great Horse Catapult. It is assumed that Philip was fond of horses, and he likely wanted a machine as powerful as a team of the strongest war horses.

Cabulus was immense, several stories high, with a swing arm and counterweight powerful enough to cast half-ton stones. The stones were specially mined from nearby quarries, as they needed rock that was hard, and heavy, and tough. Philip’s master of engines started working immediately on a model for the giant siege engine. (In those days, engineers did not draw up plans for machines on paper. Instead, they built scale models and then built the real thing based on the model.) The master ordered his men to the nearby forest to cut timbers and hew them into shape. Work had begun on Cabulus-Philip’s monster wall breaker, the great stone flinger, the Great Horse Catapult.

In February of 1203, after a preliminary siege of about six months, Philip Augustus decided the time for the frontal attack was right. During that six-month span, the French army had busied themselves with all sorts of war preparations. They built wooden walls around their own camp, and a covered walkway for protection against English arrows. They flattened entire hilltops to make suitable platforms for the catapults, so they could be accurately aimed and fired.

Cabulus and the other siege engines flung stone after stone at Chateau Gaillard’s towers and outer wall. The towers stood firm, but the wall did not. The French army had sent in miners under the protective cover of the catapults to dig underneath the foundation of the wall. With pick and shovel, the miners worked to remove earth from under the wall. Eventually, enough dirt was taken out so that when the flying stones hit the wall it gave way. The French overran the outer courtyard, or “ward,” and quickly took control of it.

But the outer ward was just part of the defenses of Chateau Gaillard. The next task facing the attackers was to take the middle ward, and this was a very hard job indeed. The middle ward was built such that the walls and towers were actually part of the cliff face. It was too hard for the miners to get their picks into the rock, and the catapults, even mighty Cabulus, were ineffective against the solidity of these walls. The French were facing the daunting task of mounting a suicidal frontal attack using ladders and movable towers of their own.

Then one of the soldiers, Peter Bogis, noticed an opening built for garbage and waste, called a “gard e robe,” on the west side of the castle. With much excitement, Bogis realized that the opening was not barred, so he and a few fellow soldiers climbed up into this smelly, slippery opening. Incredibly, they soon found themselves inside the middle ward near the chapel. Once inside, Bogis and the other soldiers came up with a plan. They decided to make noise, a lot of noise, in order to fool the English into thinking they were being overrun by a huge attacking force, already inside the middle ward. It worked. The English, thinking there were squads of French soldiers breaking in through the chapel, retreated again, this time towards the last and final refuge of Chateau Gaillard, the inner ward, or “castle keep.”

Now that the French were inside the middle ward, it was finally time to unleash the awesome power in Cabulus’s mighty arm. The trebuchet was built from a lattice of heavy oak beams, as large and well-constructed as an oil derrick. The cross arm was probably a structure made from several wood beams bolted together, with the grain of each beam oriented at cross angles to add strength. Attached to the short end of the cross arm was the counterweight, a very large wooden box full of thousands of pounds of rocks or lead weight.

To fire the weapon, the engine master ordered his crew to tug on ropes attached to blocks and tackles or heavy winches. “Heave!” cried the captain. “Heave again!” The heavy weight would rapidly gain elevation, and as it did so, the throwing end would lower closer and closer to the ground. When the counterweight was at full height, a stout pin was inserted into the framework to keep the counterweight in place.

A sling was then attached to the throwing end and a stone projectile placed within. When all was ready, the engine commander would take a sledgehammer and knock loose the holding pin. Down fell the weighted bucket, and up went the throwing arm, dragging the sling. The sling would snap forward, and at just the right angle, the projectile would leap free, flying far and true against the castle wall. Crash!

Quickly the mighty arm would be retracted again, and like the pit crew at a modern automobile race, each member of the firing crew would snap into action. Some would winch the arm down again, some would reload the sling with a stone, one would replace the pin. Crash! Reload. Crash! Reload.

The swinging arms of Cabulus and the other catapults set up a steady, whooshing rhythm as the slings whipped through the air. Ball after stone ball crashed against the walls. Rock chips flew immediately; soon cracks appeared in the wall, then finally large gaping holes.

The inner walls were no match for the horse catapult and its companions. Soon, the English knew there was no hope for holding the castle. On March 6, the last 120 knights and foot soldiers laid down their arms and surrendered.

While the siege of Chateau Gaillard would have a lasting effect on the relationship between England and France, it did not really shorten the Hundred Years War. In fact, it would be three hundred fifty more years until the last vestiges of English hegemony would be gone from the area we know today as France. But Cabulus proved that no castle could be considered impregnable from the big machines of an attacking army.

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