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The Second Siege of Windsor Castle
Barons besiege King John's Men 1216

The well-known Barons’ Rebellion, which dominated the reign of King John, should have come to an end in June 1215, when the unhappy monarch was forced to agree terms and sign the now World-famous Magna Carta. However, only four months later, war broke out again. Though "almost the whole nobility of England" had apparently been ranged against John on the fields of Runnymede, during the ensuing months circumstances caused many of the barons to become his allies again. With the help of his mercenaries and his English allies, John raced about the country, relieving his friends and revenging himself upon his enemies. Quickly, he recovered much of his old power, to such an extent that the barons had to appeal to the King of France for help, at the price of agreeing to recognise King Philip's son, Louis, as their sovereign. This offer was too attractive to be refused; and, in due course, Louis landed in England with his foreign army. Before long, the French prince was master of the greater part of the kingdom, although several castles held out against him, among them notably Windsor and Dover.

At this point, it is interesting to note that, on the 22nd April 1216, "The king to all the foresters, verderers and other officers of the forest of Windsor: Know that we have committed to our beloved and faithful Engelard de Cygony the custody of the Castle of Windsor, with the forest, and all its appurtenances, during our pleasure, and therefore we command you that you assist and obey the said Engelard in all things, etc." It was this Engelard who, with sixty knights, held out against the might and power of the English barons. The barons, having ravaged Norfolk and Suffolk, and exacted heavy ransom from the big towns, later "assembled a great army, under the leadership of the Count of Nevers and laid siege to the Castle of Windsor with engines of war, which they brought close to it, and fiercely attacked the defences. But the Constable of the Castle was a man very skilful in the art of war and, with him, were sixty knights and their following. These repeatedly made sorties and strove to drive the enemy from the walls." That these sorties were often successful is confirmed by a French chronicler who says that the besieged soldiers twice cut the beam of the attackers' catapult, and that during one engagement "a knight of Artois, called William de Ceris, was killed, lamented by few, for he was hated much."

While this siege, and the siege of Dover Castle, was occupying the attention of the barons' army and the French army respectively, King John skulked in Wales, ravaging all lands within striking distance that belonged to the barons who had joined Louis. After Windsor had withstood nearly two months of the siege, John came to the conclusion that it was time to relieve it. He collected a Welsh army and set out for Windsor from Corfe. Soon, he was so near to the Castle that, during the night, his Welsh bowmen shot their arrows at the besiegers. The barons prepared for battle, but a week went by without John's having made the anticipated attack. At the end of that time, the King suddenly, and for no explainable reason except cowardice, withdrew from the district and marched his Welsh army to the eastern counties, where he adopted his old tactics of ravaging the countryside.

At this point, the situation at Windsor becomes confused, for the accounts of the chroniclers conflict with one another. Some say that the barons continued their efforts to capture the Castle, even while they were expecting the King to attack; but that when news reached them of John's destructive work in Cambridgeshire and Essex, they raised the siege and chased after the King in the hope of taking him prisoner. On the other hand, certain writers maintain that the Count of Nevers was bribed, either by John or by Engelard, to use the King's presence in the eastern counties as an excuse for retiring from the Castle.

Whatever the truth may be, the fact remains that the Castle successfully resisted a siege which lasted more than two months and, whether or no Nevers was subsequently bribed to raise the siege, while it lasted, it was a most determined one. The Castle was attacked again and again, its walls were constantly battered by engines of war and by huge rocks hurled at them from catapults. Presumably, its defenders had to live upon such provisions as they had succeeded in storing before the siege. In these circumstances, it is hard to believe that the Castle nearly capitulated to the half-hearted attack which had been launched at it during the previous reign.

Edited from Bruce Graeme’s "Story of Windsor Castle" (1937)

    © Nash Ford Publishing 2003. All Rights Reserved.