Friday, 12 July 2013
The Town Walls of Leicester in the siege of 943
The walls that faced Edmund and protected Olaf were those built during the Roman period. They were about six centuries old by this date, but seem to have been kept in good repair over the years. Certainly they were strong enough to stop Edmund in his tracks so they must be presumed to have been substantially intact. Like most Roman town walls in Britain, those of Leicester were not built by the Roman Army but by the local town or civitas authorities. They were, therefore, rather less impressive than the fortifications of Hadrian’s Wall or the mighty Saxon Shore forts such as Pevensey or Portchester. But that does not mean they were not effective.
At Leicester the walls followed the standard Roman shape of an oblong with rounded corners, rather like a playing card. No trace of any towers has been found, but that is not to say that they did not exist. Given the limited number of archaeological digs here it is hardly surprising none have been found. The walls themselves were built of dressed stone facings covering rubble interiors held together with cement. At intervals there were horizontal bands of narrow bricks which served to strengthen and stablise the rubble cores. The walls were about 20 feet tall and up to six feet thick. Such walls were able to withstand a degree of pounding by Roman era weaponry of catapults and battering rams, but would not have withstood a determined assault by the Roman army for long.
But neither Edmund nor any other 10th century commander had the type of heavy siege equipment that the Roman army took for granted. Siege operations were limited and rudimentary. Wooden walls might be fired or scaled using ladders, but stone walls of the scale at Leicester were proof against either form of attack if properly defended. Gates could be vulnerable to assault by axes if poorly constructed or again could be burned down. If the defenders were few in numbers they would not be able to man all of the defences adequately at the same time, so a surprise assault with ladders might be successful, but it would be a risky business.
The only real weapon that a commander of this date had against well repaired Roman walls was starvation. By surrounding a town food supplies could be cut off, after which it was only a matter of time before surrender became inevitable.
from "The Sieges of Leicester" by Rupert Matthews.
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