So, you’re besieging an enemy castle during the crusades or maybe subduing a rebel baron who has dared to question the king’s authority. And you need to know whether those castle walls will give way under the onslaught of a trebuchet, ballista or mangonel. Trouble is – you need to know the difference between those siege weapons!
Behold the ballista!
The ballista is a siege weapon that goes right back to ancient times. Think of it as a giant crossbow and you’ll be on the right track. It was more of a defensive than offensive weapon. The maximum range was about five hundred metres.
Trebuchet – big swinging arm
If you have ever played that quintessential English game of cricket, you’ll know what I mean when I say that the trebuchet is like a gigantic bowling arm. It’s basically a huge catapult that chucks a massive boulder at a castle’s walls or within the fortifications. A counterweight released the missile at speed.
Best to think of mangonels as smaller versions of trebuchets raining down smaller projectiles at the castle walls. The arm was heaved back creating a huge amount of tension with devastating effect. The mangonel has a wooden cup-like appendage to hold the boulder while an Onager – a similar siege engine – used a sling.
The Templar trebuchet
I talked about Richard the Lionheart’s recapture of Acre in the Third Crusade and the terrible massacre of captives that resulted. At that siege, we know from various histories that the Templars arrived with a massive catapult that hurled huge boulders at the walls.
The scale of this weapon clearly impressed chroniclers at the time and the devastation that it inflicted on the walls of the city.
This was most likely a large ‘trebuchet’ that would eventually be superseded by the use of gunpowder to attack fortifications. Though it’s often claimed that the Chinese had been using a weapon like this, operated with a counterweight, for over a thousand years before the Third Crusade – the Templars most likely picked up the technology from the Byzantine Empire.