Warwolf – King Edward’s secret weapon to hammer the Scots

Stirling Castle is a striking, man-made addition to an already formidable natural fortress. Sheer cliffs thrust up from the rolling Scottish Lowlands. The thick castle walls extend these solid quartz-dolerite foundations towards the sky. It is imposing and seems impregnable. It probably was, at least until Warwolf came to visit.

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In 1304, Stirling Castle was the last Scottish holdout to the English invasion. Edward I of England had lived up to his enduring nickname. He had almost hammered the Scots into submission. But to have complete control of his northern neighbour, he needed to capture Stirling.

A photograph of Stirling Castle, in Stirling, Scotland.

Stirling wasn’t just a strong castle. It was synonymous with royal authority in Scotland. Its location, at the heart of Scotland and controlling the River Forth crossing, gave it an incredible importance. It was the gateway to the Highlands that could be slammed shut if it was allowed to remain in enemy hands.

Edward was not the sort of man who would let something he wanted remain in enemy hands.

His war machine had already laid low several of Scotland’s most formidable castles. With the country almost completely subdued, his relentless focus was now on bringing Stirling to submission.

Stirling Castle with the foothills of the Scottish Highlands in the background By RFARKAS (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

His army surrounded the castle and laid siege. His engineers constructed the siege engines that had been deployed to devastating effect earlier in the campaign. He deployed the latest military technology, ordering that the components of gunpowder be brought up from England:

‘We command you, that in haste, you cause to be purveyed to the city of York a horseload of cotton thread, a load of quick sulphur, and another of saltpetre’.

Edward I of England

Edward did not want to leave anything to chance. He didn’t want to merely suppress Scottish opposition; he wanted to crush it. And, to do this, and to leave an indelible impression of English might, he ordered the construction of what was one of the medieval age’s largest siege engines.

Fearsome weapons of war developed nicknames that have endured through the centuries. Edward’s machine had a suitably uncompromising name – Warwolf. Whether rendered as Warwolf, War Wolf, Loup de Guerre, Ludgar or Lupus Guerre, it was designed to strike terror.

Trebuchet in Castelnaud, France by Luc Viatour / www.Lucnix.be

Warwolf is believed to have been a trebuchet. All that is clear from the scant historical record is that it was a vast and complicated machine. It is believed to be the largest trebuchet ever made and, when disassembled, filled 30 wagons. It took “fifty carpenters and five foremen a long time to complete”. Indeed, some accounts say it took three months to build.

Was this creation so fearsome to behold that it induced the strongest castle in Stirling to surrender?

Historians disagree on what eventually induced the castle to surrender. Stirling’s own local history pages provide alternative explanations to the fear induced by War Wolf. In one version, “Edward succeeded in filling the moat with earth and stone and prepared scaling ladders and ropes, and the garrison saw their fate and offered their surrender. Another says that Edward managed to breach a wall with a ram, which convinced the garrison to surrender. Another explanation was starvation.”

What is clear, however, is that the garrison were willing to surrender. Matthew Strickland’s account notes that, ‘ ‘by a piece of cold-blooded cruelty which shows Edward in a singularly unattractive light’, the king refused to allow the garrison to capitulate until he had brought his great engine ‘War Wolf’ to play against the castle.’

The English king is widely quoted as replying to the plea for surrender that, “You don’t deserve any grace, but must surrender to my will.”

19th Century diagram of a medieval trebuchet

In the Book of the Crossbow, Ralph Payne-Gallwey quotes Sir Walter de Bedewyne, a contemporary observer, to explain what happened next:

‘As for news, Stirling Castle was absolutely surrendered to the King without conditions this Monday, St. Margaret’s day, but the King wills it that none of his people enter the castle till it is struck with his “War-wolf,” and that those within the castle defend themselves from the said “War-wolf” as best they can.’

Edward was not going to be denied the fun of unleashing his lethal creation. One contemporary account has Warwolf levelling a section of the wall of the castle. The siege of Stirling Castle was concluded soon after.

In The Hammer of the Scots, David Santiuste, finishes off the story:

‘Finally, on 20 July, Edward agreed to accept the garrison’s submission. The account in Flores tells us that the patriots embraced their allotted role in the spectacle, emerging with ashes on their heads and halters round their necks, placing themselves utterly at Edward’s mercy. This done, the king ultimately spared their lives – although [Sir William] Oliphant [the commander of the garrison] and his men were imprisoned. Only fifty had survived from the initial 120.’

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