Medieval sieges were arduous and expensive. Besieging armies had to be fed and paid, and the drawn-out process sapped military strength that could be used for more glorious battles. To circumvent a fortified town or castle’s defenses was preferable. One method was bribery. Another was the use of ladders to scale the walls, a tactic known as escalade. Preferably under cover of darkness, attackers would quickly and quietly approach the walls, erect their ladders and climb. Once inside they would dispatch any guards and then either pillage or seize control of the fortification.
One such successful raid occurred in early January 1352, during the Truce of Calais, brokered between Edward III of England and Philip VI of France. The castle of Guînes, six miles south of English-held Calais, was a crucial link in the French defenses, controlling both the main waterway and the road into Calais. It also was the main detention center for English prisoners of war.
John Dancaster, an English soldier of fortune, spent time at Guînes as a POW. While working as part of a labor gang, Dancaster noticed a submerged wall that spanned the moat, likely designed for sorties by the castle garrison. Upon release from Guînes, Dancaster recruited a group of men and returned to the castle at night. Wearing blackened armor, the men crossed the moat atop the submerged wall and placed scaling ladders against the walls. Safely over, the English killed the sentries, tossed their bodies over the wall, freed the POWs and took control of the castle.
Unable to dislodge Dancaster, the French sent emissaries to London, asking Edward III to order the raiding party out of Guînes. The English king denied any knowledge of Dancaster’s assault but supplied a letter to the French charging any subject of his to return the castle to its rightful owner.
Unfortunate timing afflicted the French cause: January 17 marked the opening session of the English Parliament. Bellicose speeches against France were the norm, and Edward III and his ministers decided to break the truce and keep Guînes. At month’s end English troops arrived to take possession of the castle. The French, incensed at Edward’s change of heart, reacted by having the guard commander on the night of Dancaster’s assault drawn and quartered on the probably false charge of taking a bribe. The English, meanwhile, were feting Dancaster as a national hero.
In May 1352 the French laid siege to Guînes, but the roughly 115 English defenders humiliated the 4,500- strong attacking force. By July the French had given up. Dancaster’s escalade had handed the English a crucial fortress they would hold for more than 200 years.
■ Special forces can succeed where regular troops might fail. A small band of motivated men was able to take a castle thought impregnable by conventional siege.
■ Find your enemy’s weak spots. Dancaster’s happenstance reconnaissance of the moat was the key to the capture of Guînes.
■ Use stealth whenever possible. The escalading party showed great resourcefulness during their attack, even camouflaging themselves.
■ Pay your troops well. Low pay doubtlessly led to equally low morale on the French side.
■ Always be on the alert. Never let your guard down, even when feeling absolutely secure in a strong position.
■ Never trust a politician. Edward III had no moral issue with breaking the Truce of Calais, and French leaders in Guînes executed the watch commander, likely because someone needed a scapegoat.
■ Use the power of propaganda. Dancaster was hailed as a hero as soon as the English had decided to renew the war against France. Before that he had just been another “dog of war.”
Originally published in the January 2012 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.