Siege of Maastricht
The Defence of Maastricht 1380-1480
This article seeks to explore the military role of the citizens of a medieval city, both during an actual siege and in periods of unrest. How was the defence organised, who was responsible, how was it co-ordinated, and what were the best methods to keep an enemy at bay? These are some of the main questions I asked myself before writing this; as research on such a grand subject is likely to descend into blandness when all medieval cities are considered, or even those of just one country, I have limited myself to the city of Maastricht during the period 1380-1480. The practices there may have differed from those of other important cities, but nonetheless they may give an indication as to the organisation of the defence of a medium sized medieval city.
Maastricht: a Historical Introduction
The city of Maastricht was founded by the Romans, as it was one of the best downstream locations for crossing the Maas or Meuse river. It quickly grew into a prosperous trading centre, and after the collapse of the Roman Empire its position was strengthened seriously when the bishop of Tongeren moved in and made it his new Episcopal see. In the 8th century the bishops abandoned Maastricht in favour of Liège, and control of the city reverted to the German kings. They gave it to hold as fief, at the start of the 13th century, to the bishop of Liege and the duke of Brabant. Because sharing a city was difficult, the effective power of both the bishop and the duke was very limited, and they relied heavily on support from the citizens who, in 1285, forced their lords to accept the 'Alde Caerte', a document which entitled the city to complete neutrality in case their two masters would come to blows; this reinforced the city's independence. Later on, further additions were made allowing the guildsmen to appoint their own members to important council posts, including those of the burgomasters (mayors) and the peymeesters (receivers); both posts had two persons in office: one for Liège and one for Brabant.
The internal politics of the bishopric of Liège, however, were more than problematic, with the powerful guilds of the city seeking to take control of the government, simulating the Flemish cities. The bishops were forced to give up many of their powers, until John of Bavaria became bishop. He refused outright, and on the contrary sought to re-establish many of the old Episcopal rights. He was driven out of the city of Liège, and sought refuge in Maastricht in 1407, the only city to remain loyal to him. The Liégois, however, were baying for his blood, and they laid siege to the city twice, first in 1407 (24 November - 7 January), and again in 1408 (31 May - 22 September). Both sieges were unsuccessful, and the bishop's rebellious subjects were defeated at the battle of Othée on 23 September by the bishop's allies: the duke of Burgundy and the counts of Hainaut-Holland and Namur.
In 1465, a similar situation occurred: the bishop was once again driven out of Liège, and once again found refuge inside Maastricht. Preparations were made to withstand a long siege, and a new ordinance was written, detailing exactly what should be done and who was responsible for what; the preparations were in vain, however, as the rebels were incapable of mounting a siege: they were suffering under repeated Burgundian incursions. My conclusions are largely taken from the defensive ordinances of 1380 and 1465, as well as from the sieges of 1407 and 1408.
To Arms! Preparing for War
a. Command and decision-taking
In October 1407, Anthony, duke of Brabant, demanded passage with his army through Maastricht. He was seeking to wage war with Guelders, and Maastricht provided the easiest passage to the southern part of that realm. The Maastrichters, however, were suspicious. Brabant was hostile towards the bishop of Liège, who was demanding to stay inside the city, and the citizens feared that the duke of Brabant had come to subjugate them. After taking the duke's request into consideration, the city council decided that duke Anthony was allowed to pass through the city, but only under strict regulations: his forces should move through company by company, and were not allowed to stop to buy anything or wander through any streets but those leading directly out. To make sure these orders were followed, all side streets were blocked off with metal chains; armed townsmen stood silently by while the Brabançons passed through.
In case of any threat, such as this one, it was the city council that decided what action should be taken. It was up to the two burgomasters (one for Liège, one for Brabant) to lead the citizens into combat and to make tactical decisions. They had a very active part in the defence, commanding a reserve in the centre of the city, and keeping an eye out, personally if necessary, for any trouble. In 1407 they appointed four commanders to lead the city's forces, possibly to lead the troops at different sectors of the walls. These four men were all from the vicinity, but three of them were noblemen and only one was a citizen of the city. Presumably they were more experienced in war than the burgomasters; in any case, Hendrik Bovier, the solitary citizen among the commanders and a former burgomaster, had commanded the town's militia on an expedition in 1395, indicating he was no stranger to military matters. Whether the burgomasters gave up their position of military command entirely or not sadly remains unknown.
The other members of the city council also had military tasks: they were to keep an eye out in the highest tower of the city (the Lanscroon at this moment, which was also the place where the council held their meetings) to spot any signs of attack. They were also expected to patrol the city and assist in the defence of their kerspel (neighbourhood). There were presumably 8 kerspels at this time, with a total population of some 12 000, for a city spanning some 130 hectares (321 acres) and surrounded with 5 km (3.11 miles) of wall (see map at the bottom of the article).
b. The citizenry
The citizens formed the backbone of the defence, and from every house one man was expected to assist, if possible. Defence was organised entirely on a local level, and when an attack seemed imminent new dekens or commanders were appointed (or confirmed) for every kerspel. These were to command the citizens of their suburb and make sure every one knew where he was supposed to be. Citizens were assigned to watches, and it was required that there should be one man behind every arrow loop; two if the window was larger. Every man had to provide their own armour, consisting of a harnas (probably fairly simple body armour, such as a chainmail shirt or even a simple boiled leather jacket) and a helmet (though this might just have been a leather cap). Obviously wealthier citizens would buy higher quality armour. Taking into account all male citizens over 15 years old gives us some 3 000 citizens, though obviously not all of those would be able to fight; 40% (1,200) of those would be under 20 or over 50.
c. The militia
Assisting the citizens there were the scutte or militia. These were citizens who practised archery in their spare time, gaining experience and practicing basic drill. At the start of the siege of 1407 there was only one officially confirmed militia guild, that of Saint George, which used the crossbow. An ordinance dating back to the 1380's demands from them only a leather jacket and a metal or leather cap in terms of armour.
In 1408, as the second siege wore on, a second guild was established: that of Saint Sebastian. These men used the normal bow, and were expected (in the founding charter) to be armed with iron torso armour, a side-arm, and two dozen arrows, indicating a sharp increase in required protection (possibly due to negative experience in war, though it is unclear if the saint George's guild had used leather armour during the early stages of the siege or whether they had modernised in advance).
Apart from the official militia guilds, there were those that had not been granted full status by the council. These nevertheless could still practice and would have had a higher position than the normal citizens. We do not know their number, but it seems likely that the saint Sebastian guild was initially an unofficial guild that was 'upgraded' by the council due to the dangerous situation, possibly as a reward for services rendered.
Each guild was commanded by an overdeken (captain), who had a number of dekens (commanders) under him, who commanded smaller groups or companies. Usually a guild was assigned to guard a certain sector of the wall permanently, and have a reserve at hand in case of emergencies elsewhere. The total amount of militiamen might have been 400.
d. The clergy
The amount of clergymen in Maastricht was relatively large, there being over 30 different ecclesiastical foundations within the walls, including a centre for the German (Teutonic) Order and two basilicas. The clergymen could not generally be expected to help in a military matter (excepting the German Order) and those who did must have volunteered, though the 1465 ordinance expects the lord of the church of saint Servaas to garrison a tower near the wall; whether the men doing this were mercenaries hired by the clergymen or warlike priests and monks is unknown.
The common demand placed on the clergy was simply the levy of carts, supplies and finances, though these regularly were gifted rather than requested. The clergy also contributed to keeping the walls defensible, and shared the responsibility with the city council to keep the bridge in a good state.
Like other cities in the southern Low Countries, Maastricht was quick to add gunpowder to its means of defence. The amount of artillery pieces at the disposal of the city at this time is sadly unknown; however, it is explicitly stated for 1407 that busse (cannons) should be put on every tower and gate, along with the necessary supply of gunpowder and personnel. This indicates that the municipal artillery train was not only quite extensive, as there were pieces for every tower, but also that the towers had been fitted to support them. The calibre of the artillery is yet another unknown integer.
In 1395, Hendrik van Thoren and master Otte were made masters of the artillery; the former was still alive at the time of the 1407-1408 sieges and probably was responsible then, still (we do not know when master Otte died). Gunpowder was stored at the prison gate, in the centre of town; the peymeester (receiver) was responsible for its acquisition and storage, and actually had to supply the city with one piece of artillery and two tons with saltpetre when he took office. This policy ensured a steady increase in the strength of the municipal artillery train, as well as making sure that every peymeester was wealthy and therefore less likely to appropriate city funds.
In case of an impending siege, the city would stock up in advance on all the necessary materials and supplies, again the responsibility of the peymeester. He would send not only for food (mostly in durable shape, such as grains or live animals) and ammunition, but also for chalk, which was used in defence, presumably by heating it up and pouring it at assailants. Straw was also acquired in sufficient quantities.
A City Surrounded 1407-1408
The Winter Siege
When, in 1407, the Liégois first appeared before the walls of Maastricht, the winter had just started. The heavy frost - it was one of the coldest winters in years - forced the besiegers to retire early in January, after less than two months. According to contemporaries, the besiegers left because of the frost, not the actions of the defenders; this does not seem unrealistic: after all, while the houses of the city would have provided more warmth than the tents of the opponents, they usually had ineffective walls made of a combination of dried clay and wood, while doors and windows were not capable of keeping out the cold, and so the defenders would have suffered almost as harshly under weather conditions as the attackers did. The attackers had, however, brought along their siege engines and neither side was idle. On 30 December the city council called upon the knights from the surrounding countryside to aid the citizens in defence.
During this period every man and woman had to do his or her municipal duty. In addition to the men stationed on the walls, those not on watch were expected to, in case of an emergency within their kerspel, gather at a central location (probably in front of the church) and send for the burgomasters. They were to stay put until orders were given - quite possibly the local deken would have done so before the burgomaster arrived.
Able women were expected to assist the defenders by supplying them with stones, straw, water, chalk and leather. The straw may have been used to fill up bags and hang them in front of the wall to absorb artillery impacts.
In addition to the above measures, the majority of the gates were closed up, with only three left open on the western half of the city, and streets running behind the city walls were cleared, to allow for easy passage for defending troops.
Laying Waste the Country
After the Liégois abandoned the siege, the bishop's men - some 1,200 mercenaries, largely knights from Germany - moved south in the direction of Liège, plundering all nearby hostile villages they could find, as well as defeating the militias of Tongeren and Bilzen in two open battles, inflicting some 300 casualties altogether. This strategy was effective in multiple ways: it wrested the initiative away from the enemy, it deprived them of resources (such as cattle, which was herded back to Maastricht), it caused considerable casualties among the professional enemy militias, and it subsequently sapped the morale of the rebels.
The city, meanwhile, could repair its walls, re-arm its men and resupply; the bishop, John of Bavaria, used this time to attract even more mercenaries and meet with his allies. The Liégois used this opportunity to once again concentrate their forces, and they surrounded the city for the second time on 31 May. John of Bavaria and his mercenaries broke through the enemy lines on 7 June; his return to the city was heralded as divine intervention. In any case, it did the Liégois morale no good.
The Summer Siege
Liège was, like Maastricht, a modern city, largely governed by the urban elite; like Maastricht, therefore, it had a large and up-to-date artillery train, initially created for defensive purposes, but capable of being brought into the field. The rebels did not hesitate to use their cannons, and, taking the low-lying road following the river Jeker (or Geer) to Maastricht, they invested the city and put in under constant fire; some thirty cannonballs must have been fired into the town every day, causing considerable monetary damage but claiming but few casualties.
Apart from direct military attacks, attempts were made to demoralise the defenders; excrement as well as dead animals were fired into the town, and spies dressed as pilgrims entered the town with bad news concerning the arrival - or lack thereof - of friendly forces. But the Maastrichters did not back down, and kept up the pressure with constant sorties, including a very large raid to the village of saint Pieter, where they routed the defenders (again, the ill-fated militia of Tongeren) and procured a great amount of cattle and other supplies.
Initially only the mercenaries could perform these mounted raids, but at one moment the town's wealthiest and bravest members offered or were asked to form a cavalry militia to assist in the mobile warfare. This they did, and to some effect. An enthusiastic local historian asserted that the town's militia cavalry and the mercenaries tried to outperform each other in the sorties, and while this might have been the case, there can be no doubt that the mercenary knights provided the greater skill. The result, in any case, was more than effective, and the Liégois made no real progress.
In an effort to undermine the town's food supply, an arm of the river Jeker running into the city was diverted by the besiegers, stopping the watermills inside the city from performing. The defenders diverted this problem by building watermills on the Antonius isle in the Maas River, as well as putting some floating watermills next to the isle, ensuring the production of bread could continue as long as there was a reserve of grain.
Despite their successful and ingenious defence, the Maastrichters, however, were not in the best of spots. The supplies dwindled constantly, and the burgomasters ordered the poor folk and those incapable of aiding in the defence to leave the city on 2 July, a little over a month after the start of the second siege. Whether this order was followed up or not is a little unclear, but if it was, the Liégois made no problem out of it; had they molested any innocent civilians, no doubt anti-Liégois chroniclers would have capitalised on any such offences.
The soldiers of Liège continued their offensive with growing desperation. They built a giant 'cat' outside the eastern part of town, Wyck. This was probably not a siege engine itself, but rather a construction protecting sappers trying to undermine the walls; the defenders realised the potential catastrophe, and directed their own artillery fire against it. The cat suffered serious damage, and the Liégois had to abandon it due to the heavy crossfire.
The tide had now definitely turned in favour of the defenders, and the besiegers moved off one after the other when the forces of Burgundy, Namur and Hainaut-Holland entered the lands of Liège: they left to defend their own homes. This process was still extensive in span, lasting from 22 August, when the men of Dinant left, to 22 September, when the duke of Burgundy approached Liège and they, too, had to abandon the siege. The following day the rebels were decisively defeated at the battle of Othée (described in detail here) and their leaders killed. The hostile cities had no choice but to capitulate unconditionally and submit to the wishes of the duke of Burgundy.
The two sieges of Maastricht in 1407 and 1408 demonstrate perfectly how effective an aggressive defence could be; the city, despite being taken by surprise at the first siege, managed to wrest the initiative away from the Liégois early on in 1408, and appeared to be in control of the situation even when the second siege wore on. The rebels, on the other hand, suffered continuous defeats, which was to be expected: they operated in local groups, rather than in unison, and so smaller groups of militias could be outnumbered and outclassed by the German mercenaries of the bishop and the citizens of Maastricht.
This memorable event, which was celebrated at the time from Holland to Avignon and from Paris to Austria, also showed how hard it was to conduct a siege against a determined enemy in a medium-sized city with up-to-date fortifications: supplies appear to have been as major a problem to the besiegers as they were to the defenders, and the commander of the Liégois forces (Henry of Perwez) made no headway whatsoever in either siege, despite being a general of both experience and talent (the strategy and tactics employed during the Othée campaign, while ending in his defeat, were generally flawless) and trying different approaches. The only thing that could have broken the bishop's back appears to have been more time, and this was not something readily available.
The bishop and his loyal subjects were victorious largely due to their determination, proper preparation, skill, and the simple fact that the walls of a medieval city were not easily breached. This would change soon after, when Henry V of England started employing trenches to protect besieging troops against defensive artillery. While sieges were still a considerable risk and often lengthy, they now became less costly in lives.
Map of Maastricht, showing the probable sizes of the kerspels with the parts of the city wall they had to defend marked in the locality's colour on the outside of the walls