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I read here and there about sieges of fortified castles which lasted extended lengths of time (two years for instance).

Was there any castle in Medieval Europe that was self-sustaining? By self-sustaining I mean it could produce enough food to feed its defender, i.e. the ability to grow crops and raise cattle within the fortifications in amounts which would allow people inside to survive.

I understand that those sieges could last so long because of amassed reserves of food, I was wondering though, did anybody tried to be to a certain extent independent from anything outside the walls.

Note: I believe that this would also be limited by some everyday items (like wood for instance), which are slow-growing and thus one needs a large reservoir to account for natural replacement.

  • Often, sieges lasted long because the castle was resupplied by sea or some other means. In other cases, they simply had a large stockpile. I assume the question is about Europe? – Semaphore Aug 31 '15 at 12:20
  • @Semaphore: oh really? I thought that the siege was pretty much hermetically sealing the castle and it was on its own. I had inland castles in mind (it is true that one perched on a cliff by the sea is easier to resupply) and i did not know that there was even a chance for something getting in. – WoJ Aug 31 '15 at 12:24
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    Well, that's why the castles that held out the longest tend to also be the ones with sea or river access. – Semaphore Aug 31 '15 at 12:38
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    This is clearly a history question. I wonder though if the real question is "How did castles withstand sieges that lasted for years?" – Mark C. Wallace Aug 31 '15 at 17:25
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    @MarkC.Wallace: it was not the real question, but it would be an interesting one indeed. – WoJ Sep 1 '15 at 14:51
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Obviously this depends on how many defenders there were inside the castle. A castle garrisoned by a single person could probably live reasonably well off the chickens that might be in the bailey, for instance. He could even start a vegetable garden or some such.


Realistically, no castle could hope to produce enough food to sustain a reasonably-sized garrison, and I doubt that anyone would have wanted to try. In fact, the whole point of a castle is so that you don't have to defend all your farms and forests and pastures.

Building and maintaining a castle is not cheap. The expense could be justified because you would gather (ideally) everything of value (treasures, food, your lives) inside one in the event of war. That, however, leaves little of any value in the countryside, apart from the land itself. Since even the best raiders in the world can't possibly take your lands with them, it simply doesn't make a whole lot of economic sense to protect them with expensive castle-like fortifications.

Even if we suppose that cost is no object, it is still militarily unsound to encircle so much land because doing so vastly lengthens your line of defence. In a normal castle, the garrison could relatively easily react to an assault and rally to it. However, if the garrison is spread across miles, then the besiegers could concentrate its forces on one specific spot. The defenders there would easily be overwhelmed long before the rest of the garrison could reinforce them.

Thing is, a castle typically relied on a larger territory than its garrison could defend in the first place. Enlarging the fortifications to cover those farms would also increase the number of defenders needed. Now, you are correct that the enclosed area could increase faster than the length of the enclosing walls. So theoretically, you could enlarge your castle until the balance tips in your favour.

But it's more likely that your "castle" would end up looking like this:

enter image description here.


Note: During times of siege, livestock were often sheltered within the castle grounds, and slaughtered as needed for food. This was not exactly a sustainable source of food, however, nor could it feed an entire garrison for any length of time.

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    +1 for great wall, which might meet the literal definition. – Joshua Aug 31 '15 at 20:53
  • Actually the answer should be yes as I have at least an example in mind but as I cannot remind the name of it I cannot answer. The idea is that in order to sustain a long siege a castle would need a constant supply of fresh water (most castles had wells and cisterns) as well as enough place to grow vegetables and livestock. This is actually possible if the castle protects the entrance to a plateau surrounded by cliffs. The plateau doesn't need any walls, and maybe a tower here and there if it has some weak points. Very few people need to man it against big armies. – Shautieh Feb 27 '17 at 15:11
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Simple answer, no.

As you increase the size of your fortified enclosure to contain more land for cultivation, you obviously increase the length of the walls. The longer the walls are, the more people you require to defend them successfully. At the same time, those people actively defending the walls (in a siege) cannot be working the fields and tending the crops. You also have the problem of finding a reliable water source to sustain that number of people, animals and crops.

In addition, the ideal environmental circumstances for a fortress (such as being on high ground or being directly on bedrock to deter undermining) are not usually ideal conditions for agriculture. So crop yields within a fortress are probably going to be less than optimum.

As a consequence, you're always going to have too little land under cultivation to sustain the number of people required to defend that land and work the farms.

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    The surface of the land increases (best case) with the square of the radius, the length of the walls only linearly - so the conclusion is not obvious. The water may or may not be a problem - it depends on where the castle is located (can be right next to a river for instance). This is why I was looking for historical cases of such places (if they exist). – WoJ Aug 31 '15 at 13:40
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    Rivers can be dammed and/or diverted, so they're not a reliable long-term solution in times of siege. – KillingTime Aug 31 '15 at 15:16
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    @WoJ You realize that building a fortress is an extremely expensive and time consuming effort, with the purpose to protect often the population of a whole town. Building a fortress that can contain a whole town + al the fields arounds sounds like futile. Economically, it is also much cheaper and requires much less effort to maintain, if one just hord together huge stockpiles. Most fortresses had a serious, long siege maybe once in every few decades. Also, having a year(s) long siege often means your whole country is already lost (therefore no help is coming). – Greg Aug 31 '15 at 15:26
  • Most castles didn't rely on external water sources like rivers, which could be polluted by the enemy, but had instead several wells and cisterns. Some had vast enough plains to grow vegetables and livestock too. – Shautieh Feb 27 '17 at 15:06
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@Semaphore

I agree with most of what you say, except one thing: unless they do so surreptitiously you can move defenders quicker across the "diameter" than the attackers can around the "circumference". It's what they mean by having interior lines.

As to OP's idea of cattle, a general rule of food chains is that each step is only 10% efficient. Land that could grow enough grain to feed 10 people will only grow enough grain to feed cows to produce enough beef to feed one. The only fresh meat you're going to get is if you snipe the odd pigeon.

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They did not enclose corn fields and cattle pastures inside the walls of a castle. Such walls would be too long and need too many people to defend. Most of the food during a siege came from supplies. But supplies (of grain and other products like this) can be stored for very long time (for years). Many castles had wells. Some could have vegetable gardens. But about pasture for cattle or fields to grow grain inside the walls I have never heard.

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