Are there any instances of a medium small armed gang (<100 men) entering and taking over a medieval city (in any part of the world)? How well did medieval city defenses work against medium-small groups of armed robbers?

It seems like this would be a more common threat than an army laying siege to a city.

Let me see if I can be more specific. I am aware that pre-gunpowder cities around the world often had walls. It makes sense that you could hide behind walls if an army showed up. But cities had to be open for business: people have to come and go from a city. A lesser force (which I call a gang in the OP) might catch the gate guard by surprise, or walk in one at a time. Or 2-3 confederates in the city might catch the gate guard at night and open it.

That all sounds fine. I wonder if it has ever happened. I see mention of incidents in the comments about gullible bishops etc.

A good answer would recount 1 or more incidents (with links if you do not want to go into detail in the answer) and then deduce a trend or pattern for such things. Or, if it is nearly impossible for such a thing to have happened, lay out why.

  • 4
    What is the difference between a gang and a small unit? (prior to the Geneva convention?) What is a "gang"? Both involve armed individuals operating in some kind of command structure. In modern times we can point to national authority, but prior to Westphalia that doesn't apply. Arguably every city ever taken was taken by a gang.
    – MCW
    Dec 21, 2017 at 14:25
  • 2
    The question seems straightforward enough to me, though perhaps it could have been more carefully defined or elaborated? I don't know the answer, but if I was OP I might start by looking at late-medieval peasant revolts, though these will probably stretch the definition of small.
    – Random
    Dec 21, 2017 at 14:48
  • @cedbeu let's continue this discussion in chat. Dec 22, 2017 at 10:53
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Semaphore
    Dec 22, 2017 at 11:06
  • Could probably make the arguement that the crusaders that took Constantinople was no more than an armed gang pretty readily.
    – Twelfth
    Dec 22, 2017 at 23:59

1 Answer 1


Yes, the vikings did just that. A longship can have to about 100 crew/warriors on board. (Different type of ships had a smaller or larger crew on board.) A raid often was done with one or two ships. Laying siege was of course impossible. But having the element of surprise might give them the edge. Storming the walls was suicide. Favorable circumstances (fog, bad weather, etc.) might give viking raiders enough time to assault before the defenses were ready.

Surprise is everything. The city of Breda in The Netherlands was in 1590 taking from a well armed Spanish garrison with a ruse: 70 soldiers hid in a peat barge and took the city from within. So it worked very well, also after the middle ages.

Such a surprise raid wouldn't work with 1 or 2 ships on large coastal towns with harbors and fortifications. Not all towns were that large or had fortifications. Plenty of cloisters too that were close to the coast. Those could (and were) fair game to individual raiders.

  • 5
    No, the city was not captured by the 70 or so men that hid in the peat barge - they again (as at Luna) simply opened the gate house to the remaining force, this time of ~900 infantry and cavalry. It is true that the Spanish garrison was surprised sleeping by the Trojan Horse tactic, resulting in almost half of it being killed while sleeping; but the other half only surrendered after the remaining assault force entered the city. Dec 21, 2017 at 12:20
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    Bjorn Ironside's force at Luna travelled in 62 longships; the 50 hand-picked men who obtained entrance through a ruse could not have even launched that fleet, never mind sailed it. Those ships held upwards of 100 Vikings each, for a total force of several thousand that actual sacked the city. They also were a trained and well-experienced military detachment, having been VIking around the Biscay and Mediterranean coasts for three years already. Don't confuse a military operation, by soldiers and performed cold sober, with criminal behaviour by thugs performed inebriated. Dec 21, 2017 at 12:39
  • Let's note that the size of Bjorn's raiding force, traveling in 62 longships, is likely about 4,000 to 5,000 men even after two seasons of Viking. That is fully half or a third the size of the army with which William I conquered England in 1066. Let's stop thinking that this is some small or medium sized gang. Dec 21, 2017 at 14:13
  • @Pieter Geerkens: how about you help reopen this question and then answer with No, laying out how medieval defenses would efficiently repel small forces. No is a good answer too.
    – Willk
    Dec 23, 2017 at 15:24
  • @Will: Gang: 1) an organized group of criminals. I have a fundamental problem with the semantics of your question, and the implied redefinition of common English language usage and words; see above. A group of ~90 men is either a mob, or an organized company of trained, and properly led, soldiers. Criminals without military training and real financing don't group together in such numbers because such a large group cannot hide from authorities. Dec 23, 2017 at 16:08

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