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It's a common trope in both movies and computer games that ladders are used to climb walls when assaulting a castle.

But in each case it seems like it would be incredibly easy to defend - it appears that the defenders should just be able to use a pole to push the ladder away from the wall and send any attacker already on the ladder helplessly to the ground.

According to the Wikipedia article, ladders were "prominently used" and while the the article confirms my thoughts on the difficulty of using them to attack, it doesn't say how these difficulties were overcome.

So how did this work? e.g. how did they prevent the defenders from simply pushing down the ladder as they were climbing it, and how did they overcome defenders who would presumably have missiles and spears to point at seemingly easy targets who tried to climb one at a time?

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    Brett Deveraux may be helpful. Depends on when you're imagining things.
    – MCW
    Jan 18, 2022 at 16:35
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    If the base of the ladder is 3 meters away from the castle wall, you'd have to push the top of the sturdy ladder (with multiple 70kg people on it), 3 meters for it to reach vertical and begin toppling back, probably while being shot at. If the bad guys have dozens of ladders, some could succeed, at which point the 1st climber would keep the defenders from preventing further ascents. But stepping back, it's not like there was a defender per meter of the parapet, and I'd think that often a ladder assault would only happen after weakening the defenders with starvation. Jan 18, 2022 at 18:08
  • BTW, the last recorded instance of siege ladders being used to capture a walled city was in 1918 Mar 20, 2022 at 0:57

2 Answers 2

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Although illustrations in medieval manuscripts often take a creative approach to reality, they can give a good interpretation of how ladders were used during an escalade.

There are depictions of ladders being held against the walls in various ways, such as with armored hooks at the top or by bracing it at the bottom, and never seem to depict ladders being pushed or falling away from the walls. Soldiers could confidently survive the climb because of sheer numbers: a castle would have significantly fewer defenders than the army sieging it, leaving relatively few defenders per section of wall being attacked.

In several manuscripts, soldiers on the ground can be seen holding onto the ladders from underneath:

Manuscript image of soldiers climbing ladder, with one soldier bracing ladder at the bottom Manuscript image of soldiers climbing ladder, with one soldier bracing ladder at the bottom

In the bottom middle of first image, one soldier is underneath the ladder and facing away from the actual fight, and appears to just be bracing the ladder while other soldiers climb up. In the bottom right of the second image you can see a soldier holding a shield in one hand and a rung of the ladder in the other, and unlike the other soldiers he's depicted standing behind the ladder rather than trying to climb it. Pushing an empty ladder away from the wall or to the side is easy, pushing a ladder with several armored soldiers on it and several others bracing it certainly isn't.

Additionally, the top of the ladder could be hooked, and if the hooks reached up and over the parapet then the ladder would need to be lifted some amount before it could be pushed away from the wall. Ropes or poles could be attached to such a ladder to help soldiers add additional weight and leverage:

Manuscript image of hooked ladders leaning against a wall

Manuscript image of solders holding hooked ladder against a wall with ropes Manuscript image of solders holding hooked ladder against a wall with poles

The first image simply shows hooked ladders leaning against walls, however the second and third demonstrate how they could be held in place with extra support. The second shows two solders holding ropes attached to the armored top of a ladder, and the third image depicts some sort of flexible ladder held in place by poles.

It appears that ladders could also be secured in place by pegs at the base:

Manuscript image of soldier anchoring the base of a rope ladder in place with a peg Manuscript image of soldier anchoring the base of a ladder in place with a peg

The first image shows the end of a rope or chain ladder being staked into the ground, to prevent the defenders from simply pulling it up and over the wall. In the second image a solder in the bottom left is hammering a wedge into the base of the ladder (though I can't imagine how that particular wedge would help, securing the foundation of the ladder could certainly make it harder to push).

Finally, there's the question about how soldiers survived the climb to the top of the wall. Although the illustrations leave out a lot of details one thing is consistent in all of the above images: there are more soldiers attacking the walls than defending the walls.

During a siege every soldier was another mouth to feed, so garrisons were as small as they could be while still manning the castle defenses effectively. As an example of the force multiplication a castle can provide, in 1643 while residing at Corfe Castle in Southern England Lady Mary Bankes grew the garrison from an initial 5 defenders to 80, and they were able to hold off a sieging force of 500-600 with only a handful of casualties. In 1403, the entirety of Caernarfon Castle in Wales was successfully defended by a garrison of just 30-40.

So, the soldiers climbing these ladders wouldn't just be cut down one-by-one because the section of wall they were assaulting likely wouldn't have many defenders. Additionally, attacks would be supported by archers and assaults on other parts of the castle, making any individual ladder a survivable climb if you had numbers on your side:

Manuscript image of a few soldiers defending a castle against ladders, archers, and assault on a gatehouse


All of the images above come from a site called Manuscript Miniatures. As they say here they offer only images from manuscripts that have been in the public domain for centuries, so hopefully there are no copyright issues.

The manuscripts these images came from and links to the original images, in order of appearance:

BL Yates Thompson 12 Histoire d'Outremer, image here

BL Royal 20 C IV De Casibus Virorum Illustrium, image here

BL Royal 10 E IV Decretals of Gregory IX, image here

Besançon BM MS.1360 Bellifortis of Konrad Kyeser, image here

ONB Cod. 3062 Kreigsbuch, image here and here

Christ Church MS 92 De Nobilitatibus, Sapientiis, et Prudentiis Regum, image here

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  • +1, nice answer :) I would add about "how" siege ladders were used to attack that they were used to access small parts of the castle, with fast transportation, while siege towers could conduct an heavy assault and transport missile units Jan 22, 2022 at 17:11
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how did they prevent the defenders from simply pushing down the ladder as they were climbing it

  1. the ladder does not necessarily reach all the way to the top of the rampart, so, to reach it, defenders would have to get out from the protection of the rampart and become vulnerable to the attackers' missiles.

  2. the Wikipedia article you refer to has a picture of a Chinese mobile scaling ladder. it is far too heavy to be pushed away by hand.

how did they overcome defenders who would presumably have missiles and spears to point at seemingly easy targets who tried to climb one at a time

a single ladder would not work, but the Wikipedia states quite explicitly

Escalade was, in essence, an attempt to overwhelm defenders in a direct assault rather than sit through a protracted siege.

I.e., there would probably be a ladder for each defender, in which case the odds are greatly in favor of the attackers as they only need to make a single attacker to survive for more than a few seconds.

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