Do you enjoy flying shows? I thought so. Because of that, I included an aerial performance for the reader’s entertainment midway through this novel set in 12th century England. “What,” you say, “How can you have an air show without planes? I thought this was historical fiction, not science fiction.”
Yes, I understand. But King Henry II, an inventive monarch, simply made some changes to the use of a contemporary weapon, the trebuchet, introduced into Europe during the 1100s, and thus, was able to provide a diversion in the skies to his weary troops following the Battle of Boulton.
The trebuchet (please pronounce the final t), is a kind of catapult that has been around for a long time. The first recorded use of this siege weapon was in 4th century BC China. By the 6th century AD, it appeared in the Eastern Mediterranean and was used by the Greeks, Byzantines and Persians long before the northern Europeans knew anything about it.
Because the trebuchet is a kind of catapult, it was used to fling heavy inanimate objects into cities, castles and other population centers in order to subjugate their inhabitants. There are various kinds of trebuchets, but to differentiate, I would have to be literate in physics, and that’s not happening.
King Henry’s contribution to the development of this weapon was his choice of ammunition. You could look at it as a certain kind of economy; once you have a dead knight or spearman, you can offer the departed soul a second opportunity to sacrifice for one’s king and country. “The Boulton skies have never beheld such a sight, bodies flying through the air, soaring like eagles, landing like stricken forest animals in the middle of the castle courtyards, vegetable patches, flower gardens, stable areas and outer entertainment grounds.” (Page 138)
Archbishop Thomas Becket was not amused. On Page 142, Henry reads a letter from his former friend to his commanders while they are enjoying a bottle of victory wine: “Dear King Henry, I thought you would return to your royal duties before this, but I understand that you are having too much fun tossing smelly bodies over the Boulton parapets. What a grown-up diversion!”
Fast-forward to the modern era. According to Google, you can build your own trebuchet, using a combination of mechanical design and engineering skills. The magazine Scientific American has some construction pointers. YouTube also offers how-to instructions. Again, using Google as my source, there are no laws currently prohibiting the construction of a home-made trebuchet. Go for it!
Likewise, there are current worthwhile uses for trebuchets. They serve as teaching tools in high school and college physics classes. I must have been absent for that lesson. Engineering schools use the trebuchet as a recruiting tool to interest young people in an engineering career.
The largest known trebuchet, however, was built during the reign of King Edward I of England (1272-1307) to aid this monarch in quelling the Scots during the Scottish Wars of Independence. Named the Warwolf, this giant catapult (estimated to have been somewhere between 300 and 400 feet tall) was known to have the heft to fling boulders weighing up to 298 pounds for a distance of 660 feet; the speed was approximately 120 MPH. One good hit could take down a whole section of a castle’s outer wall.
Back to current times: In addition to offering building instructions, YouTube also presents some fascinating trebuchet re-enactment entertainment. One of my favorites is watching an automobile fly through the air, then a piano. The final crowd pleaser is the firing of an explosive drum. Don’t try this at home.