Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Destruction, Part 4: Keep Failing

Thus we see how quick the children of men do forget the Lord their God, yea, how quick to do iniquity and to be led away by the Evil One. Yea, and we also see the great wickedness one very wicked man can cause to take place among the children of men. Yea, we see that Amalickiah, because he was a man of cunning devices and a man of many flattering words, that he led away the hearts of many people to do wickedly, yea, and to seek to destroy the church of God, and to destroy the foundation of liberty which God had granted unto them, or which blessing God had sent upon the face of the land for the righteous’ sake. 

—Alma 21:6 RE

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 |Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

A properly constructed castle is a formidable advantage in medieval warfare. With massive stone walls up to 12 feet thick at the base, towers, ramparts, moat, drawbridge, embattlements and protections for numerous defenders, the strongest of castles were so impenetrable that few were daring—or foolish—enough to attempt an attack.

England’s King John was one such daring fool. The brother of the popular King Richard I, John was by all accounts a terrible king, unfit for the business of ruling. Under his reign, rampant inflation sent prices soaring, while he taxed his subjects frequently and lavishly to support his wars. His awful political instincts, terrible personality, mistreatment of nobles, and habit of sleeping with the wives of his barons ultimately led to a revolt of the nobility against the king, which was only resolved when John was forced to sign the Magna Carta. 

No, actually, that didn’t really resolve anything at all, as John immediately ran to the Pope to have the Magna Carta condemned and both sides quickly broke the terms of the truce. As rebellion grew in London, rebel baron William d'Aubigny gathered knights and other nobles and took possession of the strategically important Rochester Castle, which controlled access between the European continent and London from the Southeast of England. 

King John, who had been preparing for war, assembled a powerful, mostly non-English army several thousand strong, ample supplies and weapons, five massive siege engines, and support of both the church and certain nobles. After first taking the precaution of having the rebels excommunicated, he then brought his army to Rochester on October 13, 1215 and laid siege to the mighty castle. 

The rebels, on the other hand, had at most a couple hundred men, and likely some local villagers who sought shelter in the castle walls. They were not well supplied and provisioned and apparently hadn’t thought things through very well for the long term. Pinning their hopes on a successful rebellion, they intended to hold out in the castle until King John was deposed or killed. Naturally, they refused to surrender to King John, placing their faith in the protection of the mighty castle. 

Most medieval castles consisted of an outer wall, called a curtain wall, enclosing the castle grounds, then an inner fortress called the keep, where defenders could remain protected as long as their food and weapons held out. The town of Rochester was also enclosed by a city wall, which was naturally the first to fall. 

Well “fall” might not be the correct word, because the city gates were left practically undefended. John’s army easily entered the city and set up their siege of the castle, using the adjacent cathedral as a base of operations (and also as a horse stable, which won John no points with the church.)

The initial attack consisted of the typical bombardment of the outer “curtain” wall with massive stones hurled by the siege engines, together with arrows, crossbow bolts, and flaming projectiles launched over the walls to kill as many defenders as possible. John’s army was large enough that the attackers could work in shifts, keeping up the attack around the clock. But the mighty walls easily withstood the stones, and the projectiles were random and limited in effect. So John called in his secret weapon: miners. 

Along with knights, archers, crossbowmen, infantry, engineers, and support personnel, John’s army also included 13 miners, or “sappers” from the Forest of Dean, specifically recruited and well paid for their unique skills. The miners set to work digging tunnels (called “saps”) under the wall, and in short order the wall was breached and the attackers gained access to the castle courtyard, or “bailey” while the defenders retreated to the keep. 

The imposing keep rose over 100 feet high, with 3 stories and a basement, mighty towers at all four corners, and ample locations for defenders to fire arrows, crossbows, hurl stones, pour burning oil, and otherwise repel attackers. As before, continual bombardment by the siege engines had no effect on the walls, so John turned again to his miners. They set to work and dug a sap under the Southeast corner of the keep, removing the foundations of the tower and setting wooden supports in place of the stones they removed. John then famously sent the following order to London: “Send to us with all speed by day and night forty of the fattest pigs of the sort least good for eating to bring fire beneath the tower.” Upon arrival, the pigs were immediately slaughtered for their fat.

The miners filled the tunnel with timbers, brush, kindling and pig fat, then set it all on fire. The wooden supports under the tower burned away, and the massive tower fell in a mighty crash. Thousands of tons of rock tumbled to the earth, creating a gaping breach through which the attackers stormed into the keep. The defenders held out a few more days in the other half of the keep, which was protected from invaders by a massive stone wall, but ultimately surrendered when their food ran out and they had eaten all their horses. 

It took King John’s mighty army nearly two months to breach the castle keep, and even then they only won by starving out the rebels. Of the siege, the Barnwell chronicler wrote “No one alive can remember a siege so fiercely pressed and so manfully resisted” and that, after it, “There were few who would put their trust in castles.”

From this vignette we can learn the origins and uses of a couple of words we ought to consider. 

First, the process of mining under the foundations of a wall or tower is known as “undermining,” meaning quite literally what it says. It doesn’t matter how mighty the wall or how tall the tower. Once the foundation has been undermined, height and mass become liabilities rather than assets. Without a foundation, even the mightiest fortress will fall. 

Second, the older term for this process, originating from old French and still in use during John’s siege of Rochester is “sapping.” The sappers dug a sap under the foundation to cause its fall. As any architect can tell you, the strength of any building starts with its foundation, and if that foundation is compromised, the structure’s strength has been “sapped” and it will fall. 

Finally, we should note that when undermined, the wall, tower, turret or building is entirely intact up until the moment it falls. Its compromised and failing foundation is not visible, so to all appearances the defenses are intact, the walls are invincible, and the stones and arrows will have no effect. Though the castle has already been destroyed, its occupants don’t know it. The garrison inside the keep can hurl insults, mock the attackers, even taunt them a second time, with misplaced faith in their walls of stone and false security that harm cannot reach them. Then, at some point, a single spark will change everything and the structure will fall with amazing speed.

As for King John—still regarded to this day as the worst king England ever knew, and that’s really saying something—he died of dysentery the following year at age 49, having never regained his ancestral lands, solidified his rule or put down the rebellion. Though he defeated one of the mightiest stone fortresses in England, his own life ultimately ended in defeat. 

On the topic of fortresses, I defer to Martin Luther:

A mighty fortress is our God,

A bulwark never failing:
Our helper He, amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work his woe;
His craft and power are great,
And armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side,
The Man of God's own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth is his name,
From age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

(Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, 1527, as translated by Frederic Henry Hedge)

Now, having laid this—ahem—foundation, we’ll shortly return to Roger Williams, Nephite Signposts and Destruction. More to come. 

And now, my sons, remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation, that when the Devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless woe because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build, they cannot fall. 

—Helaman 2:17 RE


  1. This last post was a very nice review of the origins of the words “undermine” and “sapping”. I had wrongly assumed you were going to look at the origin of the word “Keep”, as in “keep my commandments” or “when men should keep all my commandments, Zion should again come on the earth” (Gen 5:22).

    “Keep”, as you pointed out, is the strongest or central tower of a castle. The word has many definitions. Whether used as a noun or verb “keep” has a military or defense origin.
    The word “keep” in Greek used in John 14:15 is τηρέω (téreó) which means “to watch over, to guard”, making sense of this June 7, 2010, blog post.

    “Christ’s words If you love me, keep my commandments appear several times in the Gospel of John. The words could be better translated to mean: “If you love me, act as a sentinel (or guard), ready to receive further instructions from me.”


    1. Great application, McKay. The Hebrew term is very similar in meaning and use. Thank you for sharing this!

  2. Without a sure foundation of testimony in God, we have no protection from the tactics of the adversary. I love your comparison and the Hymn you included.

  3. "even taunt them a second time"

    This only applies to the French.

    1. I was hoping someone would catch that reference. Now go and boil your bottom, son of a silly person.

      (For those who are wondering, inside jokes from the French Castle scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.)

  4. The last article was my favourite though, who agrees? Could we please have some more on the 2030 agenda?


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