Archeologists uncover 800-year-old stone catapult shots used in English Civil War

The projectiles were hurled towards and from Kenilworth Castle during a six-month siege in 1266.
eight catapult stones on grass
Eight stone catapult shots dating back to the 13th century that were uncovered at Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire. They range from 2.2 pounds up to 231 pounds. English Heritage

Earlier this month, archaeologists in England uncovered eight perfectly preserved catapult shots dating back to 1266. The stone spheres are of varying sizes, with the smallest only 2.2 pounds and the largest at 231 pounds. The hard projectiles were discovered during an accessibility project at Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire, where they would have likely been fired from a catapult during England’s civil war in the 13th century.

“Once the project contractors had found one catapult shot, our archaeologist on site was then able to uncover a further seven as the works around the castle progressed,” Cathy Coutts, Principal Historic Buildings Officer at Archaeology Warwickshire, said in a statement. “As these shots were found pretty much where they would have fallen, we’ve been able to extrapolate where the siege camps could have been located around the castle, which has been exciting to consider.”

two workers in orange vests carry a large stone on a dolly in front of a medieval castle
A crew at Kenilworth Castle with one of eight catapult shots. CREDIT: English Heritage.

The Siege

From June 25 until December 13, 1266, Kenilworth Castle was under constant attack. This 172-day siege was one of the most significant military contests of King Henry III’s reign and all of medieval English history. 

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In the mid-1260s, a conflict between Henry III and his nobles escalated into a full out civil war. The king’s brother-in-law Simon de Montfort was the leader of the rebels, who had custody of Kenilworth Castle.

In August 1265, Montfort was killed during the Battle of Evesham. His supporters continued to use Kenilworth as a base. In March 1266, the rebels returned Henry’s messenger’s severed hand to him to send a message. Henry then attempted to reclaim the stronghold, which had once belonged to the crown.   

an illustration showing stones being catapulted at castle walls in 1266
In this 14th-century illustration, stone balls are being thrown at a castle by a simple siege engine operated by a counterpoise, like the larger trebuchets used at Kenilworth in 1266. Some of the stone balls thrown by the siege engines at Kenilworth, weighing up to 140 kilos, were found by archaeologists in the 1960s. CREDIT: © British Library Board (Royal 16 G.VI fol 388/English Heritage).

Henry III used a massive arsenal during his attacks on the 14-foot thick walls of Kenilworth Castle. Historians estimate the king had 60,000 crossbow bolts and nine siege engines, including catapults. The rebels were also equipped with similar siege engines and also lobbed stone projectiles from the castle walls. 

After close to six months of siege, the rebels fell to disease and starvation. They surrendered Kenilworth Castle and Henry gave it to his son, Edmund, Earl of Lancaster.

A lucky find

The newly discovered stones were found outside the west castle walls, near the ground’s surface. 

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“We were able to immediately link these findings to the 1266 siege because of similar finds recovered during an archaeological excavation of Kenilworth Castle in the 1960s,” English Heritage’s Properties Historian Will Wyeth said in a statement. “However, it’s not every day we get lucky enough to stumble across historical remains like this by chance. Imagine the surprise of the team working on improving the pathways around the site when they unearthed these impressive stone projectiles that are nearly 800 years old!”

These stones could have caused some serious damage when fired. According to Wyeth, records indicate that one of Henry III’s wooden siege towers with about 200 crossbowmen was destroyed by a single well-aimed missile.