How to dilapidate a castle

When I came across the origin of the word dilapidate I was quite excited. There seemed to be the possibility of a great word of the week story behind it. However the links between the word’s origins and its current use are not clear.  There is no corroborated story about the development of the word. So … I am going to recount a great piece of medieval history to explain what might have been (or perhaps should have been) the story of dilapidate.

Back in the very early 14th century King Edward I of England decided he would invade Scotland. He became known as Scottorum Malleus, the Hammer of the Scots for reasons we will soon get to. So thus in 1296, began what became known as the Wars of Scottish Independence. During the war Edward besieged Stirling Castle in what was one of the great sieges of medieval history.

Stirling Castle takes advantage of a high crag, Castle Hill, surrounded on three sides by steep cliffs, which gives it a strong defensive position. Its location, guarding the main crossing of the River Forth, made it an important strategic fortification in Scotland.

In April 1304, after the war had been raging for eight years, Stirling Castle was the last castle still in Scottish hands. Edward arrived to take the castle and told the commander, Sir William Oliphant, to give up or to die. Oliphant refused to surrender and Edward, it seems, took the opportunity to bring out his “heavy guns” so to speak.

Edward with what was a huge cheque-book had his engineers build what can only be compared to, in today’s terms, a massive heavy artillery battery. He had them construct one of the largest collections of trebuchets (q.v.) the world had ever seen. Oak and beech forests were cut down and lead removed from all the church roofs in the region to construct them.

The trebuchet was a great war engine. It could hurl large boulders or lead balls (up to 1000 kilograms in weight but more often 50-100 kg) over long distances (300 metres or more). It uses a heavy counterweight often 100 times the weight of the boulder (hence the need for lead) to swing a long arm that releases the boulder at great speed. They were  the largest of all siege engines created in mediaeval warfare.

Edward, who seemed to be making a point, rather than from need, built a dozen large trebuchets. He also built one  that is believed to be the biggest ever constructed. The large trebuchets were named after the great lords of England and Europe, with names such as Gloucester, Lincoln, Belfry, Segrave, Toulemonde, but the largest of all was known as Ludgar. Ludgar was the Anglo-Saxon version of its aristocratic name, Loup-de-guerre, Norman French for wolf-of-war.

As each member of the battery of trebuchets were completed (they were built in position) they began to hurl their projectiles at Stirling Castle. The barrage went on for several months but to no avail. The besieged castle had deep cellars and thick walls.

In July 1304, Ludgar (or the War Wolf) was ready. Such was its fame that people from all over Britain came to watch its deployment. We can only imagine Edward’s excitement in being able to unleash what was probably the greatest siege engine of all time. We can also imagine the despair of the Scottish in the castle, and it is not surprising, therefore, that once they saw that Ludgar was ready they promptly surrendered.

But Edward was not going to abandon this marvellous toy untested. He did not accept the surrender and sent 30 of the Scots back into Stirling Castle to experience the punishment of Ludgar.

The first stone Ludgar hurled broke down one of the curtain walls of the castle. The following barrage reduced many of the castle buildings to ruins. It was a great success. Stirling Castle was smashed to pieces. The castle looked dilapidated and sure enough it was.

Here we are at the point of the story—being dilapidated, when referring to a building or an object, means in a state of disrepair or ruin as a result of age or neglect. But dilapidate gets its meaning “to bring a building to ruin,” from Latin dilapidare which originally meant “to throw stones, scatter like stones”.

So a dilapidated castle is one that has a neglected look. It appears to be falling down like a building that has had large stones thrown at it, perhaps by the greatest of all war machines, Ludgar the War Wolf, built by the Hammer of the Scots. OK its the best I could do!