Let us say that the siege here was 100 percent successful. One of the answers pointed out that even if it did, the country wouldn't just ... die. So we need a reason why, excluding:

  • Religious reasons. In this part of the world where the war is, the religion is uniform.
  • God-king or the like. The country is a type of constitutional republic, while still with lots of absolutism elements

My thoughts so far have been:

  • Loss of an important trade center. If let's say, mercantilist politics are what keeps the country alive, the fall of the biggest trade center might be devastating, and the resistance would fall in a couple of weeks.
  • Internal power struggles. Let's say that the emperor/king was in the city, and captured. Power struggles for what is left might make the country fall quickly.

What other reasons could there be?


The economical and technological level is late-medieval/renaissance, the city populates are 50% educated, while only 10% in villages. Still the news can be spread quite quickly, the fall would be known to everyone in a matter of days.

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    $\begingroup$ Is this a pure medieval world or fantasy? $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Nov 17, 2014 at 20:56
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    $\begingroup$ Vichy France vs Free French might be an example of internal power splits. Who / what controls the military here? $\endgroup$
    – Twelfth
    Nov 17, 2014 at 20:57
  • $\begingroup$ @TimB It has several fantasy elements, such as an prophecy, but no magic will be involved in the aftermath, although roumors of the usage of ancient magic to win might exist. $\endgroup$
    – MikhailTal
    Nov 17, 2014 at 21:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Twelfth The winning military is controlled by a neighbouring state. The losing one has several generals, and the generals work under the king. The generals might work on their own after (Power Struggles) $\endgroup$
    – MikhailTal
    Nov 17, 2014 at 21:03
  • $\begingroup$ Isn't this idea generation? $\endgroup$
    – DonyorM
    Nov 18, 2014 at 2:46

9 Answers 9


Historically, collapse because of the loss of a capital (and for that matter, the existence of a capital) was an outgrowth of the concentration of power in an absolute monarchy.

In Europe, for most of the medieval period, a country's government was highly decentralized. Most of the decisions, record-keeping, and similar matters were done at the most local level possible, by the relevant noble. The closest thing to a "capital" was "the castle the king is currently residing in", or maybe "the city that the council of nobles traditionally meets in". Capturing the king might cause a collapse (though probably not -- remember, decentralization means the nobles can keep things running just fine, and the presence of an invading army provides a focal point to keep them from fighting each other); capturing a bunch of buildings, not so much.

As power became centralized, so did the bureaucracy of government; various other things such as finance and industry tended to follow this centralization. By the 1700s, taking an enemy capital meant capturing the people responsible for making decisions, as well as those responsible for the day-to-day operations of government, most of the country's financial infrastructure, and possibly much of its industry.

So, in answer to your question, how centralized is your country? Rapid collapse from the loss of a capital comes directly from loss of warfighting ability: if you can't pay the army, or can't keep it supplied with food, it's going to fall apart in short order. On the other hand, if the troops are paid by their ruling lord (who is probably also their commander), and are supplied by living off the land, loss of the capital can be merely a minor problem.

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    $\begingroup$ Usually, though, in history these "rapid collapses" happened when the stakes were low. You capture Vienna, peace occurs, a few border cities get traded and everything reverts to the status before the war. If the stakes get higher, nations tend to fight on to the last ditch. $\endgroup$
    – Oldcat
    Nov 18, 2014 at 20:04
  • $\begingroup$ Note that centralized governments, and capitals, are much older than the middle ages. In Mesopotamia, for instance, the earliest centralized city states date from around 4000 to 5000 BCE, and had merged into empires (ruled from and by a specific capital city) by 3000 BCE or so. $\endgroup$ Nov 19, 2014 at 13:27

In medieval times, the power structure was largely built on the basis of a protection racket. "I'll let you live on my land in exchange for taxes. Don't like it? I'll just as happily toss you off my land. What, it's your land? My sword arm disagrees."

The serfs were protected by the land-lord, who was protected by the duke, who was... until you got up to the king.

That whole house of cards is predicated on the belief that your liege can actually provide the protection they promise. If the king can't even protect their own seat of power, it casts that belief in quite a bit of doubt.

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    $\begingroup$ There is no feudal system, rather absolutism. $\endgroup$
    – MikhailTal
    Nov 18, 2014 at 7:56
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    $\begingroup$ @MikhailTal - whatever. Even today, a primary function of government is protecting its people. Power comes from the belief that the government can do that. If you'd prefer, consider that people's faith in currency is even more belief based. $\endgroup$
    – Telastyn
    Nov 18, 2014 at 12:31
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    $\begingroup$ "In medieval times" When did this racket end? $\endgroup$ Nov 18, 2014 at 20:00
  • $\begingroup$ This "protection racket" is a very inaccurate oversimplification about how the feudal system worked, and more often than not, occupying the capital didn't lead to the collapse of the country. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Nov 18, 2014 at 20:57
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    $\begingroup$ In medieval France, taxes were about 5-20% for Third Estate. Now it's around 60-70%. Who is racketing who again? $\endgroup$
    – Shautieh
    Aug 27, 2015 at 8:41

Lengthy explications about national morale and politics are applying modern thinking to a pre-modern situation.

If you're a medieval peasant, the king is a remote figure. He doesn't necessarily speak the same language as you. He certainly doesn't care if you are happy or unhappy, as long as you pay your taxes and don't cause trouble. If the king is replaced by another king, so what? Assuming the new ruler doesn't indulge in religious persecution, ruinous taxes, or wanton destruction, you will carry on as before. You're too busy trying to get the harvest in to worry about politics.

If a kingdom is large and decentralised enough to have autonomous local elites, they may well fight to protect their own privileges. For example, the Normans "conquered" England in 1066 but faced major rebellions in the north and east for several years afterwards.

Conversely, if a state is highly centralised, and the capital falls to an external invader, there is nobody left with the motive or capability to organise resistance. The king and his court are dead or exiled. Most of the royal bureaucrats are willing to serve the conqueror as they served his predecessor.

In this case, there tends to be a fairly smooth assumption of power by the new rulers. The sort of model you're looking for is a change of dynasty in medieval China or ancient Egypt. The replacement of the Ming by the Manchu in China is a good example.

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    $\begingroup$ Note that conquering the capital often didn't led to the collapse of the country, or it "collapsed" only for a short time. More often the country wasn't simply conquered and incorporated into the attacker's country: it resulted in peace treaties, ranging from minor border adjustments at best to becoming a vassal or a puppet at worst, but even the later usually didn't last forever. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Nov 18, 2014 at 21:06
  • $\begingroup$ True. Or if the conquered country has a much larger population than the conquerors (Hyskos vs. Egyptians, Huns vs. Romans, Manchus vs. Chinese) the conquerors will set themselves up as a new ruling elite, and may gradually assimilate into the conquered population. $\endgroup$ Nov 18, 2014 at 23:32
  • $\begingroup$ Indeed. And besieging the capital (or an important city) usually wasn't done for the purpose of conquering it and killing off the ruling elite: most often the purpose was to sue for peace from a more favorable position. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Nov 19, 2014 at 5:10

Your country is probably a constitutional monarchy like the UK except that the king has more power in your case. In this case, it is possible to relocate the parliament. If the king dies, it might be problematic but with a parliament, it's less likely to see the country fall into a civil war. Other elections can be held, someone else in the parliament that was not captured could hold the reigns until the election... Unless every elected official and everyone with political powers is now a prisoner. Then, since no one is a position to decide it would require the involvement of the civilians to decide what to do next. The army could seize power temporarily, just long enough to restore order. This require the population and the army to share strong democratic and republican values (not the US parties). If they don't believe in democracy, they won't restore the Republic as it was before.

Capturing the capital could ruin the economy or not depending on the size on the country. If you have other trade centres, the economy might not collapse but there will be difficult times ahead.

Lack of military coordination: The main problem is that the enemy was able to capture the capital quickly. This is a serious issue because the capital is supposed to be well defended and far from the dangerous frontier (usually). This might cause some serious panic and is making a counter offensive more difficult. The rest of the country might not be able to organize a counter offensive at all. If the other army was able to move so quickly, they might be able to do it again and no city is really safe. What about the military strategists/generals, are they still alive? Those still alive will have tough decisions to make to secure the country.

It becomes harder to communicate information and harder for people to move inside the country. Information travel more quickly than an army but it's not enough to prevent a complete collapse. Gathering an army large enough to confront the enemy might be a near impossible task. The time required to gather an army and the time required to coordinate an attack is something to keep in mind. See this example:

  • In 732, the Arabs started invading the Frankish kingdom. The Franks were able to stop them only in Poitiers. This is really far from the frontier and if the Franks had lost the battle, they would not have been able to gather another army. Sure, some lords would have resisted but most of the country would have fallen into the hands of the Arabs. I think your country would be in that situation.

From a historical POV:

  • The capital is the center. The king lives here, and probably most of the nascent bureaucracy, together with the church principals. Except for nobles (which during feudalism live in their own possessions), you have got most of the resorts of power.

  • The capital is big, economically and in size. Probably the king chose in the first place a town that was already important in its own (due to size, communications, trade route) so he could defend it easily (no sense in living a month of travel away from your principal base of power). After it became the capital, that importance was increased due to business brought by the court. You have lost an important source of income and recruits.

  • The capital is fortified. Since warfare is usual, when chosing the location it has been important for it to be a relatively easy to defend position. Maybe not an eagle's nest fortress (how would you feed the people then?), but definitely somewhere with access to water (to resist sieges), good walls, etc. In fact, if it did not have that, probably the town would not have become important enough to be chosen seat of government. Of course, after the king settles in, he has personal interest in improving the defenses.

  • War is already lost. From the previous points, it is clear that the defending forces should try a serious attempt at defending the capital city (the exception would be if the city if taken with treachery or a coup de main). So, either the defender could not raise an army big enough and had to flee, or a major battle was fought and lost before losing the city. The fall of the capital is not the reason of the defeat in the war, it is just the sign that the enemy cannot be resisted. To me, this would be the most important aspect.

  • War is lost, so what? Usually most wars do not imply annexation/anhilation(*) of the enemy. The invading nation was asking for some counties to which its sovereign claims he has right to, after the defeat is clear (due to previous point), surrendering is the lesser evil. You cede those territories, pay an indemnity, and wait until you can hit back at your enemy. Keeping the war going while the enemy army has your capital means your fields and palaces are sacked, the harvest is lost or robbed by the enemy and your people suffers famine.

(*) Even in the case that the invading army means to conquer the country, usually that means only removing the upper echelons. Once it is clear the war is lost, if the king does not agree to peace talks, then a string of defections will begin, with nobles ackowledging the new king in exchange of no territorial losses in their domains. It is in the king's own interest to offer peace while he still has something to bargain with.

On the other hand, I do not think that holding the king prisoner makes much of a difference. If the nobles want to keep fighting, they can just hold a Diet or parliament, chose a regent and continue. And, at the opposite, if they chose to rebel they do not need to wait for the war to be lost. The do not need to convince their serfs; the serfs will do what their direct lord tells them to do, as they have no relationship/loyalty to the king (unless he happens to be their feudal lord).

Also note, a 50% of educated people (even if only in cities) is a HUGE overrepresentation. Check for literacy rates in the XIX centuries. Check with the fact that, in modern England (s.XVI-XVII), a way to certify that you were a priest was showing that you knew to read

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    $\begingroup$ UPDATE: i just read your other questions. If your idea is a coup de main, forget it, it won't work. The attackers will become besieged themselves, with not enough manpower to handle the defenses and men loyal to the king at their back and ready to open gates/lower bridges. It just won't work. $\endgroup$
    – SJuan76
    Nov 18, 2014 at 1:10

If you are looking for reasons why the capture of a capital city might result in the total collapse of a nation, I would suggest arrogance.

  1. The God-Emperor is a bit out of touch with reality. He cannot stand the thought that he might have to relocate from his palace temple. He orders his generals to defend the city "to the last drop of blood". After all "almighty Throg, whose city this is, will surely defend it". He proclaims this decision to the people.
  2. Because of this, any member of the government, priesthood etc. (including generals) who leaves the city is considered a heretic and traitor. And since being a heretic and traitor carries the death penalty without the inconvenience of a trial, nobody in any kind of official capacity leaves
  3. Therefore, when the city falls, pretty much everyone who is anyone will be captured. That would be enough to shatter any normal nation, and with a highly centralized government (which, surprise, the God-Emperor favours), certainly reason for collapse.

This works just as well with the Emperor of All Known Space, with minor modifications.


There's a lot of factors here...the losing nation has 1 army, or several? The power now falls in the hands of the generals, and it's really their personalities and positions that determine the course of action. They will be forced to quick action however, the economic importance of the capitol likely means the army can no longer be financially supported, so sitting around waiting to be financially strangled is a poor option. There will also be a factor of how 'beneficial' the new rule is perceived...a general who views himself as dead under the new rule will likely take extreme steps, while one that feels a friendly reception from the new conquerors might be less inclined to enter a fight to the death and accept the new rulers. In either case, the outcome will be relatively quick simply because the generals can't support their army and will know it.

  1. If the remaining military is one large force and the general in charge is decently loyal to the former kings cause (or ambitious enough that he wants to become king) I can see a rapid assault on the now captured city, hoping to catch the defences still down or otherwise unprepared to defend. Might be one of those cases where the population of the city can rise up and defeat their new oppressors in a similar move as to what just captured the city. Failure to re-capture the capitol is likely the demise of this nation

Just an edit in - Unless the previous governing was horrid, the cities population is going to resist new rule. A city that 1000 elite troops can hide in is quite the population and there is no guarantee that the local populace (I assume atleast 20'000 people if 1000 are to enter unnoticed) won't readily join in an assault designed at freeing them from their conquerors)...even if they are better equipped, a small amount of soldiers attempting to subdue a much greater number on civilians while trying to resist a prolonged siege is not in a happy place. That said, the king/monarch deposed and the gov't brought to it's knees may still have the effect you are looking for.

  1. 'Balkanization'...might not be the appropriate term, but with many generals and a spread out power base (IE no hope of recapturing the capitol) may see the individual generals each vie for their own power/wealth either seeking their own power (and failing in the face of the conquering nation), becoming loyal to the new throne/ruler, or becoming a mercenary group forsaking their former lands.

  2. Assassins. Kill the remaining generals and who is left to rule?

  3. Bribes. Same as above, but instead of killing them, offer them something to make them want to be a part of the new regime...money and/or power works. A soldiers loyalty is most often to his general (take Caesar and his assault on Rome, soldiers were loyal to Caesar and their general)...were the general goes, they go.

  4. Ambition. This may follow the free french vs vichy french lines...a general in a relatively low rank, or an ambitious one that see's a greater position within the conquering nations ranks, can very readily drop their former loyalties for the opportunity for a greater future for themselves. Sometimes you don't need bribes, just their amibtion.


Consider road and canal networks. If the transportation was centered on the capital and there are few cross connections, the invader now has inner lines and the ability to defeat the remaining resistance in detail.

While the examples are more modern, consider the defeat of the Whites in the Russian civil war and the siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War.


What kind of capital are we talking about? Is it a be-all-and-end-all of society, like Rome? Or is it a religious center, like Jerusalem? Or is it a primarily political place, and is most pointedly NOT the financial capital of that society, like Washington D.C.?

The answer really depends on how important the capital is to the daily life and the continuous operation of a state. During the Paraguayan War, the "capital" was constantly on the move, as the state leaders and bureaucrats carried documents wherever the battle wasn't. Even though Paraguay was completely hopeless throughout the war against the much larger and more powerful alliance of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, they didn't give up fighting even as the situation had long turned from worse to terrible.

Another thing to consider: if a political capital is geographically and culturally distinct from a financial capital, the capture of the financial capital would do great damage to the defending state's ability to raise money for armies and to pay its debts. The financial elites may even find it beneficial to switch allegiances (if they are not slaughtered en masse, as the Mongols often did). So, for example (in a pre-digital age lacking instantaneous money transfer and an economic system rooted in gold) the decisive capture of New York could be fatal to the Union, without physically threatening Washington D.C.

Heck, New York isn't even the capital of its own state, and, saying this as an upstate New Yorker, it is clear as day that New York City is more important to the function and morale of the United States of America than all of the rest of the cities in New York State, combined.


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