Royal and Urban Gunpowder Weapons in Late Medieval England

Dan Spencer, Royal and Urban Gunpowder Weapons in Late Medieval England (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2019)

Now that my book has been out for a few months, I feel the time is right for me to provide an overview of its contents in case anybody is curious.

The project was inspired, as so many others are, by a large gap in the literature. Gunpowder weapons have long been recognised as playing a key role in transforming warfare, but surprisingly there has been no previous major study of the English experience of this technology in the Middle Ages. Certain aspects have been examined, such as the firearms of the English Crown in the fourteenth century by T. F. Tout, and the Calais garrison by David Grummitt, but it has on the whole been neglected, particularly for the fifteenth century.

This neglect is partly due to the nature of the surviving sources. Many records do not survive, so building up an accurate picture over a long period involves trawling through a very large number of documents to find snippets of information. I ended up visiting over twenty archives throughout England (although most of my research trips were to The National Archives) – with financial accounts proving to be by far the most useful type of source.

I decided to focus my research on two areas for which many records survive, royal and urban gunpowder weapons, and to examine their development over a long period of time. I.e. from when the technology was first adopted in England (c.1327) to the end of the fifteenth century. My two main research questions were firstly to examine how the technology developed over time, and secondly, what were the factors responsible for these changes.

The book has eight chapters divided unevenly into three parts: part one looks at royal guns over chapters 1-5, part two looks at urban guns over chapters 6-7, and finally part three analyses the guns themselves in chapter 8. There are also extensive appendices, with charts, tables, extracts from original sources, and (what I am most proud of) appendix J, which is a detailed guide to the different types of guns – ranging from bombards to trestle guns.

Chapter one provides a chronological overview that explores the major changes that took place, including the development of new gun types and the administration of the ordnance, as well as their usage in military campaigns. Most of the kings I looked at were very much into artillery. Henry V, Edward IV and Henry VII, in particular, went to great efforts to invest in guns and to hire foreign gunners. Perhaps the most striking example though is Henry IV, who is recorded as having personally designed a large gun.

Chapter two is a case study that examines the two best documented expeditions of the fifteenth century. The ‘Coronation Expedition’ of 1430-2 (in France) and the two expeditions of 1497 (against the Scots and Cornish rebels). Significant changes took place in the interim: including the types of guns used, how they were constructed, quantities of gunpowder used, ammunition, and how they were transported.

Chapter three explores the development of guns on ships, with my research identifying the reign of Edward IV as being a crucial period, which saw a massive rise in the numbers of guns used in naval warfare. For instance, Edward’s ship the Caricorn (39) had more guns in 1473 than had Henry V’s entire fleet of royal vessels in 1422 (38).

Chapter four looks at the Calais garrison. This is the longest chapter due to the huge amount of surviving evidence. I discovered that the treasurer’s accounts survive in an almost unbroken run from 1375-1485, meaning I could trace the total number of guns over a 110-year period! The best source (perhaps my favourite overall) was a series of surviving ‘views’ from the 1470s & 1480s that give the exact types and locations of guns throughout the territory, e.g. in individual bulwarks, gates, towers, walls etc – which is remarkably detailed for the period.

Chapter five looks at gunpowder weapons in royal castles. The first real application for guns in England was their deployment to royal castles in the 1370s and 1380s. Evidence for the fifteenth century is far more patchy but they continued to be furnished with these weapons. My most interesting finding is that at least some of their fortifications were adapted to withstand artillery in the second half of the fifteenth century, including at previously unknown castles such as Kenilworth and Sandwich – with bulwarks and gun towers etc.

Chapter six explores the experience of English towns in the adoption and use of guns, as well as the role of royal policy. The best evidence I found was for coastal towns in the south-east of England, such as Dover and Sandwich in Kent, but other places include York, Dartmouth, and Launceston. There was a marked rise in the adoption of this technology from 1450 onwards, in response to the threat of French raiding, with towns also investing in artillery fortifications such as bulwarks.

Chapter seven is a case study looking at the experience of Southampton in Hampshire. This is by far the best documented town for this topic, whose inhabitants invested substantially in guns and artillery fortifications throughout the fifteenth century.

Chapter eight focuses on the guns themselves to assess how gun weapons were constructed, repaired, operated and transported.

In brief, my conclusions are that although change was gradual and accumulative there were major periods of change in the early 1400s, 1450s, and 1490s. Royal policy played a major role in the adoption of gunpowder weapons, with kings actively encouraging towns to invest heavily in these weapons. This allowed the English, for most of the period, to keep pace with their main continental rivals.

Hopefully some of you have found this summary interesting. I was surprised at just how much material I ended discovering for this book and how rich a topic it proved to be. If you have any feedback or questions then be sure to leave them in the comments section below.

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