Soon after beginning my PhD research into the development of early English gunpowder weapons, I started work at the Westgate Museum in Winchester. The museum is one of two surviving medieval gates to the city and has two fine late fourteenth century gun ports. On my first day, whilst being trained by another member of staff, I was informed, in no uncertain terms, that medieval guns were more dangerous to their users than to their enemies. The evidence cited was an image of a manuscript miniature on a placard providing information on the gun ports. This shows a man firing a pole mounted handgun on a stand. Admittedly, it does look, by our standards, a rather primitive weapon, and rather different to the modern conception of a firearm. Yet this argument does not stand up to scrutiny.
The obvious response is why were these weapons used if they were so lethal to their operators? Did people in the Middle Ages have a death wish? Were they unaware of the danger of using gunpowder? No, is the answer. Guns were used precisely because they were effective weapons of war. Yes, accidents did happen, but they only infrequently caused deaths and injuries to their users.
So where does this idea come from? I think it stems from two misconceptions.
Firstly, the idea that guns are a modern invention and that people in the Middle Ages were technologically inept. Some people are even surprised to learn that guns were being used in Europe in the early 1300s, yet alone that they were frequently used in siege warfare by the end of the century. Technological change did take place in medieval Europe, albeit at a far slower rate than in the modern era.
Secondly, a small number of high-profile accidents, are often cited. The most famous of these is James II of Scotland, who was mortally wounded at the siege of Roxburgh Castle in 1460, when a large Flemish gun he was inspecting misfired. The force of the explosion caused part of the gun’s wooden carriage, known as a stock, to break apart, with a shard wedging itself into the unfortunate monarch. This was a very rare and untypical event, as most commanders, however fond of artillery, had the good sense to stay safely out of harm’s way when they were being fired. One contemporary account even stresses the king’s poor judgement in standing so close to the gun whilst it was being operated. No doubt he was warned of the dangers beforehand, but it must have been hard for any gunner, or anybody else for that matter, to tell a king what to do!
Gunmakers, aware of the potential for mishaps, also attempted to improve the reliability of their weapons. Guns were test fired or ‘proved’ to ensure that they were safe to use, with Mile End, just outside London, frequently used for testing royal guns in England. Occasionally, these weapons blew up under the strain of firing, such as occurred to a large bronze gun test fired in the presence of Edward IV in 1482 (Edward had the good sense to remain at a distance!). However, if anything, this demonstrates the prudence of testing guns prior to taking them with you on campaign. Research on surviving museum pieces from the period, also reveal that wrought iron barrels and gun chambers were, at least sometimes, reinforced after construction.
Evidence we have from military campaigns shows that guns could be kept in operation for sustained periods of time. This can be seen from the accounts of John Hampton, master of the ordnance for Henry VI, for the so-called ‘Coronation’ expedition to northern France. These list some sixty guns that were used during the campaigns of 1430-2, of which about a third were no longer usable by the end, but the others, despite having seen heavy action in the interim, remained serviceable.
Financial records also reveal that repairs were frequently carried out to wrought iron guns (the casting process meant that bronze guns had to be melted down and recast). This shows that even when things did go wrong, the damage caused was rarely too severe to prevent them being fixed.
Inventories from the treasurers of Calais, an enclave of territory held by the English from 1347-1558, show that some guns remained in use for many years. This can be seen with the Dame Anable, first mentioned in the accounts for 1434-6, which was still present more than fifty years later in 1488 (the last surviving set of accounts for the fifteenth century)
This was a society in which accidents frequently happened, long before the days of health and safety. People drowned in rivers, were thrown from horses, fell from heights, and died in all manner of other ways. In this context, gunpowder weapons were unlikely to have been seen as particularly lethal to use.
If anything, given that the relatively basic conditions (by modern standards) in which these weapons were constructed, such as by smiths in forges, or founders in bell foundries, it is perhaps surprising that guns did not misfire more often!
Thank you for reading this post. If you want to find out more about the topic then I would suggest checking out my book, Royal and Urban Gunpowder Weapons in Late Medieval England (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2019)
Early fifteenth century image from the Bellifortis by Konrad Kyeser, sourced from Wikipedia and in the Public Domain