Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Wars of the Roses: Artillery

By the start of the WARS OF THE ROSES in the late 1450s, artillery had been in use in northern Europe for over a century, and most civil war armies included at least a small artillery force.

The pace of advancement in European gun technology had quickened in the 1370s, when the small, inaccurate, and unreliable artillery used early in the HUNDRED YEARS WAR gave way to larger, more powerful weapons able to breach the high stone walls of towns and castles. Although the new artillery could still be unpredictable-JAMES II of SCOTLAND was killed in 1460 when one of his siege cannons exploded-the English began using such guns with great effect in WALES and on the Scottish border in the early fifteenth century. The new guns came in many types and sizes, ranging from massive bombards, which could batter down walls with huge balls of stone or iron, through a variety of intermediate-sized serpentines, orgues, and ribaudequins, to the smaller culverins, which could be fired from tripods or used as handguns. Fifteenth-century cannon were made of iron or bronze, although cast bronze weapons were most common because techniques for casting iron did not reach a similar level of expertise until the late sixteenth century. Because weapons were nonstandard and each large gun fired projectiles made especially for it, the gun makers usually also served as gunners. 

This uniqueness in projectile size caused individual large guns to be given their own names, such as Mons Meg, now in Edinburgh Castle, a 14,000-pound cannon with a caliber of twenty inches.
Firing a fifteenth-century artillery piece was a slow and difficult process. The larger siege guns threw stone and iron projectiles that could weigh hundreds of pounds. To fire the weapon, the gunner used a firing iron-an iron bar heated in a pan of charcoal that was kept hot and near at hand. Because one pound of powder was required to throw nine pounds of shot, and because the barrel had to be washed with a mixture of water and vinegar after every firing, ten shots per hour was considered a good rate of fire. During the Wars of the Roses, this slow rate meant that cannon were used mainly on the eve or at the start of a battle, firing one volley at the enemy before the hand-to-hand combat commenced. During the night before the Battle of BARNET, Richard NEVILLE, earl of Warwick, fired his cannon continuously, hoping to create fear and disorder in the Yorkist ranks; however, Warwick was unaware of how close the enemy was and his guns overshot. To keep Warwick from learning his error, EDWARD IV ordered his own guns to refrain from revealing their position by returning fire. A few weeks later at the Battle of TEWKESBURY, Edward drew the Lancastrians out of an excellent defensive position with an opening artillery salvo.

Nonetheless, artillery pieces were much less of a factor in the Wars of the Roses than they were in contemporary campaigns on the continent. Able to fire a ball about 2,000 to 2,500 paces, cannon could be used with devastating effect against massed immobile troop concentrations, such as at river crossings, or against town or castle walls during a siege, situations where the slow rate of fire did not matter. But the art of fortification was less advanced in England than elsewhere, and the English civil wars were therefore characterized by pitched battles, not by sieges; during the Wars of the Roses, the enemy's towns or castles usually surrendered soon after the enemy's field armies had been defeated.
Still, both sides recognized the growing importance of artillery and took measures to ensure a good supply of guns. Since about 1415, the English Crown had appointed a master of ordnance to supervise the king's artillery. In 1456, John Judde, a LONDON merchant, won appointment to the post by offering to supply

HENRY VI with guns and powder at his own expense. Judde's ambitious program of collecting and manufacturing guns for the Lancastrians so alarmed the Yorkists that they ambushed and killed him in June 1460 as he was supervising delivery of a new shipment of weapons. Edward IV also appreciated the importance of artillery, and his Masters of Ordnance (like John Wode, who held office from 1463 to 1477) were trusted members of the royal household. Edward was said to frequently inspect his ordnance, and his campaigns usually included a sizable artillery train. Thus, by HENRY VII's reign, the English Crown housed a large and growing collection of ordnance in the TOWER OF LONDON.

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