New Information on Elizabethan Naval Artillery



It was previously thought that when Elizabeth I ascended the throne in 1558, the technology of naval gunnery had not advanced a great deal from that of the reign of Henry VIII. We know that at the beginning of Henry´s reign, the English fleet was forced to retreat from heavily armed French galleys, and we deduce that the English ships were at a disadvantage in artillery. New evidence has come to light which shows that the fighting capacity of Queen Elizabeth´s navy was better than expected, and for an unexpected reason.


The Mary Rose was at one point the flagship of Henry´s fleet and the pride of the navy. She was named after Henry´s sister together with the Tudor rose emblem. Launched in 1511, this ultra-modern ship was renowned for her sailing ability and fought successfully at Brest in 1512. There are records of her visit to Newcastle in 1513 and then in 1514 in actions at Boulogne and Cherbourg and in June 1520 she escorted the king on his way to the Field of the Cloth of Gold in northern France. She was laid up in 1525 in Deptford for caulking, being described as 14 years old and weighing 600 tons. Mary Rose underwent a major refit in 1528 at Portsmouth; and again in 1536. Mary Rose sank in Portsmouth harbour during the Battle of the Solent against the French fleet (19 July 1545).


The Mary Rose was raised from the mud of Portsmouth harbour and has since presented a puzzle to historians because she carried a bewildering variety of cannon - many designed for land warfare. They were all of different shapes and sizes, fired different shot at different rates with different characteristics. The probable reason why ships had used guns of differing calibres is because they had been sourced with different gunfounders. Gun manufacturers have always created different designs and calibres to ensure plentiful after sales in ammunition and spares. The logistical problems presented by the use of a variety of different guns on the same ship would have been tremendous and would have seriously reduced the effective fighting capacity of the ship. On the other hand, it is known that during Elizabeth's reign, English sailors and gunners became greatly feared and even Philip II of Spain gave warning of the deadly English artillery. But no-one has ever been able to show clearly how this change in reputation came about.


New research follows the discovery of the wreck of an Elizabethan fighting ship off Alderney in the Channel Islands. The wreck is thought to date from around 1592, just four years after the Spanish Armada had been defeated. There is a very good chance that this ship was in action against the Armada and could have contributed to the defeat of the Spanish fleet. The ship was a pinnace, a small ship carrying 12 guns, two of which have been recovered already. What is remarkable is that all 12 guns were of a uniform shape and size, and all firing the same size shot. This type of standardisation is of course a basic concept in the field of military logistics for ease of storage and re-supply. It is also considered that the idea of employing only one type of gun on such a ship was revolutionary, and that this new method of operating might have given Elizabeth´s fleet a major advantage.


We do not at present know what might have led to Elizabethan commanders to adopt a standard for the guns of any one ship. It does not take much imagination to understand that a ship with guns of a standard format which are easier to serve would have a higher rate of fire than a ship with guns of a non-standard format And it may be that the commanders of Queen Elizabeth´s navy, having learned that it was more efficient to have only one type of cannon on any one ship, were considered by others to be expert in artillery, and therefore were feared by the navies of other nations.