Tuesday, June 16, 2015


After countless unsuccessful experiments, lethal accidents and ineffective trials, firearms research and techniques gradually improved, and chroniclers report many types of guns—mainly used in siege warfare—with numerous names such as veuglaire, pot-de-fer, bombard, vasii, petara and so on. In the second half of the 14th century, firearms became more efficient, and it seemed obvious that cannons were the weapons of the future. Venice successfully utilized cannons against Genoa in 1378. During the Hussite war from 1415 to 1436, the Czech Hussite rebels employed firearms in combination with a mobile tactic of armored carts (wagenburg) enabling them to defeat German knights. Firearms contributed to the end of the Hundred Years' War and allowed the French king Charles VII to defeat the English in Auray in 1385, Rouen in 1418 and Orleans in 1429. Normandy was reconquered in 1449 and Guyenne in 1451. Finally, the battle of Chatillon in 1453 was won by the French artillery. This marked the end of the Hundred Years' War; the English, divided by the Wars of the Roses, were driven out of France, keeping only Calais. The same year saw the Turks taking Constantinople, which provoked consternation, agitation and excitement in the whole Christian world.

In that siege and seizure of the capital of the Eastern Roman empire, cannon and gunpowder achieved spectacular success. To breach the city walls, the Turks utilized heavy cannons which, if we believe the chronicler Critobulos of Imbros, shot projectiles weighing about 500 kg. Even if this is exaggerated, big cannons certainly did exist by that time and were more common in the East than in the West, doubtless because the mighty potentates of the East could better afford them. Such monsters included the Ghent bombard, called "Dulle Griet"; the large cannon "Mons Berg" which is today in Edinburgh; and the Great Gun of Mohammed II, exhibited today in London. The latter, cast in 1464 by Sultan Munir Ali, weighed 18 tons and could shoot a 300 kg stone ball to a range of one kilometer.

A certain number of technical improvements took place in the 15th century. One major step was the amelioration of powder quality. Invented about 1425, corned powder involved mixing saltpeter, charcoal and sulphur into a soggy paste, then sieving and drying it, so that each individual grain or corn contained the same and correct proportion of ingredients. The process obviated the need for mixing in the field. It also resulted in more efficient combustion, thus improving safety, power, range and accuracy.

Another important step was the development of foundries, allowing cannons to be cast in one piece in iron and bronze (copper alloyed with tin). In spite of its expense, casting was the best method to produce practical and resilient weapons with lighter weight and higher muzzle velocity. In about 1460, guns were fitted with trunnions. These were cast on both sides of the barrel and made sufficiently strong to carry the weight and bear the shock of discharge, and permit the piece to rest on a two-wheeled wooden carriage. Trunnions and wheeled mounting not only made for easier transportation and better maneuverability but also allowed the gunners to raise and lower the barrels of their pieces.

One major improvement was the introduction in about 1418 of a very efficient projectile: the solid iron shot. Coming into use gradually, the solid iron cannonball could destroy medieval crenellation, ram castle-gates, and collapse towers and masonry walls. It broke through roofs, made its way through several stories and crushed to pieces all it fell upon. One single well-aimed projectile could mow down a whole row of soldiers or cut down a splendid armored knight.

About 1460, mortars were invented. A mortar is a specific kind of gun whose projectile is shot with a high, curved trajectory, between 45° and 75°, called plunging fire. Allowing gunners to lob projectiles over high walls and reach concealed objectives or targets protected behind fortifications, mortars were particularly useful in sieges. In the Middle Ages they were characterized by a short and fat bore and two big trunnions. They rested on massive timber-framed carriages without wheels, which helped them withstand the shock of firing; the recoil force was passed directly to the ground by means of the carriage. Owing to such ameliorations, artillery progressively gained dominance, particularly in siege warfare.

Individual guns, essentially scaled down artillery pieces fitted with handles for the firer, appeared after the middle of the 14th century. Various models of portable small arms were developed, such as the clopi or scopette, bombardelle, baton-de-feu, handgun, and firestick, to mention just a few.

In purely military terms, these early handguns were more of a hindrance than an asset on the battlefield, for they were expensive to produce, inaccurate, heavy, and time-consuming to load; during loading the firer was virtually defenseless. However, even as rudimentary weapons with poor range, they were effective in their way, as much for attackers as for soldiers defending a fortress.

The harquebus was a portable gun fitted with a hook that absorbed the recoil force when firing from a battlement. It was generally operated by two men, one aiming and the other igniting the propelling charge. This weapon evolved in the Renaissance to become the matchlock musket in which the fire mechanism consisted of a pivoting S-shaped arm. The upper part of the arm gripped a length of rope impregnated with a combustible substance and kept alight at one end, called the match. The lower end of the arm served as a trigger: When pressed it brought the glowing tip of the match into contact with a small quantity of gunpowder, which lay in a horizontal pan fixed beneath a small vent in the side of the barrel at its breech. When this priming ignited, its flash passed through the vent and ignited the main charge in the barrel, expelling the spherical lead bullet.

The wheel lock pistol was a small harquebus taking its name from the city Pistoia in Tuscany where the weapon was first built in the 15th century. The wheel lock system, working on the principle of a modern cigarette lighter, was reliable and easy to handle, especially for a combatant on horseback. But its mechanism was complicated and therefore expensive, and so its use was reserved for wealthy civilian hunters, rich soldiers and certain mounted troops.

Portable cannons, handguns, harquebuses and pistols were muzzle-loading and shot projectiles that could easily penetrate any armor. Because of the power of firearms, traditional Middle Age weaponry become obsolete; gradually, lances, shields and armor for both men and horses were abandoned.

The destructive power of gunpowder allowed the use of mines in siege warfare. The role of artillery and small firearms become progressively larger; the new weapons changed the nature of naval and siege warfare and transformed the physiognomy of the battlefield. This change was not a sudden revolution, however, but a slow process. Many years elapsed before firearms became widespread, and many traditional medieval weapons were still used in the 16th century.

One factor militating against artillery's advancement in the 15th century was the amount of expensive material necessary to equip an army. Cannons and powder were very costly items and also demanded a retinue of expensive attendant specialists for design, transport and operation. Consequently firearms had to be produced in peacetime, and since the Middle Ages had rudimentary ideas of economics and fiscal science, only a few kings, dukes and high prelates possessed the financial resources to build, purchase, transport, maintain and use such expensive equipment in numbers that would have an appreciable impression in war.

Conflicts with firearms became an economic business involving qualified personnel backed up by traders, financiers and bankers as well as the creation of comprehensive industrial structures. The development of firearms meant the gradual end of feudalism. Firearms also brought about a change in the mentality of combat because they created a physical and mental distance between warriors. Traditional mounted knights, fighting each other at close range within the rules of a certain code, were progressively replaced by professional infantrymen who were anonymous targets for one another, while local rebellious castles collapsed under royal artillery's fire. Expensive artillery helped to hasten the process by which central authority was restored.

Wars of the Roses (1455–1485) Cause and Overview

An underlying cause was failure of the sustained effort to hold onto English territories in France during the final phase of the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453). This was followed by a protracted dynastic dispute between the rival Houses of Lancaster (‘‘Red Rose’’) and York (‘‘White Rose’’), each claiming the throne via descent from Edward III. More immediate grievances included the unpopularity of the Lancastrian, Henry VI (1422–1461), and some nobles at his court; the continuing availability to the barony of small private armies; and complex relations with powerful nobles in Ireland and in exile. Ireland itself was valued for its strategic location and as a ready source of cheap troops.

The Wars of the Roses saw sixteen significant battles and dozens of skirmishes and small sieges, none of which were truly decisive. The opening fight came at First St. Albans (May 22, 1455), where Richard of York’s 3,000 men defeated 2,500 Lancastrians under Henry VI. There followed four years of uneasy peace. At Blore Heath (September 22, 1459), in Staffordshire, this ended when Yorkist knights under the Earl of Salisbury bested a force of the king’s men-at-arms. The rebels then hooked up with a larger Yorkist force at Ludford Bridge and moved against Worcester, but fell back when they met a still larger Lancastrian army. At Ludford they spent a cold night waiting on battle, with the Lancastrians drawn up across the river. But too many Yorkist troops deserted during the night and even more fled or switched sides when they saw the enemy in the cold dawn on October 12. The army scattered and the major Yorkist leaders fled abroad, but only to plot a return to power. At Northampton ( July 10, 1460), Yorkists defeated the Royal Army when Lord Grey, who was in command of a Lancastrian wing, switched sides in midbattle. The king was taken prisoner and agreed that the Yorkist claim to the succession should be exercised upon his death. This did not end the fighting: at Wakefield (December 30, 1460) 8,000 Yorkists attacked foolhardily directly into 18,000 waiting Lancastrians only to lose decisively and bloodily. Several leading Yorkists were executed after the battle, signaling that a new seriousness and ruthlessness of purpose and method had entered the conflict, while also clearing the way for a new generation of noble aspirants and rivals to contest for the Plantagenet crown.

At Mortimer’s Cross (February 2, 1461), 11,000 Welsh Yorkists led by the future Edward IV routed a force of 8,000 French, Welsh, and Irish mercenaries fighting for the Red Rose. Edward headed to London where he would be crowned two months later. But first he tried to link with a second Yorkist army. At Second St. Albans (February 17, 1461) the rival armies numbered 25,000 each. The Lancastrians attacked before Edward arrived and joined the Yorkist armies. The commander in his absence was the Earl of Warwick (Richard Neville, ‘‘The Kingmaker’’), who fled at the first hint of danger. Warwick even abandoned his hostage, no less a person than the Lancastrian king, Henry VI, whom he left under a tree! Both sides gathered more forces. At Ferrybridge (March 28, 1461), Edward IV’s advance guard was isolated and destroyed, but the main force carried the bridge. The next day, at Towton, the enlarged main armies met in battle. The Yorkist army of 36,000 attacked a Lancastrian force of 40,000 in the midst of a heavy snow storm. Edward used a favorable wind to increase the range of his archers and limit that of the Lancastrians, who were thus enticed to leave their entrenchments and charge the Yorkist lines. The fight lasted many hours, seesawing at the center during one of the bloodiest days ever seen in England. The arrival of reinforcements gave the blood-soaked day to Edward: Henry’s infantry broke and ran while hundreds of stranded knights floundered and drowned in the River Cock, pulled under by the weight of their armor.

Towton brought three years of peace to England, though the Lancastrians sought and received aid from Scotland and kept the war going in the north. At Hedgely Moor (April 25, 1464), a small Yorkist army of 5,000 men handed a comparable Lancastrian force another sharp defeat, but the Duke of Somerset evaded capture with some survivors and began to raise new levies. Before they were ready, he was attacked at Hexham (May 15, 1464) and his force annihilated. Somerset was captured and beheaded, the first of many Lancastrian nobles to die on the block on Edward’s writ. Henry VI was put in a cell in the Tower of London. Harlech Castle in Wales held out against Edward until 1468 but the White Rose was victorious, and champions of the Red Rose mostly dead or in bitter exile. It was only fratricidal quarreling among the Yorkists that kept Lancastrian hope alive. Edward IV’s choice of wife, Elizabeth Woodville, and his alliance with Charles the Rash of Burgundy displeased even his closest supporters and members of his family. Warwick also resented that the king increasingly appeared to want to rule as well as reign. In early 1469 an uprising against Edward began in Yorkshire stimulated by Warwick, who hoped to replace the king with his brother, George, Duke of Clarence. A major fight took place at Banbury ( July 26, 1469), also called ‘‘Edgecote Moor,’’ in Northamptonshire when a Yorkist army led by the Earl of Pembroke ran into a rebel army maneuvering to link up with Warwick. After a close fight more rebels arrived and frightened Pembroke’s men into fleeing the field. Pembroke was captured the next day and executed.

Edward sent another army to repress a small uprising in Lincolnshire. His men surprised the insurgents at Lose-coat Field (March 12, 1470), so-named because of the number of coats discarded as the rebels took to their heels. Some key Lancastrians were implicated in the rising and forced into exile. Warwick now raised an army in France and crossed to England to force Edward from the throne. Edward fled to Burgundy to raise a mercenary army of his own. In his absence, Henry VI was freed and placed on the throne by Warwick, once again playing the role of the ‘‘Kingmaker.’’ The next year Edward landed at Ravenspur with 1,500 Burgundian and German mercenaries, scattered the local defenders (March 14, 1471), and raced for London with Warwick’s army close on his heels. Edward seized Henry VI and locked him back in the Tower. Then he turned to meet Warwick at Barnet (April 14, 1471), 12 miles north of London, where the armies fought in a fog-obscured and confused battle. At its end, Warwick was dead and Edward IV held the field and therefore the crown. However, that same day a Lancastrian army raised abroad landed at Weymouth and rallied the western counties to war, raising fresh troops in Wales. At Tewkesbury (May 4, 1471), Edward led an army of 5,000 against 7,000 dug-in Lancastrians. He immediately engaged the enemy, opening with a bombardment from his artillery. The Lancastrians charged the center of Edward’s line, mistakenly perceiving a weakness there. The assault was repelled and Edward counterattacked, routing and killing 2,000 of his enemies. This ended the war in Edward’s favor.

Upon Edward IV’s death in 1483, his 13-year-old son, Edward V, was left vulnerable on the throne. Civil war broke out again after a 12-year hiatus when the Duke of Gloucester deposed the boy king and imprisoned him along with his younger brother, the Duke of York, in the Tower of London. Gloucester claimed the throne as King Richard III and the ‘‘little princes’’ were soon murdered in the Tower. This provided the pretext for Henry Tudor to land at Milford Haven in Wales on August 7, 1485, with an army of 2,000 men. Within days, 3,000 more rallied to his banner. Gloucester moved to meet him with an army of 10,000. Another 6,000 stood on his flanks led by the brothers Stanley. The armies met at Bosworth on August 22, 1485. Each side opened with artillery and archery showers. At a critical moment one of Gloucester’s lieutenants, the Earl of Northumberland, fled the field. The Stanleys then turned coats on Gloucester and joined their 6,000 men with Henry Tudor’s army. Gloucester (Richard III) died fighting for his crown, which he wore into the battle. A soldier picked it up and handed it to Henry Tudor, who subsequently donned it as Henry VII. The Wars of the Roses were effectively over, even if two years later Yorkist rebels crossed from Ireland with several thousand German mercenaries and Irish kernes to be defeated by Henry at East Stoke ( June 16, 1647). The English gentry henceforth became the solid foundation of the Tudor monarchy. England was at last severed from its long history of continental entanglement (except for Calais), and became more clearly a national kingdom and island realm, increasingly English in its language, culture, and politics. Next would come nationalization of its religion under Henry VIII and his daughter, Elizabeth I.

Suggested Reading: Hubert Cole, Wars of the Roses (1973); J. Gillingham, Wars of the Roses (1981); Anthony Goodman, Wars of the Roses (1981).