This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library License images from £2.99 Pay by PayPal for images for immediate download Member of British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies (BAPLA)

The awesome fire-power of Tudor England under Henry VIII

Posted in Historical articles, History, Royalty, War, Weapons on Friday, 31 January 2014

Click on any image for details about licensing for commercial or personal use.

This edited article about guns first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 534 published on 8 April 1972.

Tudor cannon,  picture, image, illustration

Cannons from the era of Henry VIII with (inset right) Queen Elizabeth's "Pocket Pistol" and a two-gun wooden cart by Pat Nicolle

The 16th century saw few spectacular changes in firearms. But there were steady improvements in both design and manufacture, while the ancient superstitions about devilish gunpowder and Satanic sulphur lingered on.

It was against this background that one day the Doge of Venice looked at a pile of letters that his secretary had brought in.

“Indeed our ambassadors in London have been busy,” he sighed. “Now what have we here? A report from old Pasqualigo. He says that King Henry of England has four hundred guns on carriages and all very fine. Um! That was some time ago. Here’s another report; it’s from Bavarin, our ambassador to London years back. What does he say? ‘Henry has enough cannon to conquer Hell.’ Is this still true?”

“Recent reports indicate that King Henry is still just as interested in the arts of artillery as he ever was,” the secretary muttered.

The Doge frowned. “Then King Francis of France had best look to his defences; there will be war I fear.”

The Doge was right. Venice, like England, tried hard to keep out of the endless struggles between Europe’s two mightiest monarchs, Francis of France and the Emperor of Germany. Every country spied on everyone else and that is why such a lot of what we know about King Henry VIII’s army comes from the State Archives of Venice.

As the Doge had predicted, there was war and English artillery won it. France had supported England’s age-old foe, Scotland, so a clash became inevitable. In 1544 an English army burst out of Calais, which England still occupied, and swooped on the French in Boulogne with the most formidable array of artillery Europe had yet seen. We know just what the siege of Boulogne looked like from copies of some wonderful wall paintings that used to be in Cowdray House. Unfortunately, the originals were burnt, but the copies we still have show mortars and guns of all sizes, as well as sandbagged trenches and even mobile guns on carriages a bit like tanks. This really was the army of an artillery-minded King!

In the front lines, archers and musketeers blasted away at any Frenchman who dared show his head. Next came cannon shielded by huge baskets of earth. Further back were the mortars hurling hollow “shells” full of explosives over the city walls. Close by these mortars were other artillery-men busily beating plugs and fuses into already-filled shells.

Henry VIII was particularly interested in scientific and military progress. He bought guns from the continent and encouraged gun-foundries in England. In fact it was English gun-founders who made the first really reliable cast-iron cannon. Cannon had usually been made of bronze, but iron cannon, though harder to make, were stronger and cheaper.

The 16th century was also an age of improvement in gun design. Guns were at last being mounted on proper carriages so that they could keep up with an army in advance or retreat. Handles were cast on the top of cannon barrels so that the guns could be easily lifted. These handles were often made to look like sea-monsters, so that after a while all such lifting handles were called “dolphins”.

Large cannon were often fantastically decorated. One of the most beautiful 16th century guns in England now stands in Dover Castle. It’s called “Queen Elizabeth’s Pocket Pistol” though in fact it was given to Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, by the Emperor Charles V.

But despite its powerful appearance, the “Pocket Pistol” only shot a 12lb ball. Most 16th century cannon had an extreme range of not more than a mile and an accurate range of as little as 350 yards. Nevertheless, things were getting more scientific. Nicholas Tartaglia from Italy wrote a book on cannon-craft for Henry VIII and in it he used strangely poetic language to describe his theories. His “Way of the Pellet” is what we would now call the “trajectory” followed by a cannon-ball after it leaves the gun.

We don’t know the name of the genius who invented “trunions”, cylindrical projections on each side of a cannon barrel. The whole weight of the barrel rests on these trunions and they enable the barrel to be moved and aimed, up and down. Before trunions were thought of, gun barrels were often laid in a sort of wooden trough so that the whole gun had to be moved to be aimed.

Either Henry VIII or one of his generals must have had a very fertile imagination. Not only did the English army outside Boulogne have strong iron guns and armoured two-gun “tanks”, they also had a terror-weapon named the “Gun called Policy”. From a distance it looked like the biggest and most monstrous cannon ever built, though in fact its huge barrel was made of wood! There was a small cannon mounted on top to make a bang and some smoke to complete the illusion.

Henry VIII was also a great organizer. He made Humphrey Walker into England’s first Master Gunner and set him up in the Tower of London, with a staff of twelve paid gunners. The Master Gunner of England trained his men, enlarged his collection of cannon and also trained civilians as part-time artillery-men to be called up in a national emergency. This was how the first professional “Train of Artillery,” with guns, men and wagons of equipment and supplies was organized.

Artillery was the king’s first love, militarily speaking, but he certainly didn’t neglect the infantry gunners. Henry VIII’s father had founded the Yeomen of the Guard, but the first mention of their firearms comes in 1544 when twenty-five guardsmen carrying bows stood on Henry VIII’s right, while twenty-five carrying muskets stood on his left. In 1537 the Guild of St George was founded to encourage both archery and gunnery. Today this fine old corps still survives as the Honourable Artillery Company.

There was also a lot of discussion about the way of holding and shooting hand-guns or muskets. Sir Roger Williams wrote a book in which he described both the French and Spanish styles of shooting. Firing in the Spanish style, with a straight stock thrust into the shoulder to absorb recoil caused, he said, “neither danger nor hurt,” but shooting after the French fashion, with a crooked stock held against the chest meant that “few or none could abide their recoiling.”

Even though guns were now accepted as normal weapons of war they still inspired dread among the superstitious folk of 16th century Europe. They also sent churchmen scurrying for pen and paper to bewail the ungodliness of the age. However, an even more awesome era lay ahead to bring new terrors to warfare.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.