Monday, February 23, 2009

The Alderney ship-wreck, revisited

Malcolm ridiculed, unwisely and not well, the archaeology of the Alderney ship-wreck, over on Malcolm Redfellow's Home Service.

He has now thought again, and would wish to amend his views.

The story so far

In 1591 a 3,000-man force, led by Sir John Norreys, was sent to Brittany. The aim was to prevent a Spanish advance base being established at Brest, from which a second Armada might be launched.

On the 29th November 1592, Sir John wrote a report to Lord Burghley, the Queen's chief minister, mentioning a shypp that was cast away about Alderney. In 1977 an Alderney fisherman discovered the wreck. Divers brought up artefacts which dated the vessel to the turn of the sixteenth century. One of the cannon was recovered, and remains in the local museum.

Mensun Bound, a Fellow of St Peter's College, Oxford, heads a team studying the wreck. The BBC2 Timewatch programme began its 2009 season with a dramatised (at times, somewhat theatrical) account of Bound's attempt to recover two more cannon, to show that Elizabethan technology had advanced to producing matched iron cannon. The programme then demonstrated the spectacular effectiveness of reproductions of a musket and a cannon of types recovered from the wreck.

The context

What the programme could not explore, and what exercises Malcolm, is the technological and logistical context.

According to one account, since 1569 brass was the previous metal of choice for cannons. It was easier to produce than iron; and tended to allow a margin of safety -- brass would deform where iron would explode. It had severe disadvantages, though. Brass cannon would overheat and deform. The main source of supply was in remote central Europe. By 1588, the Navy had 632 brass, and some 50 iron cannon: it has been assumed that these iron weapons were what was left of the earlier iron battery guns.

The English Navy underwent considerable reorganisation in the period before the Armada. This is usually credited to Sir John Hawkyns, as Treasurer of the Navy from 1577. Sir William Winter is proposed as deriving the galeass of the Henrician period into the new design of a gallion, lower in profile, but carrying heavy armament. Much of the detailed work would be shipwrights like Matthew Baker and John Wells, whose working notes have survived. By 1588, two-thirds of Elizabeth's Navy conformed to this new design.

Changes were also made around this time in the command of ships. Lieutenants were appointed, as ancilliaries to the captain, below whom came the ship's Master, the quartermasters and the departmental heads. There persdisted a chronic shortage of trained and experienced gunners.

What was evolving here, and quickly, was a gun-platform of considerable power. It was a model that would hold for the next 200-odd years, until breach-loading rifled guns changed the shape of ships and sea-warfare..

And yet ...

The programme implied that, before Mensun Bound's discoveries, serial manufacture of matching iron cannon, thus standardising the ammunition, did not develop until the mid-1600s.

So far Bound has lifted three guns from the Alderney wreck: all are similar in design. All are iron. That is not, though, conclusive proof. The cannon appear to bear a mark "FW", which is surmised to be for Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth's spy-master. An intuitive leap might be that the Alderney wreck is that of a prototype vessel, a pinnace, heavily armed for its size. If so, as the programme shows, the two-ton guns would need careful stowage and securing in rough weather.

That said, there do seem to be inconsistencies in the programme's treatment.

We know that iron cannon were being made in the Sussex Weald, where there was both iron ore and charcoal for smelting. Ralph Huggett and his son John are supposed to have cast a cannon at Buxted, East Sussex, in 1543. There was Harrisons' foundry at Brede, working for the Navy from 1578, which should cause us to reconsider the assumption that those 50-odd iron cannon in naval service in 1588 were antiques. There was the Darwell furnace at Brightling in the artillery business, too: before long they were casting 32-pounders and even 48-pounders.

Since the casting was, seemingly, done in sand, it wouldn't have taken a craftsman five minutes to reckon that working from a template was a neat idea: result, similar matched cannon.


Malcolm feels frustrated by his ignorance here. If there is reason in Mensun Bound's notions, it involves clearing up a great many misconceptions in the application of English technology at this period. That, in turn, means re-appraising the whole epoch of English exploration and expansion.

There is clearly a route of enquiry ahead. Only time (aided by a few days at the British Library) will start to scratch the itch.

An afterthought

In Henry V's speech before Harfleur, he is given the lines:
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Specifically, notice, a brass cannon, closely linked to a sea reference. Obviously Shakespeare needed a monosyllable, yet there does not seem any obvious assonance to require "brass" (though, there is an alliterative p...p...b...b, of course). That's from 1599, incidentally. Sphere: Related Content

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