When Elizabeth came to the throne England was without a standing army and her militias were no match for the great regiments of Europe, particularly Spain’s battle-hardened men of Flanders, the foremost professional fighting force in the world. From the beginning of her reign the nation was under threat, and from 1585 to 1604 was in a continuous state of struggle with Spain. To survive, England had to rearm and modernise.
It was not easy; there was resistance from the counties as well as from within government. In the end, however, the modernizers, who were mostly professional soldiers with field experience on the continent, succeeded. This was not just thanks to their persistence, but also to a flood of military publications, the growing exposure to European methods of warfare, and, of course, from 1585, the Spanish menace.
By the end of the century, though still without a standing army, the transition from what had been little better than a medieval rabble to the ‘New Model’ army of the seventeenth, was almost complete. ‘Thus’, wrote the Tudor military historian, Lindsay Boynton, ‘the history of the militia under Elizabeth ended not in anticlimax but at the zenith of its activity’.
The Alderney firearms are important not just for their rarity and the unique insight they give on how the Elizabethan soldier armed himself for combat at a time when the very survival of the nation was at stake, but also, within a larger context, they help illuminate what the military historian, David Eltis, has called ‘the momentous changes in the conduct of war which swept Europe during the sixteenth century’.