By the time of the Alderney wreck the longbow and crossbow were being replaced by the harquebus, caliver and musket, and bills and halberds had virtually been replaced by the pike. In addition, this new form of infantry, fighting in positions of depth and often backed up by mobile artillery was replacing the heavily armed cavalry.
The great majority of sixteenth century shoulder-arms in museum collections are European-made prestige pieces, that is to say parade, hunting or target guns with exquisitely damascened barrels and walnut stocks that had been inlaid with elaborately detailed scroll work, arabesques, vegetal devices, complicated hunting scenes or mythological narratives, all in ivory, staghorn or mother-of-pearl. These guns, which were as much works of art as killing devices, would have heralded the importance of their owners wherever they went. It was, of course, their aesthetic refinements that gave them their value which, in turn, ensured their survival. The guns from the Alderney wreck, by contrast, were common, functional battlefield weapons that were far cheaper and less pleasing to the eye. Considering their once profusion, very few sixteenth century military firearms have survived. In the words of a senior curator at the Royal Armouries, this makes the Alderney wreck ‘an extremely important site worthy of full-scale investigation. Finding an even more significant quantity of possibly English late sixteenth century material would have a major impact on our understanding of the military equipment from that critical period in British history’.
So far, over 45 pieces from semi-intact or fragmented firearms have been recovered together with five items of shot, six powder flasks and 25 ‘apostles’. All were found covered in a hardened crust of corrosion products. All were matchlocks, except for one which was of snaphaunce type (see ‘Lock, stock and barrel‘). One of the guns was found loaded. Their metal parts, that is to say the barrels and lock mechanisms, did not survive well, whereas their wooden stocks faired better. The original gun that was recovered by fisherman Bertie Cosheril when he discovered the wreck in 1977, no longer survives, and almost all the examples in the possession of the excavation were raised before there was any archaeological involvement or conservation care, and had therefore much deteriorated.
In any discussion of the Alderney firearms, the question of their origin always arises. No indication of manufacture survived on any of the weapons, but it is likely that they were of mixed origin, some English, some continental. There were no makers of quality civil firearms in England at the time, but there was a burgeoning small-arms industry for military matchlocks, and no doubt some of the Alderney guns would have been their product. On the other hand, an uncertain number would have been of continental origin, perhaps even survivors of Gresham’s rush to arm during the first part of the Queen’s reign when he almost stripped Europe of all available arms and munitions (it was said, for instance, that he left the continent almost completely without saltpetre, one of the ingredients of gunpowder). Many of Gresham’s purchases would still have been in working order, but it is also recorded that many were old and barely serviceable. We know, for instance, that many of firearms were still in the Tower in 1596, when Lord Willoughby described them as being so outmoded and unreliable that they were more likely to kill our men than the enemy.
Without any standardization of weaponry, or a regularized system of manufacture and supply, and the county arsenals being so poorly managed and under-funded, it is no surprise that every piece from the Alderney wreck was different. Not a single barrel, stock or lock cutting was the same. This fits the views of the Tudor military historian Henry Webb who, after a detailed survey of documents in the National Archives, concluded, ‘From the Calendar of State Papers it is apparent that, whatever the ideal may have been, bands were armed with whatever weapons were available’. Further insight on the haphazard weaponing of England’s fighting men at this time, comes from the Elizabethan historian Lindsay Boynton, who described one, Robert Norman, a Suffolkman, being equipped with a caliver, flask and touchbox from the widow Norman, a burgonet from John Bartylmew, a sword from widow Norman, and dagger and girdle from John Lynge, Thomas Barnard, and Robert Gooday.
Another question that invariably arises during any discussions on the Alderney firearms is whether they could have belonged to the ship. There is indeed no shortage of documentary evidence to demonstrate that vessels at this time carried firearms, and certainly any vessel operating in the Channel or western approaches would have had to have been armed (for instance, a year before the loss of the Alderney ship a roving squadron of Spanish galleys attacked the French Channel port of Lannion), so there is every possibility that some of the guns from the Alderney wreck belonged to the ship. However, this was not a large ship and her complement would not have been that great; the number of guns that have been raised together with the bundles that have been seen on the seabed, are far in excess of her crew number and defensive needs. This, together with the military nature of her cargo, can leave little doubt that the great majority of the firearms on board, were part of a munitions consignment on its way to Norreys’ very poorly armed force in Brittany.
Finally we need to look at musket 391 that had the remains of pintle on its underside. This would have slotted into a rest, as the weapon was too heavy for a man to support in a firing position. The thought which immediately arises is that this particular piece belonged to the ship and was inserted into the poop rail to give it support, allow it to train and absorb its considerable recoil. On the other hand, heavy muskets such as this were considered basic siege weapons, and part of Norreys’ original plan was to lay siege to one of the French deep-water ports, such as Brest or Morlaix. Norreys’ favourite was well known to be St Malo, and in the National Archive there is a plan of its fortifications which Sir John had had made in the Spring of 1592 to help with his intended siege.