It was intended that arms should be returned to the county store when the men came home, but the safe return of weapons was exceptional … It is a moot point whether the dishonesty of the recruits or the stress of battle was responsible for the great loss of arms.

C. G. Cruickshank, Elizabeth’s Army, Oxford, 1946

Harquebusier clearing the pan (Jacob de Gheyn)

Harquebusier clearing the pan (Jacob de Gheyn)

One of the stocks (322) had a large W carved into its underside. The crude nature of the cutting, indicates that it was not the work of the manufacturer. More likely, it is the monogram of its owner or the identity mark of the armoury or county arsenal from which it came. The presence of this mark device raises the issue of corruption, which had become almost institutionalized within the Elizabethan military. As we shall see, it existed in many forms, but one of the most destructive to military performance was the thriving black-market that existed for firearms. Just two years before the Alderney wreck, in an attempt to reduce weapon losses, the government ordered that all firearms be marked.

A common lament of the counties concerned the large number of firearms that were never returned. Some of these losses can be attributed to battle and genuine wear-and-tear or breakage, but there was also a thriving second-hand trade in guns which, it was believed, accounted for most of the disappearances. In large part the market was fed by vast numbers of deserters. For instance, of a 200 man levy sent to the Low Countries in 1590, less than half reached their destination. A more interesting example occurred just five months after the loss of the Alderney ship, when fifty men deserted from Sir Roger Williams’ expeditionary force that was campaigning in Normandy and points north. In the Spanish manner they elected their own officers and set off for England, but almost immediately were capturd by a ‘Leaguer’ patrol that ransomed them back to Sir Roger the next day. The elected officers were all hanged and the rest were put in chains. Sometimes unscrupulous captains, company clerks and muster-masters were involved in the selling of ‘desertions’. Cruickshank in his study of the Elizabethan army, describes arrests that were made in 1591of deserters at Cambridge who were in possession of release papers issued by company clerks, which had been bought for sums ranging from a few shillings to four pounds. The year following the loss of the Alderney ship, it was reported certain captains of levies destined for France were selling permissions for men to leave the army. Small wonder that generals like Norreys and Leicester were writing to the Privy Council complaining bitterly about the losses they were experiencing to desertion. .

Technical drawings of firearms from the wreck.  Note the W on the lowermost stock.

Technical drawings of firearms from the wreck. Note the W on the lowermost stock.

Death from disease and hunger provided an almost unending stream of opportunities for profit through the sale of the deceased’s weapons and the fraudulent issue of his pay. The sheer scale of the fatalities is startling to students of the period. For instance, three-quarters of Willoughby’s 3,600 expeditionary force to France in 1589 were reported to have died, and it is believed that as many as half of the estimated 20,000 men that Norreys and Essex took to France (including the Brittany campaign) in the in the first half of the 1590s, died while in service. The loss of weapons imposed such a huge burden on the counties that they were often unable to arm their troops in a proper fashion. In 1590 new levies from Derbyshire and Staffordshire were so badly equipped that the government had to arm them from London before they embarked. Oxford, for instance, lost so many of its weapons that, in order to arm its men being sent to Ireland, it had to commandeer weapons from its citizens. The situation became so serious that Elizabeth demanded an audit of certain armouries and, in 1590 (just two years before the Alderney wreck), in an attempt to curb the illicit second-hand trade in arms, a proclamation ordered that all weapons be marked. At the same time it was made a capital offence for any soldier to sell or pawn his arms, and anybody caught buying such weapons faced imprisonment. It appears to have made little difference, for the following year eleven men were found guilty of using their weapons as part-payment to their captains in the purchase of their discharge from the army, and in the Callender of State Papers (Domestic) for 1595-97, we learn that captains of troops abroad were selling their men’s clothing and arms, and in Ireland men were even caught selling their firearms to the rebels, in order, it was said, to obtain money for food.

Corruption, however, was endemic within the Elizabethan military and went much higher than the officer corps. It went to the very top. Senior commanders in the field were often as bad as the rank and file. In the past Norreys himself, on several occasions, had been suspected of financial opportunism and malfeasance, and during the Brittany campaign it is clear that Burghley was keeping an extremely close eye on him, as indeed he was doing with all his generals in Normandy and the Low Countries. There is no evidence that Norreys was himself involved personally in any serious corruption during the Brittany campaign, but certainly, as was the practice to insure loyalty, he was turning a blind eye to the usual financial improprieties of his officers in their handling of pay, weapons, supplies and uniforms. We also have the evidence of one of his officers, Francis Hall, who reported that Norreys was falsifying musters to cover up desertions, and that every night men were sneaking off and selling their weapons in order to buy passage to the Channel Islands.

Some of the worst profiteering occurred at home with political appointees to the military. In 1589, when the Master of the Ordnance Office, the Earl of Warwick, died, a special commission found that he had been helping himself to official Ordnance Office funds. As a result of this, the Privy Council revised regulations and procedures to make it difficult for his successors, which included the Earl of Essex to be tempted.

One of Norreys’ captains was Anthony Sherely, son of Sir Thomas Sherely, the Treasurer at War and one of the most notorious financial fraudsters of the period. He had been involved in the sale of contracts to victuallers and concessions to other suppliers, and was known to have taken kick-backs for sinecures and preferments. He was even caught money-lending with funds from the Queen’s exchequer. It was not until 1596 that Sherely was finally dismissed for corruption, and when, in 1598, his accounts were audited, it was found that he owed the Queen £23,000 pounds, a fortune; but for somebody as sharp as Sherely, this was no doubt just a fraction of what he had swindled from the Treasury over the years. It may be that the appointment of Shireley’s son, Anthony, to Norreys’ staff, was earned on merit, but John Nolan in his study of Norreys, suggests that this rather cosy arrangement was a bit too much for coincidence. In the preparations for the Brittany campaign, Shireley had already been caught requesting significantly more money for pay than there were men to receive it, and there also appears to have been a siphoning off of funds that were intended for uniforms. Written mentions survive of sick and freezing soldiers in the middle of winter in the ragged remains of their summerwear, all this when the money for their cold-season apparel (which consisted of a cassock, a doublet, two shirts, Venetian-style breeches, three pairs of stockings, three pairs of shoes and a hat) had been issued six months before. Who benefited most from these misdealings is not clear, but almost certainly Sir Thomas Sherely would have been involved, and there would also have had to have been some collusion with staff officers in France.

Returning to the W that was crudely cut into stock 322. It may be no more than a work of whimsy, but there is a reasonable possibility that it was made in response to the 1590 proclamation. If this is so, then we might reasonably expect to find similarly placed marks on the other stocks that have been raised. Stock 322, however, was rare in that it offered a flat surface in the breach area of the stock that was adequately wide to take a mark. With most of the stocks, the only suitable spot for cutting a mark of ownership would have been the butt, and so far, with the Alderney firearms, not a single butt has survived.