In the sixteenth century war was transformed. The introduction of newer, more powerful firearms with the ability to penetrate any armour in common use, radically altered infantry and cavalry tactics … from the second quarter of the sixteenth century pikemen no longer fought alone but in close association with harquebusiers and later with musketeers … combined pike and shot tactics were an inescapable consequence of the coming age of firearms … Battles in the open field still continued, but remained overwhelmingly chance encounters which took one side, or even both, by surprise.
David Eltis, The Military Revolution in sixteenth century Europe, New York, 1998
From an academic point of view, the loss of the Alderney ship could not have occurred at a better time. The art of war was changing faster than ever before, and never had military matters been more on men’s minds. In England, Italy and Spain (though interestingly, not France), this found expression in a flood of military pamphlets, treatises and manuals, the vast majority of which were published in the second half of the century. A review of M.J.D. Cockle’s Bibliography of Military Books up to 1642 (1957), to which I have added several titles that were unavailable to Cockle, reveals that no less than 23 military studies appeared in England alone during the ten year period surrounding the Aldeney wreck, with the highest incidence occurring in 1591 (the year before the vessel’s loss) when no less than five military treatises appeared.
Mensun Bound – Tactics
It was firearms of the kind that were found on the Alderney wreck, that, more than any other weapon, drove the changes which, both tactically and strategically, transformed the sixteenth century field of battle. And it was success or failure on the field of battle (or the prospect of either thereof), that in large part determined the balance of power in Europe. Elsewhere we have described the firearms from the wreck and discussed how they were designed and functioned; here, without going into any depth, we consider their tactical usage and the kind of fighting for which they were intended.
By the time of the Alderney wreck, longbows had been replaced by matchlock firearms, bills and halberds were giving way to pikes, and heavy cavalry (‘the most fear arm of the pre-sixteenth century battlefield’) was in decline. Such fundamental changes had to have had a radical effect on the planning and prosecution of war – and they did.
At the time of the Alderney ship, the weapons which dominated the field were matchlock shoulder-arms and pikes, but by themselves they were vulnerable. While a pike phalanx by itself with typical 12 to 18 foot pikes, could withstand a cavalry rush, it would be slaughtered by a unit of harquebusiers, as indeed happened at the Battle of Pavia in 1525. On the other hand, although a volley of small-arms fire could be devastating to both horse and foot, a contingent of harquebusiers or musketeers in open terrain, could still be ridden down by a squad of cavalry, as indeed happened at the Battle of Riberac in 1568. Sir John Smythe believed that 1000 light horse would ‘in the fields overthrowe and breake above 3000 or 4000 harquebuziers or mosquetiers, (that were without) succour of other weapons nor ground advantage’. To prevent this from happening, the shot needed a stand of pikemen. In 1593, the year after the loss of the Alderney wreck, Matthew Sutcliffe wrote in his Practice, Proceedings, and Lawes of Armes:
‘The charge of horsemen against shot and targetters is mortall, if they be not either garded with pikes, or have the vantage of ditches, or hedges, or woods, where they cannot reach them. In which case the shot gauleth the horse if they come within the levell of the piece.’
This was also the view of Robert Barret who, five years later, wrote:
… any troupe of shot, though never so brave and expert, being in open field, having no stand of pikes, or such other weapon, nor hedge, ditch, trench or rampier, to relieve and succour them, could not long endure the force of horse, especially Launciers (lancers).
Clearly shot and pike needed each other. Barret again:
As the armed pike is the strength of the battell, so without question, is the shot the furie of the field: but the one without the other is weakened the better halfe of their strength. Therefore of necessitie, according to the course of the warres in these days, the one is to be coupled and matched with the other in such convenient proportion, that the advantage of the one may helpe the disadvantage of the other.
In the open field, for one to protect the other, they had to combine to form a single, integral, impregnable whole, a human redoubt that could withstand everything except heavy artillery. In ‘Training’ we touched upon the preparation that was required for individual soldiers to become effective marksmen; here we need to look at how these once-effective marksmen also required collective training in order to be able to integrate with pike and other foot, particularly in the construction of tactical battlefield formations, such as pike-squares. Such bodies might number several thousand or more, and it took much practice both to form and manoeuvre such tight, serried assemblies. Norreys, of course, was well aware of the importance of training and professionalism, and from his letters we know that he was in despair that most of the men he had been given for the campaign were little better than a rabble, without training of any kind.
At the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign, England (as in everything military) was so behind Europe in the en masse training of its soldiery, that in 1557, a visiting Venetian was able to comment that not only were England’s fighting men relatively few, but also that they were so without training that ‘there would be few among them who would know how to move under arms, and to handle the pike, harquebuse or other sort of weapon, it not being the custom in that kingdom for the inhabitants to perform any sort of exercise’.
As the century wore on the importance of collective training became a common theme of military publications that appeared during the last quarter of the century. Most of these theorists extolled the classical Greek and Roman military doctrines and their tight, ordered arrays. Without the martial qualities of the ancients, they argued, not only would it be impossible to bring together and move such formations, but even more importantly, prevent them from disintegrating when under fire and taking casualties. It was the opinion of the analysts, that it was not superiority of numbers that won the day, but the cohesion of an army’s close-order formations. And maintaining cohesion depended upon one thing above all else – discipline. Discipline became so important in shoulder-to-shoulder operations that, in some armies, breaking formation punishable by execution.
So what were these formations like? The main battlefield arrangement of the period was the square. At the centre were the ensign-bearers, who were surrounded by a box of halberds, outside of which were the first rows of unarmoured pikemen, who, in turn, were surrounded on four sides by pikemen armoured with plating of the kind found on the Alderney wreck, and then finally, sheltered behind a wall of pike heads, were the harquebusiers and musketeers.
A curiosity of the late Elizabethan battlefield that deserves mention here, is the relative absence of pitched, toe-to-toe engagements. By the time of the Alderney wreck, firearms had become so effective that few commanders would risk an advance on a defensively entrenched company of arquebuses and muskets, especially if they were arrayed in depth, bristling with pikes and backed up by mobile artillery units. Simply put, attacks on prepared positions had become almost suicidal, and battles, for a time, became games of sally, skirmish, manoeuvre and counter-manoeuvre. Even when the sides were fairly evenly balanced, armies were often reluctant to close, because whoever moved first would lose the advantage of terrain or a prepared position, and the consequences of defeat could be more important than that of victory. At the Battle of Jemmingen in 1568 Louis of Nassau left his prepared position to attack an ensconced enemy and was defeated. Just three years before the Alderney wreck, at the Battle of Arques an attacking side was defeated by firearms.
It was this reluctance to engage that led to several ‘battles that never were’ in which the armies eyeballed each other from a distance, exchanged shot, maybe skirmished a little, but never locked. Such an encounter took place during Norreys’ Brittany campaign when his men, together with the loyalist French, came face to face with a Catholic League army under the Duc de Mercoeur. Written challenges were issued by both sides, and although there was some heated skirmishes by Norreys’ men, the two armies never clashed, and the superior League army withdrew. Later in the campaign, sources tell of Norreys standing infront of a pike formation challenging his opposite number, Don Juan d’Aguila, to personal combat, an offer which quite rightly was declined.
The situation around the time of the Alderney ship was best summarized by Barret in his Theorike of 1598:
It is rarely seene in our dayes that men come to hand-blowes, as in old time they did: For now in this age, the shot so employeth and busieth the field (being well backed with a resolute stand of pikes) that the most valiantest and skilfullest therein do commonlie import the victorie … before men come to hand-blowes.
A quick survey of the battles of the second half of the sixteenth century shows that when decisive battles did occur (e.g. St. Quentin 1557, Gravelines 1558, Moncontour 1569, Gembloux 1578, Turnhout 1597), it was because one army had caught the other by surprise out of position. Indeed, during the Brittany campaign, just a few weeks before the loss of the Alderney ship, a column of Norreys’ men was ambushed outside Ambrières on the road to Caen. Vastly outnumbered two hundred of the men fled, the remainder surrendered only to have a hundred of their number massacred. On the few occasions when attacks were made on armies of arquebusiers and musketeers in prepared positions, such was the efficiency of firearms that the offenders lost (e.g. Heiligerlee 1568, Arques 1589).
The importance of pike on the Elizabethan battlefield raises the question of whether or not they were part of the weapons consignment on the Alderney ship. Two cylindrical fragments of wood have been found on the site which were of the right diameter to have come from pole-arms, but so far no metal terminals have been excavated. It would be entirely reasonable for there to have been pikes on board, for as we have seen, they were fundamental to most close-order field formations at this time, and it is known that Norreys had had pikemen with him, though what proportion they represented of his men-at-arms is not entirely clear.