Elizabeth’s army appeared late on the battlefield of Europe. It came in confusion and, for a while fought, in disorder … before the era was over, however, its leaders had worked out a fairly sound theory of tactics and organization … so that by the turn of the century they had made it, with all its faults, a relatively efficient implement of war.

H. J. Webb, Elizabethan Military Science, 1965

Musketeer pouring powder from an apostle into the barrel (Jacob de Gheyn)

Musketeer pouring powder from an apostle into the barrel (Jacob de Gheyn)

The art of war is now such that men are fain to learn it anew every two years

Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, Counsellor to Philip II of Spain, after J.R. Hale, Renaissance War Studies 1450-1620, London, 1985

Although England could not keep out the harquebus, caliver and musket, the persistent loyalty to the bow is one of the most striking examples of conservatism in English history.

E. G. Heath, Bow versus Gun, an introduction to the writings of Sir John Smythe and Humfrey Barwick, 1973, The Scholar Press

According to the old laws, all men over seventeen had to have a functioning bow and arrows, and that every father must buy them for his son and every master must provide them for his servants. By Elizabeth’s time, however, the bow was obsolete. If Elizabethan England, which was without a standing army, was to protect its interests and borders, it had to modernise its militias and raise the quality of its fighting men to that of the best armies of Europe. By the time of the Alderney wreck the transformation was almost complete; gunpowder weapons had at last replaced the bow. On the Mary Rose of 1545, longbows were found everywhere; on the Alderney wreck of forty-seven years later, there were no bows – just firearms. The Alderney ship illustrates the military revolution of the sixteenth century better than any other archaeological site.

Mensun Bound

The military revolution of the sixteenth century

Both in England and on the Continent, the sixteenth century was a period of total military transformation. Weapons, tactics, training, command and the conduct of war in general, were revolutionized. According to one military historian, ‘It seemed to contemporaries that the nature of war was changing almost overnight’.

Elizabethan harquebusiers and pikemen on the march in Ireland. The weapons, helmets and powder flasks are the same as those found on the Alderney wreck

Elizabethan harquebusiers and pikemen on the march in Ireland. The weapons, helmets and powder flasks are the same as those found on the Alderney wreck

In large part these changes were driven by the rise, and then complete ascendancy, of ‘weapons of fyre’. When they first appeared in England with Burgundian mercenaries during the Wars of the Roses, matchlock long-arms were fairly ineffectual. During the time of Henry VIII most of the ‘smalle gonnes’ in English military activities were still in the hands of mercenaries, but by that time their power, accuracy and technical dependability had much improved and they had become the dominant influencing factor in battle.

In the art of war England was far behind continental Europe. When the Great Queen came to the throne in 1558 the nation was impoverished, backward and almost without any real fighting capability on land. England’s permanent forces (believed to be no more than 2000 to 3000 men) were either on garrison duty or were part of the sovereign’s personal guard. And when fresh troops were levied for overseas service, they were often ridiculed; the veteran Spanish soldier Francisco de Valdes in his El Espejo (written during the 1560s) described the surprise of the Huguenots when the English knights turned up ‘armed and costumed like antique figures shown on old tapestries, with coats of mail and iron helmets’.

Under Burghley’s guidance Elizabeth sought to regenerate the militias. Sir Thomas Gresham was appointed to head a massive arms-procurement programme. He scoured Europe for weapons, armour and supplies; but progress, though steady, was slow and the army which the Queen sent into the Low Countries in the late 1580s has been described by the Tudor historian, Henry Webb, as ‘probably the most unbridled and disorganized force ever mustered by the English nation’.

This was also the period which saw the demise of the longbow, the quintessential English weapon which had been the cornerstone of all military operations on land since the reign of Edward I in the thirteenth century, and which had won for England pivotal victories at Falkirk, Crécy, Poitiers, Agincourt and Flodden during the Hundred Years War and Wars of the Roses. The radical nature of the change from bowstring to gunpowder is particularly evident when one compares the Alderney wreck with the Mary Rose. There were just forty-seven years between them, but they were worlds apart. The Mary Rose contained boxes of longbows; but on the Alderney wreck there were no bows, only harquebuses, calivers and muskets. Though it had been slow to do so, England had at last broken its sentimental attachment to the longbow and embraced firearms.