The importance of the Alderney guns lies not in any one piece, but in them all as an entire, coordinated, uniform weapon system, a weapon system that gave Britain a domination of the seas that lasted until the twentieth century, and whether for better or worse, helped build and sustain an empire which changed the economic, political and social history of the world.
The Alderney guns represent the victory of iron over bronze, muzzle-loaders over breech-loaders, trucked carriages over stationary stocks, new breeching over old, corned powder over serpentine powder and iron shot over stone.
It can be argued that the guns from the Alderney wreck and those from the Mary Rose represent the two most important, dated, provenanced gun collections in the world. Just as it is not possible to discuss the state of gunnery in the English fleet under Henry VIII without reference to the Mary Rose, so too is it impossible to consider the state of naval gunnery under Elizabeth I without reference to the Alderney ship.
Exactly one hundred years before the Alderney ship was wrecked, Columbus discovered America. During the century which followed the world was completely reshaped. When Columbus set off in 1492 Europe was a contained geographic unit that in many ways was still emerging from the Dark Ages; by the time the
Alderney ship set off for France in 1592 the Atlantic countries of Portugal, Spain and England had colonised the Americas and established fortified trading-posts that stretched from Brazil to China. The rapid ascendancy and spread of the West has been attributed to two factors, the deep-ocean wind ship and heavy ordnance.
Both in ships and artillery the sixteenth century was a period of great change. Their development was simultaneous and interdependent to the extent that in the gunned fighting ship, one became the other. From the small lightweight caravels of Columbus that were armed with low-impact, stone-throwing bombards, to the great purpose-built fighting ships of the Elizabethan era that carried high-performance, cast-iron, muzzle-loaders, it all happened in less than a hundred years.
The cannon from the Alderney Elizabethan wreck represent a high point in artillery science that would not be surpassed until the Victorian period. Their importance, however, lies not in any one piece but in them all as a coordinated seriation, for the Alderney guns are our earliest complete, datable, provenanced gun unit of a kind that was to become (in the words of the esteemed ordnance scholar Adrian Caruana) ‘the standard naval weapon system for over three hundred years, during which period the Navy accomplished more than ever before, and arguably more than it has ever done since. The study of the weapon system with which the Navy achieved global dominance is as significant as the study of the warship itself’.