In view of her mission … it would seem safe to assume that the Alderney ship was in good condition, fast, lean, weatherly, properly crewed, and, as the archaeology attests, well armed.
… the Alderney guns represent the end of a period of transition, as much for the carrriages as for the the barrels they supported. Between the Mary Rose of 1545 and the Alderney ship of 1592 a new type of powder was introduced that had far-reaching consequences and which, together with these other developments … mark the forty-seven years between the two vessels, as not just a period of transition, but one of revolution.
A fully conserved gun from the wreck in the Alderney Museum. The carriage and other wooden features are modern reconstructions.
As we have established, the guns of the Alderney ship were of new design, new materials, new carriages and better propellants, and, it seems safe to assume, were arranged to comprise a homogenous, co-ordinated weapon system. Such radical jumps in gun technology not only imply a more professional navy but also, major changes in ship construction and in the very nature of warfare at sea. This is perhaps not so surprising when we remember that the deep-ocean wind-ship and the guns it carried, are noted for having developed faster during this century than in any other period of history before the Industrial Revolution.
As usual, comparisons with the Mary Rose are informative. The Mary Rose was a large, massively timbered vessel that was slow on the wind and sluggish to handle. From her more moderate timbers we know that the Alderney ship was significantly smaller and was therefore likely to have been more agile and weatherly. The Mary Rose had mixed, non-standardized guns of different capability, some new, some obsolete, some for use at sea, others for use on land. In addition the Mary Rose had anti-boarding nets across the waist and castles at prow and stern from which its massed archers could rain arrows down upon an enemy crew while its close-quarter guns raked the decks with scatter-shot. The Mary Rose was armed for a mêlée-type action that began with a battering and, once the ships had clapped sides, ended in boarding and hand-to-had combat. The Alderney ship, by contrast, had been given an artillery unit that was intended for stand-off warfare of a kind that was that was seen during the Armada battles of 1588 and which was only one step away from line-ahead, broadside engagements. No bows were found on the Alderney ship, but there were numerous muskets. We cannot yet say whether these belonged to the ship or were supplies for the troops in France, but what is certain, is that by the time of the Alderney ship, the gunpowder weapon, whether shoulder gun or deck cannon, was supreme at sea. In short, the Mary Rose and Alderney ship were at opposite ends of a revolution in naval architecture, ballistic science and tactics that all happened in less than a life time.
From her size, the absence of culverins and the certain knowledge that no capital ships were lost in the area, we can safely say that the Alderney vessel was not a front-line fighting ship. Then as now we would not expect a second echelon craft to be fitted with the latest fighting technology or be so well supplied with ammunition; until, that is, we remember her mission, which was Queen’s business of the very highest importance. At a time when the threat of invasion was as great as it was in later centuries from Napoleon and Hitler (s.v. Historical Background), this vessel was carrying vital communications between the most important man in England, Lord Burghley, and England’s foremost general, Sir John Norreys, who was commanding England’s first line of defence, an overseas army that had been tasked with preventing Spain from taking the invasion ports of Brittany. The effectiveness of that army depended on safe, fast communication. If our wreck is ‘the shypp that was cast away about Alderney’, and all the archaeological indications are that it is, then she was carrying dispatches upon which the security of the nation depended. Such dispatches would not have been entrusted to an old, slow and infirm vessel that was poorly crewed and incapable of defending itself. It would seem safe to assume that the Alderney ship was in good condition, fast, lean, weatherly, properly crewed, and, as the archaeology attests, well armed.
But how and in what circumstances would the Alderney ship have used her guns? What sort of action would she have fought? To be successful she would have had to fulfil two requirements: the first was to stay out of trouble, and the second was to deliver her dispatches in a minimum of time.
The Alderney ship was incapable of an offensive action against a larger vessel, her guns were not ship smashers, and she appears to have had no short-range, scatter-shot guns to rake an opponent’s decks in preparation for boarding, for which, in any event, she lacked the height. But what if she encountered a small enemy ship of similar or greater speed? This, after all, was a war zone and these were extremely dangerous times to be at sea. In the three year period that preceded the Alderney ship (1589-91), the English alone had a minimum of 236 vessels out privateering (Loades, 1992, 274), and of course the Dutch, French and Iberians were doing the same. In an encounter with a small, fast enemy naval ship or privateer, her armament mattered greatly. Because of what we would now call her ‘rules of engagement’, she would have been obliged to fight a defensive action and for this she was perfectly weaponed for her size. Though her projectile delivery in weight-of-shot was not great her guns were fast-firing and far-ranging and had an ammunition supply which would have allowed her to blast away with little restraint. Furthermore, at a time when pointing the gun was as much a matter of pointing the ship, the Alderney vessel would easily have been able to execute the fine navigational manoeuvres that were necessary to give perfect target to the guns, and, once they had been discharged, to have come about quickly in order to deliver the other broadside. The Alderney ship may not have been carrying battering pieces, but any attacking craft would soon have learned that she was well capable of inflicting serious injury.
But what would have been the nature of that injury? It is an old adage of artillery science that early guns could either project a heavy shot a short distance with considerable destructive power, or a small shot a long distance with less destructive results. The Alderney ship was armed for a stand-off action in which there was little chance of holing and sinking an opponent, but even at close quarters against a similarly sized, soft-skinned vessel, the chances of sinking her were small, bearing in mind that in the famous Armada actions of four years before, it is estimated that the invaders alone ‘tossed’ 124,000 cannon balls without a single ship being lost. In a defensive action, her task would have been to immobilise, or otherwise disable the aggressor, but not as a softening up tactic in preparation for boarding, but rather to give her time and opportunity for escape. In his book The Shooting of Great Ordnance (published just five years before the Alderney ship), William Bourne spoke of striking the enemy’s rudder, but more likely her main intention would have been to shred her opponent’s sails, bring down its masts or rigging, or set it on fire. The bar shot she carried was there to destroy an enemy’s motive power, and the star-shot with which she was also supplied, is known to have been used to carry inflammatory materials. And if an enemy ever got in close, then she was also well armed with hand-thrown incendiary pots, a well-known defensive weapon that could never be used if one was seeking to take an opponent by storm. In short, the Alderney ship was very likely able to out-gun anything her own size or smaller that she could not out-run, and could out-run anything bigger that she could not out-gun. A perfect formula for a vessel on a mission such as hers.