A Brief History of Gunpowder Weapons in 14th Century England

There are a number of timelines of handguns on-line, but most have only a single date for the 14th century (and not even the dates listed by the others).  Then I found this one, by the Medieval Combat Society.  Good stuff!  I won’t repeat it all below–most of these dates have come from multiple sources.

Current archaeological and textual evidence shows that gunpowder originated in China, and migrated across Europe, first by word of mouth, then in actual form, arriving in England by the late 13th c.

First, from the Royal Armouries Yearbook, Volume 1, 1996:

Graeme Rimer’s article “Early Handguns” compiles textual evidence from the writings of Roger Bacon, dating between 1257-1265 and referring to the making of black powder, and its use in toys.  The second source he mentions is Marcus Graecus, in Liber Ignium or “book of fires”, which certainly sounds like a  promising title!–and dates to around 1300, then there is the oft-noted reference in Albertus Magnus De mirabiibus mundi.  If he’s actually the author of this work, it has to have been written before his death in 1280.

One of the problems of textual evidence is that written references are often scattered.  People might not have noted the first time something was done, made or seen, they often wrote chronicles and other documents long after the date they are describing, making textual evidence notoriously difficult to pin down.

An illuminated manuscript of about 1326-7 made for Edward III by Walter de Milemete shows a soldier firing a small cannon. Though the detail is lacking, the image is unmistakable.  In this case, the cannon is firing an arrow (likely with a metal shaft and brass fletching).  One site I surfed stated that the English used cannon like this against the Scots the following year.

In 1340, the Battle of Sluys, an important naval victory for the English, ship inventories include references to firearms.

However, we also have archaeological evidence that gunpowder was being manufactured at the Tower of London by 1346, the same year at the battle of Crecy, during which the British are said to have used firearms against the French–theoretically, the debut of gunpowder in battle in Europe.  We know Edward III used them at the Calais the following year.  (Italian references show bullets and cannon being ordered for city defense in Florence as early as 1326–and in such a quantity as to suggest that their manufacture was well established.)

Gunpowder weapons don’t seem to have been a decisive factor in  these battles (that distinction goes to the much more efficient and effective longbow), although the guns at Crecy are said to have frightened a troop of Genoese mercenaries so badly that they fled the line.  By 1386, handguns are also listed in the royal treasury.

In order to make the decision to produce or procure these weapons, train the men to use them, and transport them to the front, the weapons must have already taken hold.  Handguns of the time are very like miniature cannon:  cast in bronze or iron, with a small touch-hole at the back, the barrel would have been strapped to a staff to be braced for firing.  I saw just such a weapon in a museum at Bury St. Edmunds, but was unable to find anyone to answer questions about it, and the signage was uninformative.  It looked very like the one in Germany I wrote about here.  Perhaps I have an enterprising reader in that area who wants to do some legwork on that.

Some sources:

English Weapons and Warfare, 449-1660, by A.V.B. Norman and Don Pottinger

Handgonnes in the Middle Ages, by Don Justinian Syke of Rakovec (produced by the Society for Creative Anachronism)

collections and publications of the Royal Armouries

Haven’t seen this one yet, but I’d like to:

Cocroft, Wayne (2000), Dangerous Energy: The archaeology of gunpowder and military explosives manufacture, Swindon: English Heritage, ISBN 1-85074-718-0 .

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About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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5 Responses to A Brief History of Gunpowder Weapons in 14th Century England

  1. Another great and informative post! It’s this sort of informational post that drew me to your website in the first place! Excellent research! I assume you incorporate all this in your upcoming book.

    • Yes, indeed. And I had to put the post together after a first reader complained that guns weren’t used in warfare until after 1380. Now, I know that my job as a writer is to embed the facts in the story and make them believable. But it’s frustrating when folks are just plain wrong. So one of the things I want to do with my blog is to include the footnotes, like this, that show where some of the stuff in the books comes from. I haven’t asked the Good People of DAW how they feel about footnotes in fiction, but I’m pretty sure the answer would be “no.” Maybe I should make a blog category called “footnotes” and come back and tag them to the references in the books as the books come out. . .or maybe that would just make me crazy.

  2. Hey, I sympathize! I use footnotes in my “Labors of Ki’shto’ba Huge-Head” series because it’s presented in the form of a scholarly work – as a translation of the writings of a Remembrancer (read “bard”) of the Shshi (read termite people) by the human scholar who made the first contact with the ET termites. She supplies footnotes that explain the culture, language, etc. I would not even consider publishing without those notes. Of course, I’m self-publishing, so it’s not a problem. I had difficulties with the ebook versions, because they have no pagination and no really good way to link the notes to their place in the text if notes are placed at the end of the chapters or the book. So I simply embedded them in the text, because without them the reader would be puzzled by some things, and because it gives a shape of reality to the tale – that it is really all a work of the 30th century.
    That’s one thing I wouldn’t enjoy if I were to acquire a professional publisher – being told what I can and cannot do. But DAW will give you great marketing, so you’ll probably become a top seller, while I’m fudging along trying to eke out one reader at a time. And I hope you DO become a top seller!

  3. Pingback: Handgun Control in Medieval Japan | E. C. Ambrose

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