Prime Student 6-month Trial


An extract from Armies of the Middle Ages, Volume 1
by Ian Heath

The earliest written evidence for the cannon is found in the ordinances of Florence for 1326, which order the appointment of superintendents for the manufacture of a brass cannon as well as arrows and iron balls for it. Fairly certainly, therefore, the actual invention of cannon took place some time earlier, probably c. 1320; later chroniclers report that guns were used by the Germans at the siege of Metz in 1324 and by the Granadines at the siege of Baza in 1325. Other references to artillery allegedly dating to the very beginning of the 14th century and even to the 13th century are also to be found, but they all appear to be later interpolations. As we have already seen, the earliest reference to the use of cannon by the English dates to 1327, the year in which our earliest surviving picture of a cannon was also drawn, the Milemete manuscript executed that year by Edward III's chaplain containing a picture of a trestle-mounted vase-shaped gun discharging a heavy, feathered bolt against a castle gate (figure 145).

The shape of the gun in this picture explains graphically why early cannon were called vasi by the Italians and pots de fer by the French. The 2 or 3 guns used by the English at Crécy in 1346 may well have been of this type. Other names in use for artillery at this early date already included 'cannon' (1326) and 'gun' (in various forms), but the most widespread name was undoubtedly 'bombard', which was derived from born bos, meaning a loud humming noise. Froissart speaks of bombards as well as cannon in his description of the siege of Quesnoi in 1340, but the word doesn't actually occur in contemporary documents until several years later, by which time the earlier vase-shaped guns had disappeared. It was soon used as a general term for gunpowder artillery in general, and we encounter not only the heavy grosses bombardes but hand-bombards too. Not until the late-14th century was the word bombard accepted as denoting only a heavy gun, the first true heavy bombard, weighing 2,000 lbs, only appearing in 1362.

The earliest reference to guns being used in the field, as opposed to being used in sieges (by both defenders and attackers), dates to 1339 when the account books of Bruges record a new type of light artillery called a ribaudequin or ribaud. This is described by Froissart as '3 or 4 guns bound together', and we know from other sources that it took the form of a row of small gun-barrels mounted on a 2 or 4-wheeled cart (which Froissart likens to a mediaeval wheelbarrow), with a fixed mantlet, probably much like that of figure 151, to protect the gunners; it was therefore often called a char de guerre or 'cart of war'. The barrels could usually be fired either all together or else in rapid succession, 3 monstrous Italian contraptions of 1387 each having as many as 144 individual barrels in three 48-barrel tiers which could be fired in groups of 12. Probably the ribaudequin was initially developed for the defence of narrow spaces in castles, such as gateways, passages and breaches, but its potential as a source of mobile firepower in the field must soon have been recognised and within a short while it was to be found in use in great numbers, particularly in the Low Countries. In 1382 Gauntois rebels before Bruges had as many as 200 chars de guerre which are described as high-wheeled with long forward-projecting iron pikes for defence. Apparently there were also a great number at Roosebeke, and in 1411 the Duke of Burgundy's army blockading Paris is said to have been accompanied by 2,000 such carts, either an exaggeration for 200 or perhaps a reference to the number of barrels. Soon afterwards, however, the ribaudequin began to fall out of favour, undoubtedly because of the widespread introduction of the handgun. Nevertheless the word 'organ-gun', appearing in place of ribaudequin from the late-14th century onwards, bears witness to the continued survival of such weapons, late-15th century pictures of guns captured in the Burgundian Wars including several of wheeled carriages mounting several small barrels, usually 3.

Such multi-barrelled varieties of light artillery should not be confused with cannon mounting 2 or more rarely 3 barrels such as figure 151, dating to the 1470s; such guns are usually referred to in the sources as cannon having 2 or 3 capita, testes or 'pots'. The object depicted in 151a, from the same source, is a movable breech called a chamber which was secured in position in a gun by use of leather-covered wedges. Such chambers contained the charge used to fire the gun and were employed in many early cannon. However, the escape of powder-gas rendered this method of loading unsatisfactory, and it was not long before most guns tended to be purely muzzle-loaders, though some (Mons Meg, for example) were sometimes in sections that could be screwed together, easily identifiable by the holes round the rim of each section for screwing the parts together with levers. Nevertheless, movable breeches continued to be used for ribaudequins and some small guns, as well as some not so small, for a considerable time to come.

The earliest guns were made of brass or copper and were fairly small, weighing only 20-40 lbs themselves and firing missiles of only a few pounds' weight. Some early guns were even made of wood with only a core of metal; Petrarch, for example, refers to wooden cannon in 1343. However, after 1370, although many guns were made of latten, wrought iron guns were by far the most common, becoming bigger and bigger as time went by. They were made from longitudinal strips of iron welded together, with iron hoops driven over them from end to end, a form of construction that can be seen quite clearly in figures 146 and 147. The stands or beds on which they were mounted were called tillers or, in England by the late-14th century, trunks, the guns being secured to them by means of leather thongs, ropes, strong wire or iron bands. An order for a tiller to be made at Caen in 1375 describes it as 'a large baulk of elm, to be deeply grooved for the cannon to lie in, another for the side pieces in front, for pointing the piece' and various other baulks and timbers for side pieces at the back, lower beams and assorted unidentifiable parts. One chronicler tells us that such tillers did not last very long in action, requiring replacement every 3 or 4 days.

The earliest references to wheeled gun-carriages date to the 14th century, being the ribaudequins mentioned above. Heavier guns on wheeled carriages made their appearance only a little later, an Italian source mentioning 2-wheeled gun-carriages being used at the siege of Quero in 1376. However, they remained extremely rare until the 15th century, when they were further developed during the Hussite wars of the 1420s and 1430s, but there are still unlikely to have been many in Western Europe until the mid-century. The next stage in their development was the elevating carriage (figure 154), which was a means of depressing or elevating the barrel used prior to the general introduction of trunnions (which first appeared c. 1400) in the second half of the 15th century. Today this is usually called a 'Burgundian' carriage because of the frequency with which it occurs among the many pieces of artillery that were captured by the Swiss in the Burgundian Wars, still to be seen in Swiss museums today.

By the beginning of the 15th century there were sufficient numbers of cannon in existence for a division into different categories to have become apparent. One English verse of 1457-60 actually refers to bombards, guns, serpentines, fowlers, coveys, crappaudes (crapaudaux in French), culverines 'and other soortis moo than VIII or IX'. Bombards were the biggest guns of all, sometimes weighing over 10,000 lbs and capable of firing missiles of many hundreds of pounds' weight; Bordeaux in 1420, for example, had a large bombard capable of firing a stone weighing 7 cwt (784 lbs) and was making another that could fire stones of 5-5¼ cwt. The second-largest type of gun was the fowler or veuglaire, which first appeared in the Low Countries very early in the 15th century. This could be up to 8 feet long and varied in weight from 300 lbs right up to several thousand, but was usually at the lower end of this scale. It was usually a breech-loader and could sometimes be found mounted alongside ribaudequins. The crappaude or crapaudine was somewhat smaller again, being only 4-8 feet in length, while culverines and serpentines were the smallest types of gun to be found, though they usually had quite long barrels in relation to their calibre (hence their 'serpent' names, culverine being derived from colubra, meaning a snake); Charles the Bold, for example, had one 30-foot serpentine and 6 more 8-11 feet long at the siege of Neuss in 1474. To distinguish them from hand culverines they were often called grands couleuvrines. According to the Sieur de St Remy, an eye-witness, the French had serpentines at Agincourt in 1415, while Monstrelet refers to 'un grand nombre de chars et charettes, canons et ribaudequins' as being there. Mortars also made their appearance towards the end of the 14th century, these being at first short and heavy with a large bore (figure 152, right), becoming smaller during the 15th century. The English at Orleans in 1428 had 15 breech-loading mortars in their siege-train.

The earliest cannons fired either small iron balls or else heavy quarrels such as that depicted in Milemete's picture (figure 145). Such quarrels or garrots were used by Philip van Artevelde's guns at Roosebeke in 1382, for example. They normally had oak shafts, iron heads and iron, steel or brass flights and could weigh 15-30 lbs or on occasion considerably more; Froissart refers to heavy quarrels on several occasions, allegedly weighing 200 lbs at the siege of Ardres in 1377. Quarrels were in common use throughout the 14th century, and were the most common type of artillery missile until the early 1340s. Still frequently employed in the 15th century (Charles the Bold's grandes coulevrines fired quarraulx), they remained in limited use right up until the very end of the 16th century. Lead pellets, used by the smallest guns, and iron cannon balls such as recorded in the Florentine account of 1326 and used at Crécy in 1346, were replaced by stone shot as guns increased in calibre in the second half of the 14th century. The first reference to stone shot is found in the Chronicles of Pisa in 1364, and it was in use in France within a few years and in Germany by 1377, though in England gun stones (and therefore large guns) only begin to appear in the 1380s. Such stones were made by highly paid stone-cutters and were often if not usually covered with a thin layer of lead in order to prevent undue wear and tear to the inside of the gun barrel. As we have already seen, they could be of considerable weight. 200 lb shot was in use well before the end of the 14th century, and in 1451 the accounts of Philip the Good of Burgundy mention 3 gun stones of as much as 900 lbs each.

The transport both of such stones and of the massive guns that fired them was clearly a major consideration for 14th and 15th century commanders. A Burgundian source of the 1470s says that a large bombard required 24 horses to draw it, a courtaut (crappaude) 8 horses, a medium-sized serpentine or a mortar 4 horses and even a small serpentine 2 horses. In 1388 a single German bombard belonging to the city of Nuremburg required for its transport 12 horses to draw the barrel, 10, 4 and 6 more respectively to draw the wagons containing the tiller, winch and hoarding, another 20 horses to draw ammunition wagons each containing three 560 lb stone balls and the appropriate gunpowder, a horse for the master gunner, and a final wagon for his 6 assistants and their various tools. Similarly in 1477 two Italian bombards of no exceptional size required a support train of 48 wagons, each drawn by 2 or 4 horses, to transport their tillers, gunpowder, stone shot, quarrels and other equipment. So great was the weight of some artillery, in fact, that roads and in particular bridges frequently required reinforcement in order to take them. In 1453, for example, Philip the Good of Burgundy had to get a 17-foot bombard weighing 7,764 lbs from Mons to Lille, which involved strengthening every bridge en route with iron supports. When at one point this monster slid into a ditch it took two whole days to get it back on to the road. It is therefore easy to understand why guns and ammunition were frequently transported by river instead, as they were by the English in Normandy and Gascony in the 1420s and by the Burgundians in Flanders in 1453.

Finally it should be noted that the older types of artillery, the trebuchet and the ballista, continued to be used alongside guns until the 15th century. The French besieging Rennes in 1370 used trebuchets, for example. In fact in the East, where guns were introduced a good deal later than in Western Europe, we find the Byzantines using trebuchets during the final siege of Constantinople in 1453, while the Ottomans were still using 'slinges' against Rhodes as late as 1480.

Guns on ships

It would seem that the French were employing guns shipboard from the very beginning of the Hundred Years' War, a Norman fleet assembled in 1338 including at least one pot de fer and quarrels. A long-accepted theory that English ships were carrying breech-loading brass and iron ribaudequins the same year is now known to be false, but certainly guns were used by both French and English ships only a few years later at Sluys (1340), where at least one English ship is known to have been sunk by gunfire. At first very few guns were carried per ship, the largest French vessels at Sluys carrying only 4 each, but before long a considerable number might be carried. One warship built on Jean de Vienne's orders in 1377 was armed with as many as 34 guns, and most larger ships of the 15th century carried a similar number. Spanish ships too were carrying guns by 1359 at the latest.

The Venetians only first put cannon on their ships in 1379 during the Fourth Genoese War (the War of Chioggia), when they mounted guns in the forecastles of their galleys and also on smaller long-boats used for fighting in the shallows. Genoese galleys started carrying guns soon afterwards; Froissart, describing the Genoese fleet's arrival off Mahdiya in 1390, relates how 'they sent in first their light vessels called brigandines, well furnished with artillery; they entered into the haven, and after them came the armed galleys and the other ships of the fleet in good order.' The practice of mounting one large gun at the prow of galleys remained the norm for the rest of this period, with smaller guns being mounted round the forecastle and sterncastle later in the 15th century. Some of the biggest galleys, those with 4 oars to a bench, had in addition some larger guns mounted in the sides of the hull.


145. The earliest picture of a cannon, from a treatise by Walter de Milemete, dated 1326 but by today's reckoning belonging to 1327. The gun is brass, as are the head and flights of the quarrel, which has an iron shaft. The 'table' top is white and the legs green. This figure and all the others in this section have been deliberately left in the style of their originals rather than any attempt having been made to 'interpret' them.

146. From an edition of the 'Books of Graunt Caam' by Marco Polo of c. 1400, this gun is shown in use against town walls alongside a trebuchet. This is the earliest known picture portraying trunnions.

147. Iron-barrelled gun of 14th century design from a 15th century edition of Froissart depicting the siege of Aufryke (Mahdiya) during the Duc de Bourbon's expedition of 1390.

148. 15th century English bombard from a ms. of c. 1475. Guns of this type remained in use alongside cannon like those in figures 154-157 until about the end of the century, being depicted side by side, for example, in a near-contemporary wood-carving of the siege of Granada in 1492.

149. Florentine gun from a mid-15th century painted cassone, showing the simplest form of tiller.

150. Drawing of a captured Burgundian serpentine, from a Swiss record of booty taken during the wars of 1476-77.

151. Gun with 2 iron barrels from a 15th century edition of Froissart. It has iron-rimmed wheels and a wooden carriage and mantlet; the latter, added for the protection of the gunners, usually pivoted on the two uprights and had ropes attached to its topmost corners so that it could be hoisted up out of the way for firing.

152. A fowler (or crappaude?) and a mortar, from a ms. made for King Edward IV c. 1475. Note the wheeled gun-carriage of the former, with extended trails between which a horse was probably harnessed on the march. The shot is stone.

153. A fowler on its transport carriage, from a French translation of Xenophon, c. 1470. In the original a horse is shown harnessed between the shafts.

154. Gun with an elevating or 'Burgundian' carriage, from a German 'Firework Book' usually dated to c. 1440-50. The actual elevating device, comprising a curved wooden or iron upright through which a securing pin was inserted, works on the same principle as that of figure 150.

155. Typical wheeled gun of the second half of the 15th century, of a type to be found in dozens of different sources. This particular one is from the French 'Vigiles de Charles VII' of 1484, where such guns are shown with both brass and iron barrels. As can be seen, they were quite small and were extremely manoeuvrable, the 1468 edition of Froissart showing a single artilleryman swinging one round by its trail to face a surprise attack from the opposite direction. One modern authority (Greener) tells us that by this date gun barrels 'were painted either bright red or black or, if of brass, were brightly polished'. Contemporary pictures, however, usually show iron barrels as a mid blue-grey, or sometimes of a very dark grey that is indeed almost black, while carriages are shown mostly dark brown or occasionally a tan colour.

156. From a picture in Diebold Schilling's chronicles of c. 1480-85 portraying the siege of Neuchatel by Zurich (the blue and white badge of the latter can be seen on the mantlet). It was probably drawn from one of those that the Swiss captured from the Burgundians in the 1470s.

157. A nice study of a Burgundian gun position at the siege of Morat in 1476, from Schilling's 'Amtliche Chronicle'. Note the wooden mantlet, fixed to the brass barrel by pivots at the front and supported by two struts at the back, shown resting on the ground here but located on pins on the sides of the carriage in 156. On the march this mantlet would have been folded down over the gun, thus providing a roof giving some protection against rain and dust. Regarding the fixed hoarding through which the gun is firing, a description of such defences in Christine de Pisan's 'Fais d'Armes' of 1434 indicates that these could be monstrous affairs. Some she describes as 12 feet wide, 30 feet high and 2 feet thick; others are 24 feet high and broad, constructed of boards 5" thick and timbers 18" square and mounted on 5 (!) wheels of elm. Even her 'small' wheeled mantlets are 12 feet wide, 9-10 feet high and 4" thick, each with 'a little wicket open for to shoot a gun when there is the need'.

158. As an additional defence against steadily improving artillery many towns and fortresses, in addition to having gun emplacements added to their walls, also added barbicans and further outer defences which, from the 1430s at the latest, often took the form of timber-strengthened earthworks called boulevards (from the German Bolwerk) which were well-stocked with artillery. These are recorded before the gates of Bordeaux in 1442, for example. Likewise, by the 1440s it had become customary for besiegers to construct similar field fortifications in the form of an entrenched artillery park beyond the range of the defenders' own guns, from which they would then dig a network of trenches and gun positions covered by wooden hoardings and mantlets. Based on a picture of c. 1475, the general form of such defensive positions can be seen in this figure. The Battle of Castillon in 1453 was basically an attack on a similar entrenched position.

159. This is a chèvre or 'goat', a robust timber framework operated by ropes and pulleys that was used to lift guns out of their travelling carriages and into their tillers ready for action. This particular picture is from an Italian ms, of c. 1455 written for the condottiere Sigismondo Malatesta.

Extracts from and sources for Armies of the Middle Ages, volume 1 by Ian Heath