Tuesday, September 14, 2010
History, Weapons of Mass Destruction and the Balance of Terror
Good day all I hope this day finds all my readers in good health. Hopefully the course of leeches I prescribed did the trick? Excellent! Always a sound remedy for those of a choleric disposition, and preferable to the practice of cupping or drawing several ounces of blood with a knife and basin. Those more severe methods have always left me slightly uneasy as to their real efficacy for the treatment of illness. To expel black bile and rebalance the body’s natural humours I have rather tended to rely on purgatives or emetics as more immediate remedies. Anyway Medieval and Tudor medicine was very keen on the idea of resorting to what we would consider rigorous procedures to return the patient to the body’s natural harmony or symmetry. In fact one of the main themes of the Renaissance was the struggle between those keen on maintaining the existing ‘Natural Order’ and those who agitated that a newer updated version of the ‘Natural Order’ be incorporated.
As an example of the turmoil this clash caused we can look at the actions of the Tudors monarchs. Henry VIII in particular was naturally pretty heavy on the maintaining of the Natural Order, in both the physical and spiritual bodies of the kingdom. Especially, since their position at the top of the late medieval hierarchy was gained by conspiracy, treachery and the bloody violent overthrow of the legitimate monarch. After that example of the rewards of betrayal it behoved Tudor monarchs to behave quite severely towards similarly ambitious nobles by the simple expedient of beheading any rivals that happened to pop up. Now apart from the draconian laws and punishments pertaining to Treason, Heresy and Praemunire (we’ll cover that last one in a separate article later, in the meantime just think of it as a useful catchall that picks up any opponents the other two missed), the Tudor state had one more important tool of legitimacy, that had English nobles pause in thought;
Where as in the medieval period the knight was seen as the potent symbol of the religious, political and military hierarchy, by the later 1400s advances in technology had altered the reality behind this steel clad image. While the chivalric and romantic ideals of the knight were venerated in song, story and sculpture by the aristocracy, the reality was somewhat different. The knight still held an honoured, essential and even exalted position on the field of battle. However his participation in combat no longer guaranteed victory as a weapon of war, unless it was in the capacity of a unit captain or senior commander. That battle winning accolade now belonged to a new mistress of the battlefield, the triumph of the artisans and alchemists craft; the cannon; the Tudor version of Weapon of Mass Destruction. As an example of this I am inserting a section from one of my novels (The Queens Oranges) that best explains the new reality of this modern engine of war and their impacts as Renaissance WMD’s;
Red Ned and the Queens Oranges chapter 6 Modern Engines of War © 2010
…It was certainly a widening of Ned’s knowledge, the more he heard regarding the great bronze beast that the three of them affectionately patted, the more awe struck and fascinated he became. These modern devices; the Basilisks, Demi cannons and Culverins were the King’s means to smite and lay waste his foes. If however they were his arms, then the blood and sinews that powered these weapons was the vital black powder, the success of the alchemists craft the ‘Fue d’Artifice’ or “made fire’. It was the ability to balancing the conflicting art, craft, alchemy and perhaps magic that made these two men so valuable to the king’s service. For when carefully measured and weighed the charges, if used with skill could propel missiles that would destroy the greatest walls or alter the fate of nations in battle. Without this blend of skill and the harnessed wrath of the black powder these great weapons of destruction were just mute impotent lumps of bronze and iron.
As an example of their impact on the turn of Lady Fortuna’s wheel Henryk recounted one famous incident. It was at the battle of Ravenna over twenty years ago between the Spaniards and the Lombard League. A single shot from a culverin ploughed into the Spanish line killed thirty men and wounded many more. The horror and shock of the missile’s devastation caused the Spanish companies of horse to precipitously charge in desperation, losing the battle. Ned could understand why the common soldiers feared and venerated their Gonnes, it was a bit like have a savage demon on a loose tether. If the other side had one so did you, possession was essential, no matter the risks or expense.
From the older brother he had a story that warned of the perils of use, King James II of Scotland was besieging the English held castle of Roxburgh when the barrel of his great siege Gonne exploded killing him. Ned had looked doubtfully at the culverin he was leaning on until Henryk assured him that the incident had happened years ago and cannon rarely exploded like that now. That had set Ned’s fears at ease, then Hubrecht gave a low chuckle and add that bronze was still preferred over iron since it tended to bulge before exploding, but. The douche gonner had concluded his reasoning with the sort of shrug and wave of hands in the universal gesture of uncertainty of Lady Fortuna’s favour and Ned’s reassurance evaporated.
After those tales Ned could understand the recent rants from the friars screaming of the coming destruction. Blood and Fire of the Apocalypse! Any city under siege from modern engines of war would witness their own dress rehearsal for St John the Evangelist’s prophetic words. It was no surprise that after the first roar of the Gonnes most towns surrendered. Casting a more knowledgeable look at the iron and bronze instruments, the wonder was that in battle men didn’t break and run at the first salvo. It must take a special kind of resolve to stand and watch the belching gouts of smoke and flame as they lashed towards their ranks.
The Tudor WMD
The weapon of mass destruction is not a recent concept, kingdoms and empires have worked through a number of different variations usually revolving around siege engines or the ultimate warship. The Tudor dynasty was in this respect no different to those of the past or its contemporaries in Europe. At the time the cannon represented the best balance of siege breaking ability and battlefield awesomeness. Even better for those monarchs keen on a centralised government and taxation, the manufacture and maintenance of cannons was an extremely expensive business, almost as expensive as firing them. In this modern age of mass production and general wealth it is easy to lose perspective on the period costs of the simple necessities of war like gunpowder. Once more I quote from the Queen’s Oranges;
“What does it cost for a barrel of powder?” That produced a fierce discussion with much waving of arms, whether those gestures defined sizes, measures or what Ned was unsure but the brothers finally came to an agreement. As before Rob Black was delegated as spokesman, his friend looking both shocked and surprised as he turned to deliver their deliberation.
“Ahh Ned, I’m a bit unclear they… we had to try and translate their usual weights and prices into our equivalents, but they think a barrel of about a hundredweight based on the price at Ghent last month is worth eighty English pounds.”
“What, a barrel! Are you sure?” Ned tried hard to keep the surprise out of his voice, Rob looked puzzled for a moment before rejoining the huddle of experts. Further mutters and expansive gesture signalled the efforts of translation until Rob finally straightened up and walked over with a slightly puzzled smile.
“Yes Ned, they’re certain eighty English pounds it is! The measures and weights was a bit of trouble, since they had to rework douche and imperial standards into London pounds since a good half to two thirds of the powder is bought overseas. Then there was difficulty in the exchange rate for Rhenish florins.” A pair of beard faced nodded in agreement to Rob’s explanation.
“Sweet Jesu, war is an expensive business!” To Ned this shed a new light on the cost of the cannon’s roar at city celebrations, at sixteen hundred silver shillings or two hundred and sixty gold angels a barrel, it was very clear why the King would want to restrict their use to only supremely important royal announcements. He wondered just how much powder was used per Gonne, no doubt these two brothers would know down to the nearest peck, but he’d seen a possible answer for the vanished Ben Robinson.
So in Tudor currency terms two hundred and eighty gold coins a barrel and to put that in even starker perspective the Tower was said at that time (1530) to hold six thousand barrels of gunpowder. Even if we cut that figure down to a more reasonable four thousand the value would be one million one hundred and twenty thousand golden angels just for the gunpowder. To give an idea of contemporary value one barrel of gunpowder is worth around eighty Tudor pounds sterling, to be classed as a gentleman you required an annual income of twenty pounds sterling. As they say war is a very expensive pastime only pursued by Princes. So if you want to either defend the realm or stake your families claim on someone else’s territory chests over brimming with gold and silver are a prerequisite.
So as you can see the old days of raising the banner of rebellion if you didn’t like the monarch or disagreed with their religious inclination, while still possible and indeed in Europe was common. The action though usually overbrimming with zeal and commitment often suffered from a few glaring defects. If the rebels didn’t have access to gold, gonnes and gonnepowder the chance of victory on the battle field or siege was pretty remote.
And where you may ask did the Tudor monarchs keep most of their modern Engines of War?
In the Tower of London, the most heavily armed and secure ‘palace’ in all of Britain. Directly under the watchful eye of the most senior royal officials and just a short boat ride down river from Whitehall, the centre of Tudor administration. In fact the only successful rebellion in the Tudor period was that of Princess Mary Tudor against Lady Jane Grey, Edward VII’s proclaimed Protestant successor. It is worth mentioning that Princess Mary according to some reports and chronicles ‘acquired’ a large number of cannons and armaments from some of the great Tudor warships coincidentally lying off Harwich. Considering what we know from the wreck of the Mary Rose removing and remounting its great gonnes for transport would have taken a large shipyard like Greenwich and some time.
Also these miraculous cannons were unlikely to be from some local noble’s own stock since to possess any cannon required a royal licence. No Tudor monarch was keen on letting such potent weapons stray out of royal supervision. So is it possible that Mary Tudor was lent some ready made WMD’s by her Hapsburg uncle Emperor Charles V from across the channel in Bruges? That could be a point to investigate at a later date.
It is also worth noting that Tudor WMDs weren’t pulled out at the merest whim, it required a lot of effort and expense to see that they were deployed with adequate support. The widowed husband of Mary, Philip of Spain in a later effort to unseat his former sister in law Elizabeth used a sizable fleet the Armada to transport his WMDs in 1588. Despite the brave words of her Majesty’s Tilbury speech it is just as well that Howard, Drake and the English fleet drove off the Armada. Since it was commonly considered that once it had landed its WMD’s and supported by the Duke of Parma’s veteran pike and muskets would have demolished the English defences within days.
Up dating WMD’s
The basic gonnepowder cannon reigned supreme, for hundreds of years, it was the queen of battles and arbiter of nations from late medieval to the later part of the ninetieth century, essentially unchanged as a weapon. Then during that explosion of invention that was the Victorian steam age it experienced a serious technological upgrade, more than quadrupling its range and capacity for destruction and creating the first of the twentieth century’s WMD’s;
The Dreadnought WMD
There was nothing new in fitting cannons to ships. The utility of a gonne powder ballistic weapon in ship to ship and then ship to shore battle was soon realised as an improvement on the previous catapults and ballista’s. Its initial integration in naval warfare was fitful, as the technology of cannons clashed with the requirements of a timber maritime vessel. Since they were propelled by oars or sail the placement of heavy iron or bronze cannons could and did impair their need to stay balanced and afloat in difficult conditions. The proof of this conflict was the loss of both the Mary Rose and the Vasa both of which sunk due to improperly closed lower gunports when the vessels were heeled over by a sudden wind.
It has been suggested by some marine historians that the Elizabethan ship designers and cannon manufacturers were the first Europeans to fully integrate the race galleon as a primary gun platform naval vessel, rather than being a standard vessel with cannons added. In time this idea of a full time dedicated naval gun platform took hold amongst the western nation states as they competed for control of resources, prestige and trade. Thus we come to the British three decker ship of the line like the HMS Victory a purpose designed and constructed battle ship with one hundred and twelve cannons the most powerful weapon of its day. As mighty and graceful as these vessels were, the advances in both iron and steel technologies during the industrial revolution transformed them into relics of former glory. The modern face of battle by 1860 was a steel hulled warship such as HMS Warrior.
And Britannia still ruled the waves until the American Civil War. The clash of the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia on the 9th march 1862 proved that technology and innovation under the pressure cooker of conflict could move very fast.
This speed of improvement turned out to be very expensive for modern nations aspiring to the ultimate in battle wear accessories like an up to date fleet. Also important in seizing and protecting those overseas colonies required for the status of empire. This competition reached its technological, financial and design apogee in the construction of HMS Dreadnought in 1906.
On the day of its launching it became the most expensive, advanced and powerful weapon in the world. With its massive 12 inch guns it could lob an armour piercing shell 18 kilometres. For speed she could travel at 21.4 knots or around 40 kilometres per hour and her armour was the latest steel compound and at its thickest was 11 inches. This was the ultimate in Steam Period WMD. No other world class navy or shore battery could stand up to its salvos and she was specifically designed to sink any ship or combination of ships afloat. As for potential destructive power there was nothing to surpass it until the much later American and Japanese super battleships.
The Dreadnought class of warship was regarded as such a serious threat that international treaties were negotiated to limit its spread and balance out the number of battleships per nation, thus providing the world with the first balance of terror for the twentieth century. It is perhaps rather sad and disappointing for us a hundred years later that our WMD’s do not look so majestic or stately and out weigh HMS Dreadnought in destructiveness by a factor of thousands if not tens of thousands.
The thread of this story began with Tudor medicine then onto the Tudor status quo and how it was maintained by law and Tudor period military technology with a few brief excursions into historical fiction. Then we had a very quick coverage leading up to the awesome weapons of the 1900’s the Dreadnought. From the cannon to the battleship all of these fitted into the classification of WMD’s. All of them were meant to be seen as instruments of threat, or defence of the realm. As symbols they mostly they just sat around reminding people of what could happen if…
Such is the currency of deterrence. However in these modern and enlightened times WMD’s are hidden objects of terror and suspicion capable of annihilating entire cities.
In that case isn’t it good that we have outgrown religious fanaticism and bigotry? Aren’t we lucky to longer have the Tudor habits of a nation serving the whims of an individual monarch? Aren’t we fortunate that our realms employ WMD’s at the will and discretion of the people rather than to salvage the reputation and claims of our forefathers? Aren’t we just so damn’d superior to our ancestors!!!
Bye all and don't forget take the dammned Pills!!!