Walton, The Art of Gunnery in Renaissance England (PhD, 1999)

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Steven Ashton Walton

The Art of Gunnery in Renaissance England

Ph.D., IHPST, University of Toronto, 1999


Previous histories of artillery have concentrated on the guns themselves and their use in military actions, whereas this dissertation attempts to understand those guns as the core of a technological system in late Tudor England and the meaning of that system to its contemporaries. Theoreticians, authors, and gunners all looked to “gunnery” as a field of inquiry, and this thesis proceeds from theoretical gunnery, through its practical operation, to its bureaucratic and intellectual organization in Renaissance England.

First I investigate the ballistic work of Thomas Harriot (c1560-1621), to provide insight into the theoretical analysis of gunnery in the 1590s. Re-dating Harriot’s work to c1598-1600 and surveying Harriot’s career, personal influences, and scientific sources suggests that Harriot’s interest in gunnery was not generated by his first patron, the professional soldier Sir Walter Raleigh (as is usually assumed), but rather from his second patron, the military dilettante Henry Percy, ninth Earl of Northumberland. Next, printed English works on gunnery up to 1600 populate two species: practical manuals by Peter Whitehorne, William Bourne and Cyprian Lucar; and arithmetical/analytical works by Leonard and Thomas Digges and Thomas Smith. Then an analysis of two manuscript gunners’ manuals, written by practicing gunners, shows what the users themselves recorded.

Next, a survey of artillery use by the Tudor monarchs establishes the extent and role of cannon in sixteenth-century England, noting that Tudor warfare predisposed them not to develop their artillery skills. Analysis of two Ordnance Office surveys of 1580 and 1592 show what they did develop and records of ancillary gunnery equipment and gunner employment records more fully represent the practice of gunnery. And, as both confirmation and augmentation of this picture, the field notebook of a practicing gunner in the Irish wars rounds out the picture of gunnery as a personal occupation.

Finally, the bureaucratic and intellectual position of gunnery is told in the story of the Artillery Garden outside Bishopsgate and of William Thomas’ petitions to the Council for a formally chartered corporation for the licensing of gunners . Gunnery as a “mathematical” art and the gunners as “mathematical practitioners” concludes the thesis and indicates where gunnery “fit” into the late Elizabethan epistemology of practices.

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