Artillery of the Middle Ages

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.

The shape of the gun in this picture explains graphically why early cannon were called vasi by the Italians and pots defer by the French. The 2 or 3 guns used by the English at Crecy 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 bombos, 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 or4 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, 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, dating to the 1470s; such guns are usually referred to in the sources as cannon having 2 or 3 capita, testes or ‘pots’. A similar weapon, from the same source, has 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. 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 14thcentury, 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, 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 15thcentury. 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 7cwt (784lbs) and was making another that could fire stones of 5 1/2 cwt. The second-largest type of gun was the fowler or veuglaire, which first appeared in the Low Countries very early in the 15thcentury. 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, 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. 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 Crecy 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 bad 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 15thcentury. 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.

English Artillery

England had artillery by 1327, in which year Edward III is claimed to have been accompanied by such ‘crakys (ravens) of war’ on his Scottish expedition. Guns were used at the siege of Berwick in 1333, and in the field at Crecy where, according to Froissart, ‘the English had with them two bombards and they made 2 or 3 discharges on the Genoese’. The presence of cannon in the English army on this occasion has, curiously, been doubted, but is confirmed by various sources, including Villani, who says that ‘the English guns cast iron balls by means of fire’, and that ‘they made a noise like thunder and caused much loss in men and horses’. The complete case for the defence is ably set out in Burne’s The Crecy War. However, there seems to be no evidence of an English army on the Continent employing field-guns on any other occasion during the Hundred Years’ War period.

Guns in England were at first ordered via the Tower of London, but from the 1370s at the latest castles began to buy, or sometimes hire, them direct from their manufacturers, using money supplied from the exchequer. The English dominions in France similarly made their own arrangements, obtaining their guns either from the Tower or from Calais, or in 15th century Normandy from Caen and Rouen. During the second half of the 14th century individuals even began to buy cannon of their own, and by the end of the century they were to be found in virtually every major and even minor castles.

Until the 1380s English guns were not as heavy as those of the French, averaging only 380 lb. in weight. However, heavier pieces began to appear at about that date; Sir John Arundel had 12 guns at Cherbourg in 1379 of which 7 could fire stones of 24″ and the remaining 3 stones of 15″ diameter. A surviving gun used in Sir Nicholas Burdet’s unsuccessful siege of Mont Saint-Michel in 1424 weighs 5 1/2 tons, has a calibre of 19 1/2″ and could fire stones weighing 300 lb.

Artillery customarily accompanied all English armies in the field by the mid-14th century. In 1356 there were guns in the Black Prince’s baggage train when he fought at Poitiers, and Froissart tells us that Chandos ‘was in the habit of taking (guns) about with his troops’ by 1369. Nevertheless, such artillery trains were of modest proportions, and even for Edward III’s proposed expedition of 1372 only 29 guns were supplied, despite the considerable size of the army (4,000 men-at-arms and 10,000 archers). At the most celebrated achievement of English artillery during this period, the battering into submission of Harfleur in 1415, only 12 heavy guns (plus presumably a greater number of smaller pieces) were present, three being named London, Messenger and The King’s Daughter.

Artillery in Ireland

Ordinary siege-engines of the trebuchet and ballista varieties remained in use in Ireland until at least the late-15th century, arrow-firing engines being recorded, for example, in 1478. Cannon were introduced in small numbers by the English in the 14th century. One very small gun accompanied Lionel of Antwerp in 1361, while Richard II had at least 6 great bombards and 6 small ones in his expedition of1394-95, and 32 cannon during his 1399 expedition, which were deposited in Dublin castle on his return to England, seemingly unused. The first actual use of light guns in Ireland seems to date to as late as 1488, when Gerald FitzGerald, Earl of Kildare, used them against Balrath castle. Heavy guns are only first recorded used in 1495, this time by the Lord Deputy against Waterford.

Scottish Artillery

The Scots first saw artillery in 1327, in Edward III’s army, and again during the English siege of Berwick in 1333. However, they are only first recorded using cannon themselves in 1339, at the siege of Stirling. Artillery rarely ever actually appeared in a Scottish field army raiding in England, but at home even noblemen often had their own guns by the mid-15th century, like their counterparts in England, France and elsewhere. A general council held in 1456 actually advised that certain barons should be asked to provide ‘cartis of weire’ for the royal army, each with 2 breech-loading guns, the parliament of 1471 similarly ordering prelates and barons to make such ‘cartis of weire’. One of the most famous artillery mishaps of this period occurred in Scotland too, King James II being killed by a gun back-firing at the siege of Roxburgh Castle in 1460.

French Artillery

ln France, as elsewhere, individual towns soon had large numbers of guns – in 1358, for example, Laon already had 12 and had just ordered 43 more, while Arras in 1369 had 38 guns; early cannon were, after all, not particularly expensive (we read in French accounts of guns costing only 3 francs, 2 1/2 ecus, and so on, equivalent to about 3s. or 3s. 4d.), and they could even be cheaper than the powder necessary to fire them! By the first half of the 15th century many individual barons too had their own artillery, such as the 7 ‘great culverins of metal’ which Gaston IV, Comte de Foix, took with him on campaign in 1450. The crown, on the other hand, had little artillery of its own before the 15th century and normally obtained what it required for a specific enterprise by temporarily ‘borrowing’ guns from the towns. Summonses issued after the fall of Harfleur in 1415, for example, specify to the provincial baillis that ‘you will likewise enjoin … that all cannon, engines of war, and other offensive or defensive weapons that can be spared from the principal towns, be sent to our aid without delay, which we promise to restore at the end of the war(i. e., the campaign).’

The French seem always to have had heavier guns than the English (as early as the siege of St. Sauveur-le-Vicomte in 1375, for example, they had guns that could fire 100 lb stone shot, one of them weighing more than a ton), but they only began to put this advantage to good use in the 1430s under the guidance of Jean Bureau, Master of the Artillery, and his brother Gaspard. Jean first served as a gunner for the English, but he took service with King Charles VII in 1434 and master-minded siege technology during the reconquest of occupied France from the English thereafter, his most notable successes being the capture of Meaux in 1439, Pontoise in 1441, Harfleur in 1449 (where together with Gaspard he founded 16 guns on site) and Caen and Cherbourg in 1450. In addition Jean was effectively commander of the French forces at the Battle of Castillon in 1453. His brother was Master of the Artillery in tum; in 1458 his permanent bande comprised a keeper ofthe artillery, a master gunner, a master carter, and 30 cannoneers, and in 1463 he had as many as 9 bombards and 32 smaller guns in and around Paris under Louis XI.

By the late-15th century the French royal artillery train was generally accepted as being the most formidable in Europe.

Artillery in the Low Countries

The communal armies of the Low Countries made considerable use of light field guns from the mid-14th century onwards, the very earliest case of field artillery on record being the ribaudequins used by Bruges in 1339-40. Some idea of the large number of guns sometimes fielded can be taken from Froissart’s account of a battle between Bruges and Ghent in 1382 in which ‘they of Ghent discharged at once 300 guns at one shot’. Examples of their effectiveness in action can be seen in the descriptions of the battles of Roosebeke, Othee, Gavere and Brusthem.


In addition to soldiers a considerable amount ofarms, including artillery, was also imported from Gascony, or else manufactured in Navarre by Gascons. During Charles the Bad’s reign a small cannon firing a 7lb stone ball cost 50 florins to make, while a larger one firing a 13 lb ball cost 70-100 florins.

Artillery in Spain

The first reference to the use of cannons by the Christians of Spain dates to King Alfonso XI of Castile’s siege of Algeciras in 1342. Guns were being regularly manufactured for the Castilian army by the 1380s, by which time they were certainly being used on the battlefield, the Castilians fielding 16 bombards against the Portuguese at Aljubarrota (though admittedly with little effect). However, the royal artillery establishment remained of modest proportions until the late-15th century. In 1479 there were only 4 artillerymen in Castilian royal service, but by 1482 this had increased to 65 and by 1485 to 91, including Burgundians and Bretons but mainly Aragonese. By 1495 the Castilian army possessed 179 pieces of artillery.

Granadine Artillery

There is substantial evidence that it was the Granadines who introduced gunpowder into the Iberian Peninsula. They appear to have had artillery at the siege of Baza as early as 1325 and at Alicante in 1331. In 1342 the garrison of Algeciras used cannons referred to by Christian sources as truenos (‘thunderers’ or ‘thunderclaps’, which remained a common term for artillery in Spain until the 16th century; those at Algeciras fired ‘stones of iron’ the size of apples and ‘arrows so long and thick that mao could only with a great effort raise them from the ground’). Despite their early lead they appear to have used artillery exclusively in sieges and the defence of towns and castles, though in a sortie before Granada in 1491 they towed a couple of light pieces into action with them.

However, in the 15th century they were completely outclassed by the Christians’ artillery. At the siege of Moclin in 1486, one of the few cases where Granadine artillery is recorded as being effective, it is significant that the cannons they were using were captured Christian pieces.

The Italian States

Condottieri armies, being in the employ of city-states, were usually well supplied with artillery, which was normally only used in siege-work. Nevertheless, the Veronese army at the Battle of Castagnaro in 1387 was accompanied by 24 bombards and 3 ribaudequins (though they never got into action). By the 15th century some condottieri also had their own modest artillery trains – for example, one condottiere in Milanese employ in the mid-century had, besides his 400 lances, 2 bombards and 2 smaller pieces.

Unlike the rest of Western Europe, where horses were used, the principal draught-animal in Italy was the ox. A Milanese artillery train of 16 guns in J472 required 522 pairs of oxen to haul its 227 wagons (which also carried handguns, powder, shot and spare lances), while another army, this time dating to J477, had 2 guns capable of firing 200 and 300 lb shot drawn by 5 and 8 pairs of oxen respectively. Papal armies actually used buffaloes to draw their guns.

Swiss Artillery

Cannons were probably in use in Switzerland by the mid-14th century, and were being manufactured in Baste by 1371. They were not of major importance in Swiss warfare, however, the mountainous nature of the local terrain being against them. Nevertheless, the cantons did have some light field pieces which they used to good effect at Grandson. After the Burgundian Wars, of course, the Swiss had an embarrassing wealth of guns, contemporary records indicating that they captured in total many hundreds of pieces from Charles the Bold.

Burgundian Artillery

Despite Commynes’ assurances that it was the archers who were considered ‘the pride and joy of the army’, it seems likely that Charles was in truth more proud of his artillery(though paradoxically enough it did him little worthwhile service during his ten years of siege and war). The guns he fielded were amongst the most modern to be found anywhere, many having trunnions or elevating devices as well as wheeled carriages which made them ideally suited to field use. Poor gunnery, however, rendered them virtually ineffective in battle, and though Charles himself claimed that his guns killed 1,200-1,400 Frenchmen at Montl’hery in 1465 it is significant that the Swiss were able to capture Charles’ powerful artillery train each time they came up against it, at Grandson (allegedly 420 guns), at Morat (200 guns) and at Nancy (103 guns). Judging from the quantities, however, these must have been largely small-calibre pieces, which would seem to be borne out by the ‘very numerous and powerful’ artillery used at the siege of Neuss, which comprised 17 great bombards, 10 courteaux (seemingly crappaudes) on wheeled carriages, and 202 serpentines of assorted sizes and calibres, the whole being served by 200 cannoniers. Similarly, Charles’ artillery train against Lorraine in 1475 was made up of 12 bombards (6 large, 6 small), 6 mortars, 10 courteaux, one great serpentine, and 16 large and 48 small serpentines.

Charles also seems to have made more use of field artillery than most of his contemporaries, though this was due at least in part to the fact that he had a knack for letting himself be attacked whilst prosecuting sieges. However, at Nancy he certainly had 30 guns positioned in front of his infantry square which would have surely smashed the Swiss pike phalanxes if they had been stupid enough to attack head-on, which they were not.

Such artillery trains were mustered from a variety of sources. Most were drawn from ducal arsenals at Dijon, Lille and elsewhere, supplemented by captured pieces and others borrowed or commandeered from towns or belonging to individual noblemen. As early as 1419 there were 23 ducal castles with their own artillery. Overall command was in the hands of a Master of Artillery for all the Burgundian lands, an office created under John the Fearless in 1415.


The invention of gunpowder and subsequent introduction of the gun in the first half of the 14th century added a brand-new dimension to warfare.

Early field artillery was customarily positioned either directly in front of an army or on its flanks. Examples of these forms of deployment are to be found respectively at Ludford Bridge in 1459, where the Yorkists had ‘their carts with guns set before their battles’, and at Agincourt in 1415 where, so Thomas Elmham records, the French had ‘certain saxivora or guns, which might disperse the English when about to fight, placed along the flanks of the army’. Christine de Pisan says that the artillerymen ‘drew up with the crossbowmen and archers’, which-as we have seen-means on the flanks or in front. The obvious disadvantage of placing one’s artillery to the front of the army, of course, was that it could find itself somewhat exposed, and it was not unusual for it to be charged and taken after its first discharge simply because reloading took an inordinate length of time. In fact on many occasions guns would be taken and retaken during a battle, perhaps several times, as, for example, at Formigny in 1450. One means of preventing this was to accompany the heavier guns by smaller or multi-barrelled pieces designed to keep the enemy at bay while the former were laboriously reloaded. Le Jouvencal, for instance, says: ‘When your bombards have begun to fire, make sure the veuglaires and light artillery fire as much as possible after each shot’. As an indication of how low the rates of fire of the heavier pieces actually were, Hussite guns at the siege of Karlstyn fired only 7 times a day, though one could fire 30 times, and though this was not under battlefield conditions, where higher rates of fire were undoubtedly attempted, it is noteworthy that at the siege of Saaz in 1421 one gun that fired 70 times in a full 24 hours (i. e. at least one shot about every 20 minutes) was considered extraordinary by contemporaries.

Such low rates of fire combined with a relatively short range (le. ss than that of a crossbow in 1347, though reaching 2,500 paces by as early as 1429), severely restricted the effectiveness of field artillery during the period under review, and we rarely read of many men actually being killed by artillery in contemporary accounts. At St Jacob-en-Birs in 1444, for example, only about 200 men were killed by the Dauphin’s guns (though admittedly this represented nearly 15% of the Swiss losses), while at Morat Charles the Bold’s guns killed just 250 men in the Swiss Vorhut. At Nancy, where they had been sighted too high, his guns actually killed only one-presumably tallman!

Other disadvantages of early artillery were their inability to fire during damp weather (at Northampton, we are told, ‘the king’s ordnance could not be shot, there was so great a rain that day’) and their notorious inclination to fracture in service, blowing themselves and their gunners to kingdom come. At the siege of Cherbourg by the French in 1450 as many as 3 bombards and a cannon burst in this way.


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