Page last updated at 11:59 GMT, Friday, 20 February 2009

'Superguns' of Elizabeth I's navy

Test firing a replica Elizabethan cannon

The English navy at around the time of the Armada was evolving revolutionary new tactics, according to new research.

Tests on cannon recovered from an Elizabethan warship suggest it carried powerful cast iron guns, of uniform size, firing standard ammunition.

"This marked the beginning of a kind of mechanisation of war," says naval historian Professor Eric Grove of Salford University.

"The ship is now a gun platform in a way that it wasn't before."

Timewatch: Elizabeth's Lost Guns
BBC Two, 2000 GMT, Sat 21 Feb
It is also available to UK viewers for seven days on the BBC iPlayer
Marine archaeologist Mensun Bound from Oxford University adds: "Elizabeth's navy created the first ever set of uniform cannon, capable of firing the same size shot in a deadly barrage.

"[Her] navy made a giant leap forward in the way men fought at sea, years ahead of England's enemies, and which was still being used to devastating effect by Nelson 200 years later."

Deadly artillery

Until now, it was thought Queen Elizabeth was using the same cannon technology as her father, Henry VIII. His flagship, the Mary Rose, was ultra-modern for its day.

However, it carried a bewildering variety of cannon - many designed for land warfare. They were all of different shapes and sizes, fired different shot at different rates with different killing power.

Cannon lifted from sea bed (BBC/Bellwether)
Elizabeth's navy created the first ever set of uniform cannon, capable of firing the same size shot in a deadly barrage
Mensun Bound, Marine archaeologist

It is known that during Elizabeth's reign, English sailors and gunners became greatly feared. For example, at the beginning of Henry VIII's reign, the English fleet was forced to retreat from heavily armed French galleys.

By the time of Elizabeth, even Phillip of Spain was warning of the deadly English artillery. But no-one has ever been able to clearly show why this was.

The new research follows the discovery of the first wreck of an Elizabethan fighting ship off Alderney in the Channel Islands, thought to date from around 1592, just four years after the Spanish Armada.

The ship was a pinnace, a small ship carrying 12 guns, two of which have been recovered.

"There's a very good chance this ship fought against the Armada with its revolutionary guns, but there's no proof that all or even some of the others were armed similarly," says Saul David, historian and presenter of a BBC Timewatch documentary about the guns.

"Bear in mind that our ship is a pinnace and not a full-size warship. So it is probably going too far to say these guns defeated the Armada four years earlier.

Timewatch team examines the lost cannon (BBC/Bellwether)
Saul David and Mensun Bound examine a recovered cannon

"But they certainly represent a huge leap forward in military technology and may have contributed to the Spanish defeat."

Spain attempted to invade England in 1588 with 200 ships. The Spanish were unable to overcome the English navy, but there were also other reasons for the defeat.

The English used fire ships in a night attack, the Spanish lacked a good deep water harbour to load their troops and they were eventually scattered by a storm.

At the time, Spain was Europe's superpower and Philip II wanted Elizabeth's throne and to return England to Catholicism.

Replica cannon

The two cannon were recovered from the Alderney wreck last summer.

Replicas were recreated in a modern foundry, and tests carried out for the Timewatch documentary showed that the Elizabethans were throwing shot at almost the speed of sound.

Replica cannon being finished (BBC/Bellwether)
The only way to learn about their power was to recreate a cannon

Elizabeth's "supergun", although relatively small, could hit a target a mile away. At a ship-to-ship fighting distance of about 100 yards, the ball would have sufficient punch to penetrate the oak planks of a galleon, travelling across the deck and out the other side.

Elizabeth's navy worked out that a few big guns were less effective than a lot of small guns, all the same, all firing at once.

The English navy stood up to the Spanish Armada. But, perhaps more significantly, as England's reputation for naval prowess was growing, Philip abandoned any further attempts at invasion.

"What we have shown is that the English navy and its gun founders were almost 50 years ahead of their time technologically," concludes Mensun Bound. This made Elizabeth I the mother of British naval dominance lasting three centuries.

Timewatch: Elizabeth's Lost Guns, BBC Two, 2000 GMT, Saturday 21 February. Watch more clips at the BBC Timewatch website.

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