History: Gunpowder use in medieval England, 1300-1485

Dartmouth Castle, built in the 14th century, was quickly transformed by the threat of gunpowder-based weapons into a bastion to stop French attacks into the estuary. The far back wall dates to the original 14th century building.
Dartmouth Castle, built in the 14th century, was quickly transformed by the threat of gunpowder-based weapons into a bastion to stop French attacks into the estuary. 

Abstract from an essay written by Garrison member and Archaeology graduate Sam Steele during his undergraduate degree. To see the full essay, please see the files section of our Facebook group, or email cardiffcastlegarrison@outlook.com to request it.

The use of gunpowder begins to become key on the medieval battlefield in the 1300s. Guns were capable of bringing walls crashing down in a matter of moments, compared to days or weeks using battering of rams and digging tunnels. This had been the basis for sieges since ancient time, but a process which wasted time and the lives of many men and would never guarantee victory. Gunpowder was seen as the key to quick and absolute victory over all. The introduction of hand gunners and cannons caused an urgent need for change in the construction of castles and walled towns across Britain. As the Hundred Years’ War waged on between Britain and France, new technology developed, causing major rethinks in national defence.  This essay examines the changes in the construction of forts, castles and cities in the mid to late 1300s, necessary because of advances in gunpowder-based weaponry, and which would continue for the next few hundred years. Also focussed on is the enlargement of artillery used in medieval warfare and the manner in which it forced older defences to be improved or rebuilt to repel this new type of engagement. Influences in construction are not only from Britain and France, but also much further afield, from Italy and the Baltic. This essay examines the defences of ports such as Southampton, Norwich and Dartmouth, key towns of medieval England. The rethink in defence designs caused new castles to be built whose design focussed the use of artillery for maximum defence, which allowed these structures to survive attack from French forces. These redesigns cost vast sums of silver, spent in order to prove that England was an advanced nation which could not be hindered by raids onto its shores.

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