Great Guns on Alderney! The Alderney Elizabethan Shipwreck Gives Up its Guns

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It has taken over 400 years but soon the Tower of London is going to get some of its guns back. On May 25, archaeologists will begin work on the recovery of cannon from a sunken Elizabethan ship that went down off the coast of Alderney in the Channel Islands in 1592.

But none of this should surprise us

Great guns on Alderney! It has taken over 400 years but soon the Tower of London is going to get some of its guns back. On May 25, archaeologists will begin work on the recovery of cannon from a sunken Elizabethan ship that went down off the coast of Alderney in the Channel Islands in 1592. The Duke of York is behind the work that aims to conserve, replicate and test-fire the weapons found on this important wreck.

Excavation director Mensun Bound of St Peter's College, Oxford, says, "We are not just bringing up cannon, but also muskets, grenades, swords, rapiers, body armour and helmets. This was a ship that was supplying an English army fighting in France to prevent a second Armada-style invasion by Spain."

What the archaeologists are most interested in is a cannon with a number of items cemented to it as a concretion, including a helmet and a ceramic hand grenade. The grenade was an incendiary device that shattered on impact spreading napalm-like fire over a ship.

Sir Norman Browse, the president of Alderney and the Chairman of the Alderney Maritime Trust that oversees the project, says, "This is not going to be an easy job. The wreck is sitting in soft sand in 30 metres of water in what we call the Swinge, possibly the most notorious stretch of water in the entire Channel. The team can only dive at slack water; a tiny window of just 40 minutes a time. For this reason the team will also have to work at nights." Thankfully, due to the generosity of the A scientific diving ship in Belgium is currently bunkering up for the 30 hr voyage down the Channel to Alderney. All being well they will begin the lift during the week commencing May 26.

"To pay for all the work," says Sir Norman, "we have embarked on a fund-raising campaign. For just this year alone we are seeking to raise £120,000. Alderney is one of the smaller Channel Islands and has limited financial resources, so raising money is a considerable challenge. Last month our patron, the Duke of York hosted a dinner for us at Buckingham Palace. This helped, but we still need another £50,000."

In a statement the Duke of York said, "The importance of the Alderney wreck cannot be underestimated. We cannot yet say what this ship will reveal in answers to the questions posed by its discovery, but this is the first English ship of the period in British waters to be fully investigated. Already it has done more than any other maritime archaeological site to illuminate England's naval capability at such a crucial historical time."

Director of Conservation, Mike Corfield, who before he retired was Chief Scientist for English Heritage, explains that once the cannon gets to the Tower he will be working with York Archaeological Trust to remove the thick layer of concretion that conceal the artifacts. "One of the things we are hoping to find is part of the cannon's carriage and its roping. We want to know how these early iron guns were supported and roped to the ship, both for running out and absorbing the recoil."

The Alderney guns are all cast-iron, smooth-bore muzzle-loaders of identical calibre and as a unit represent our first proper, coordinated, naval weapons system. The Alderney ship represents the beginning of broadside warfare. These were the guns that carried England, and later Britain to centuries of maritime greatness.

According to Mensun Bound, the Alderney guns, along with those from the Mary Rose, represent the two most important naval gun collections in the world. "Between the Mary Rose that sank in 1545 and the Alderney ship, there were only 47 years, but in that time there was a revolution in military science. If Nelson saw some of those old stave-built, breach-loaders guns on wood stocks from the Mary Rose, he would have been scratching his head; but one glance at ours and he would have known exactly what to do to rip a hole in his enemy's ships."

Nick Hall, Keeper of Artillery at the Royal Armouries, who has been working with and advising the team, says that "as a unit these guns are of outstanding importance, these fundamentally were the type of artillery which defeated the French and Spanish at Trafalgar and were still in use late into the 19th century."

"It would", continues Hall, "be exciting and highly informative to replicate these guns and then carry out a series of tests at a live-firing range to establish the ballistic characteristics of the gun and its true destructive capability." And this is exactly what the archaeologists are planning. Casting of the replica cannon will begin in September at a foundry in Scotland.

"We are hoping", says Sir Norman Browse, "that as a contribution to these experiments local school children on the Island, working under professional supervision, will be able to construct a mock-up of an Elizabethan ship's side to use as a target. We feel it is important for the Island's children to see the wreck as an important part of their heritage and to use it to further their education."

The ship has shown a variety of ammunition. Not just round shot, but also expanding shot and 'star' or Spanish shot. "This ship was carrying some very nasty stuff," confirms Graeme Rimer, also from the Royal Armouries who has also been advising the project closely. "The round shot was for smashing; the Spanish shot with two great protruding spikes, was for carrying incendiary material, which then stuck into an enemy's woodwork and sent the whole lot ablaze. The expanding shot consisted of two pieces of shot that expanded outwards once it left the barrel. It was for slicing through masts, rigging and any sailors unfortunate enough to be in the way." Until it was found on the Alderney wreck, expanding shot was not thought to exist before the 16th century.

"But none of this should surprise us," continues Rimer, "she had to be well armed. She was travelling through a war zone with vital dispatches to the English army from Lord Burghley, head of the Queen's Privy Council and the most important man in England. And this was at a time when our nation's very survival was believed to depend on our army in Brittany."

One of the most exciting dimensions to the programme is the 'live archaeology' that will be conducted at the Tower of London starting in June. "I have never understood why it is", says Mike Corfield, "that so much conservation is done behind closed doors. When it is exciting like this, why not do it in front of the public. When the concretion comes off revealing the cannon, it will be spectacular, a magical moment - and it would be nice to think that there will be children watching who as a result of this will want to become the next generation of conservators, Tudor historians and archaeologists."

It is appropriate that all this military hardware is exhibited at the Tower before it goes back to its permanent home in the museum on Alderney, because from the 15th to the 17th century the Tower of London was the greatest arsenal in the country and the greatest manufactory of military equipment.

The Governor of the Tower, Major General Keith Cima, says that, "because this ship was on Queen's business it is likely that the heavy ordnance she carried, not to mention the small arms and bladed weapons, were issued from here by us, so it will be good to get them back - even if just for a while."

"What I want," continues Cima, "is that when people visit us this summer they will really feel that they are stepping back across history from one Great Elizabethan Age to another. And the timing is perfect, from all that has been going on in TV and in the cinemas; everybody right now seems to be interested in Elizabeth I."

A point not lost on the BBC who is filming the recovery and the work at the Tower for a Timewatch documentary.

The Alderney Maritime Trust (Registered Guernsey Charity no. 201) is actively seeking funds to support its work and welcomes all approaches.


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Hugo Pickering

Mensun Bound
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