The Age of the Hell Burners: fireships and terror weapons (part 2)

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The fireship attack by the English fleet on the Spanish Armada off Calais on the night of 7th/8th August 1588 was the turning-point of the Armada campaign. The attack temporarily dispersed the Armada, drove it into the North Sea and opened the fleet up to the devastating close-range gunfire of the English ships.   After this, with the wind pushing it further north, the Armada lost all real hope of achieving its objective – to invade England and dethrone the Protestant Queen, Elizabeth I (1).

The commander of the Armada, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, had ordered his fleet to disperse because he thought that the eight English fireships might be floating bombs.  Why did these weapons engender such fear among professional soldiers and sailors?

The answer to this question has been explored by many historians, but usually only in terms of the history of the late 16th century.  I want to look at its wider implications, and the disconcerting links that it has with our own times.

Gunpowder was utilised as a propellant in guns from the 1300s, but by the 15th century it was also known that powder could be used en masse as a bomb, buried in a mine under the fortifications of a besieged castle or town. The results could be incredibly destructive – and decisive. For example, in 1503 a Spanish engineer set off a gunpowder mine under the rocky fortress of Uovo near Naples, then occupied by French troops.   The explosion not only demolished part of the rock, it also blew up the castle’s chapel and the senior French officers who were meeting inside (2).

Accounts of the 1588 fireship attack rightly ascribe the Spanish fear of floating bombs to the ‘Hell-Burners’ at Antwerp.   In 1585, Antwerp was held by the Protestant Dutch, but they were encircled by the Spanish Army of Flanders. The siege was one of many in the so-called Eighty Years War, in which the Dutch struggled to assert their independence from the Spanish Crown.   The Spanish siegeworks at Antwerp included a great wooden bridge laid across the River Scheldt, which cut the Dutch off from seaborne resupply and reinforcement.

In order to try to break the siege, the Dutch employed a disaffected Italian engineer named Giambelli to build some fireships and floating bombs for them. These were sent down the river towards the bridge. Most failed to do any damage, but one did go off. Its huge charge (nearly four tons of explosive, packed along with much shrapnel) blew a hole in the bridge and killed at least 800 Spanish soldiers. The explosion must have been the loudest man-made noise ever heard up to that time. The physical and psychological shockwaves caused by the Hell-Burner were enormous, for it was the first weapon to cause instantaneous death and destruction on a large scale (3).

The Hell-Burner incident was not the only Dutch assault with a floating bomb, however. There was another Dutch waterborne attack of this kind in early April 1588, this time on what might be termed a largely ‘civilian’ target.   An account of it reached Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham, a few days later. According to the report, a Dutch merchantman had entered Spanish-held Dunkirk harbour one night.  Ostensibly, it carried a cargo of beer and cheese, but there was evidently a large bomb concealed under the victuals.  After the ship had tied up, the crew made off in a boat, claiming that they had to retrieve an anchor left at the harbour mouth ‘… And within a short space after the ship with beer and cheese blew up a Breton ship with salt, 2 ships laden with munition of the king [of Spain], as [well as] victuals, cables and ordnance, with other great spoil among the ships and houses alongst near the quay sore spoiled, and a tower which standeth near the quay, the great stones on the top thereof were blown amongst the houses, which sudden blast did so terrify the Spaniards that they went whirling about the streets crying like cats…’   The writer of the report noted that if the bomb had gone off at low tide, all of the ships there would have been burned (4).

It is not known if a report of this attack reached the Armada before it sailed, but it underlines the sheer terror created by gunpowder bombs. They took the potential dangers of fireships to a new level, and this explains why Medina Sidonia issued his order for the Armada to get out of the Calais anchorage in the middle of the night.

The gunpowder bomb was here to stay, and made its appearance as a political weapon, as well as a military one. In England, its most famous manifestation was of course the Catholic Gunpowder Plot to blow up King James I and Parliament in 1605. Like the Armada, it became part of English Protestant legend, the defeat of both being commemorated and celebrated annually in the 17th century (5).

The 1605 attempt was not the only ‘gunpowder plot’ in England. After the city of Chichester in West Sussex fell to a Parliamentarian siege in 1642, the victorious commander, Sir William Waller, established himself in a house in what is now Priory Park.   That evening, in his own words, ‘I discovered a train laid to some barrels of gunpowder not far from my lodging…’   The assassination attempt failed, but Waller was not able to find out who was responsible (6).

Fifteen years later, a Colonel Edward Sexby and a group of republicans, angry at Cromwell for taking quasi-regal powers, planned to blow up the Lord Protector as his coach passed along a narrow section of road in Hammersmith. The plot collapsed, and some of the plotters were apprehended, but Sexby went on to justify the attempt as tyrannicide, in a pamphlet entitled Killing Noe Murder (7).

The presence of sulphur as an ingredient of gunpowder had always meant that the explosive carried a whiff of the demonic. The playwright Ben Jonson referred to Bertold Schwarz, the mythical medieval inventor of gunpowder, ‘who from the Devil’s-Arse did guns beget’, and in Paradise Lost Milton also portrayed the invention of gunpowder and guns as the work of the Devil (9). As well they might.

The fireships of Calais and the Gunpowder Plot have become part of a cosy national legend.   Even if the Armada is no longer remembered with revelry, we still burn Guy Fawkes in effigy every November 5th, and admire the whooshing rockets at firework displays, quite forgetting that the event marks an attempt to change the government by force.  If the plot had succeeded, it would probably have sparked off a war of religion in Britain.

It’s inevitable that the danger, fear, pain and horror associated with such things should fade over time – after all, there’s more than enough of them in the daily news.  However, this also obscures the fact that the gunpowder bomb marked a profound shift in the ability of human beings to do large-scale and indiscriminate violence to others with little or no warning.   One way or another, we are still living in the age of the Hell-Burners and the ships of fire.

The Duke of Medina Sidonia and his men had very good reason to be afraid of the eight flickering lights as they bore down on the Armada that August night.

Blog © Ian Friel 2014

(1) See my preceding blog, ‘Fireships and the first terror weapons (part 1)’.

(2) C Duffy, Siege Warfare. The Fortress in the Early Modern World 1494-1660, London 1979, p 11.

(3) Colin Martin and Geoffrey Parker, The Spanish Armada (various editions, London 1988 on), pp 74-76; National Maritime Museum, Armada 1588-1988, London 1988 , p 120; J Kelly, Gunpowder.   A History of the Explosive that Changed the World, London 2004, pp 131-32.

(4) The National Archives (TNA), Kew, SP78/18, 51: David Cabreth to Walsingham (spelling and punctuation modernised); see also Calendar of State Papers Foreign Elizabeth I 1586-1588, p 567, which discusses the report writer’s error with the date, and National Maritime Museum, Armada 1588-1988, London 1988 , p 120.

(5) Kelly 2004, pp 126-29; National Maritime Museum 1988, pp 283-84.

(6) P Gill, ‘The Siege of Chichester, December 1642’ in W Hussey (ed), Chichester 900, Chichester 1975, p 18.

(7) Alan Marshall, entry for ‘Sexby, Edward (1616–1658)’ in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, www.oxforddnb.com; British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk: ‘A brief Relation of the late Dangerous Plot for the Destruction of his Highness’s person’, Diary of Thomas Burton esq, volume 2: April 1657 – February 1658 (1828), pp. 483-488.

(8) Kelly 2004, p 81.

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3 thoughts on “The Age of the Hell Burners: fireships and terror weapons (part 2)

  1. Pingback: THE AGE OF THE HELL BURNERS: FIRESHIPS AND TERROR WEAPONS (PART 2) - Ian Friel MA, FSA, PHD

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