by Hap Rocketto
For War of the Roses aficionados, and particularly the Richard III Society, 2015 was a banner year, no longer a winter of their discontent it was made glorious summer by the sun of science.
Six hundred years earlier two great royal dynasties, York and Lancaster, fought for control of England. Each belligerent happened to have a heraldic badge sporting a rose, A White Rose for York and the Red Rose for Lancaster and so this decades long on again-off again struggle became known as the War of the Roses.
It all came to an end at the Battle of Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485. Facing a smaller Lancastrian army, lead by Henry Tudor, King Richard III, of the House of York, managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and, in the process, become the last English king to be killed in battle on English soil. To prove to the public he was dead his naked and despoiled body was unceremoniously tossed over the back of a horse and brought to the nearby town of Leicester to be publically displayed. The local Franciscan Friars laid claim to the body and gave Richard a Christian burial under the floor in front of the alter of the church of Grayfriars. The church was destroyed 50 years later when Tudor King Henry VIII parted ways with the Catholic church and decreed the Dissolution of the Monasteries. With the church gone Richard’s final resting place was lost to history.
Fast forward half a millennium to 2012. Archeologists discovered Richard’s remains buried under a parking lot in Leicester, an event which has led to a new look at the much despised monarch. He may not have been the hunchback ogre that artistic license allowed both Shakespeare and Sir Laurence Olivier to paint. Just as modern Russia recovered, and identified the secretly buried remains of the reviled House of Romanov family, executed during the Russian Revolution, by DNA analysis, so it is with the British and Richard.
As the furor over Richard waned another War of the Roses artifact was discovered to bring the civil war back into the limelight and, again, the Franciscans were a historical footnote.
Franciscan Friar and alchemist Roger Bacon, in his 1267 work Opus Majus, wrote that “…the violence of that salt called saltpeter, together with sulfur, and willow charcoal, combined into a powder, so horrible a sound is made by the bursting of a thing so small, no more than a bit of parchment containing it, that we find the ear assaulted by a noise exceeding the roar of strong thunder, and a flash brighter than the most brilliant lightning.”
A century and a quarter later cannons loaded with Bacon’s powder spit flame, smoke, and balls of lead and stone across the English landscape. The forces representing York and Lancaster met in July of 1460 at the Battle of Northampton, not to be confused with the with April1264 Battle of Northampton. The 1264 battle was part of the Second Baron’s War, yet another of England’s many uncivil civil wars. England, a small and economical country apparently needs to recycle battle sites.
Excavations at Northampton turned up a badly deformed lump of lead some three inches in diameter, about the size of a cricket ball, which tipped the scales at about six pounds. It was a major archeological and historical find. It is believed that the misshapen hunk of metal is evidence of the first use of artillery on English soil. Contemporary accounts indicate the both sides had cannon but defender’s cannon were ineffective because of a driving rain which had less effect on the guns of the attackers. That makes it likely that the artifact is a wicked googly bowled by the Yorkists as they attacked Lancastrian defensive positions.
Both sides seemed to have been involved in a medieval arms race and were armed with relatively small cannon called sakers. Named after the Saker falcon the 9.5 feet long smoothbore fired round shot intended to bounce along the ground to cause as much damage as possible. The intended use accounts for the wretched condition of the sample found at Northampton. The cannonball has been deformed by two major impacts, a gouge filled with iron and sandstone picked up as it careened through the battlefield and a dent probably caused by hitting a tree.
There was little in the way of official documentation of the use of artillery in those days as gunners were usually civilians who hired out their services and cannon. Gunnery was a guild that specialized in sulfurous smoke, lightning, and thunder and so gunners were seen as sorcerers in league with the devil by the general public. Since they kept to themselves, and did not drink or plunder, their unusual behavior was ample proof, when compared to the soldiers of the day, that they were hardly human. Under those circumstances it is scarcely a surprise that a medieval Pope was reported to have issued a blanket excommunication of all gunners as they were servants of the devil.
Gunners were brought in from the cold when Henry created the Church of England and banned Catholicism from England and with it the Pope’s power to punish. The rift between Henry VIII, a good Tudor of the Red Rose, and the Catholic Church was a boon for English gunners who, having served both York and Lancastrians, could take refuge, relief, and pleasure in Shakespeare’s words, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Category: Hap's Corner