On this day in 1460, while besieging Roxburgh Castle in southeastern Scotland, James II King of Scots was killed by artillery–but not in the way you might expect.
Two recent blog posts about historical cannons caught my attention, so I thought I would share them.
From The New York History Blog: “17th Century Cannon Returned To New York.” A cannon dredged from the St. Lawrence River, which saw service in the French and Indian War and American Revolution, is returned from loan to the Canadian War Museum to the Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site in New York.
From the Heinz History Center Making History Blog: “A Closer Look: An 18th Century Cannon.” Living History Coordinator Justin Meinert conducts a detailed autopsy of the British 6-pounder cannon, detailing its engravings and parts, from muzzle to cascabel. A reproduction is located at the Fort Pitt Museum, and an original is on display at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This is very similar to what I did with an 18th century French cannon that found its way to Galesburg, Illinois.
Ships from the 16th century Spanish Armada have come to light off the west coast of Ireland, allowing excavation and the recovery of many artifacts. This included cannons from the infamous navy, which were raised from the sea off Streedagh Strand, County Sligo, Republic of Ireland, around 15 June. In 1588, storms and squalls dashed the Armada against the rocky coasts of Ireland, and dashed King Philip II of Spain’s hopes of invading England. Nowadays, storms are pushing pieces of the ships onto the coast, prompting calls for excavation and preservation.(more…)
Happy Independence Day from the Artillery History Blog!
A piece of a lead cannonball has been discovered in the fields of Northampton, United Kingdom, and dated to the Battle of Northampton in 1460 during the Wars of the Roses between the Houses of York and Lancaster. It is believed to be the oldest surviving cannonball in England.
On Christmas night 70 years ago , German units in civilian clothes began infiltrating the town of Sommocolonia, Italy in the Serchio River valley of the Tuscany region. Then, before dawn on 26 December 1944, artillery and mortar fire began raining down on the mountain-top village as a prelude to a German assault. All across Italy, the Germans and Italians were beginning a campaign to push back the Allies’ thrust into Italy, which had already liberated Rome. The Axis forces were hoping to initiate a counteroffensive that would parallel their compatriots at the Battle of the Bulge, who at that very same time were fighting back against the Allies’ successes in northern Europe. The Germans titled their efforts in Italy Unternehmen Wintergewitter, “Operation Winter Storm” (not to be confused with a 1942 operation of the same name, during the Battle of Stalingrad).
But as the indirect fire landed that morning, First Lieutenant John R. Fox in Sommocolonia with his observation team and a couple dozen Italian Partisans, did not know that he was at the forefront of a major enemy counteroffensive.
Today, 4 December, is the feast day of Saint Barbara, the patron saint of artillerymen! (And miners and engineers and anyone who works with explosives). In honor of her feast day, I will present her story here.
Barbara has long been venerated by Christians but there is little evidence to recommend her historicity. Jacobus de Voragine, a 13th century archbishop of Genoa, wrote a hagiography of her in his collection of hagiographies known as the Legenda Aurea (“Golden Legend”). This version mentions that Barbara lived during the reign of the Roman emperor Maximian, who ruled from 286-305. But no early Christian writer mentions her. Voragine appears to be one of the earliest if not the earliest author to record anything about her. The translations used below are by the 15th century English printer William Caxton.
She was a Christian, the daughter of a local rich man, Dioscorus, who was a dedicated pagan. One version mentions the family being from Nicomedia in the north of modern Turkey. She refused to marry, despite her father’s wishes that she do so; therefore he built her a tower. Though the plan called for only two windows, she convinced the builders to add a third to symbolize the Holy Trinity. Upon hearing what she had done and what it meant, Dioscorus drew his sword intending to kill his daughter on the spot.
Then her father took her and went down into the piscine [fountain or pool], demanding her how three windows give more light than two. And S. Barbara answered: These three fenestres or windows betoken clearly the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, the which be three persons and one very God, on whom we ought to believe and worship. Then he being replenished with furor, incontinent drew his sword to have slain her, but the holy virgin made her prayer and then marvellously she was taken in a stone and borne into a mountain on which two shepherds kept their sheep, the which saw her fly.
One of the shepherds gave her away; he was turned to stone and his flock into locusts. Dioscorus brought his daughter to prison, where Jesus appeared to her. A magistrate questioned her and attempted to get her to venerate the Roman gods, but she refused. Then she was subject to torture.
Then the judge, replenished of ire, commanded that she should be hanged between two forked trees, and that they should break her reins with staves, and burn her sides with burning lamps, and after he made her strongly to be beaten, and hurted her head with a mallet. Then S. Barbara beheld and looked upward to heaven, saying: Jesu Christ, that knowest the hearts of men, and knowest my thought, I beseech thee to Ieave me not. Then commanded the judge to the hangman that he should cut off with his sword her paps, and when they were cut off, the holy saint looked again towards heaven, saying: Jesu Christ, turn not thy visage from me. And when she had long endured this pain, the judge comnnanded that she should be led with beating through the streets, and the holy virgin the third time beheld the heaven, and said: Lord God, that coverest heaven with clouds, I pray thee to cover my body, to the end that it be not seen of the evil people.
Her father became her executor. He took her up to a mountain and slew her with his sword. Then, as he came down, he received his retribution for his act and Barbara gained a symbol.
But when her father descended from the mountain, a fire from heaven descended on him, and consumed him in such wise that there could not be found only ashes of all his body.
He was struck by lightning, which would become heavily associated with Barbara and form the root of her protection of artillerymen, miners, engineers, and all who work with explosives. I am unsure what evidence exists concerning when artillery soldiers adopted the cult of St. Barbara. The best theory is that it is connected to the high probability of misfires and explosions that were endemic in early cannons. Today, the United States Army and United States Marine Corps maintain the Order of Saint Barbara to honor the service of exemplary artillerymen.