Did Longshanks Accidentally
Discover Gunpowder?

by: Deborah MacGillivray

I often see websites on the net quoting each other?almost word for word. This makes it appear that information is correct. You check three sources and they are saying the same thing. They may be saying the same things, but it doesn’t me they are giving you accurate history!. I always say check at least three sources for historical facts before you use it in a story, because there’s a lot of bad information out there. I fear this needs to be amended?to check three sources besides the ones on the internet. There are reputable websites’ posting inaccurate or misleading data. Then one hundred amateur history sites copy this bad information. Suddenly, it’s everywhere. It’s how history has been distorted through the ages. We are just seeing the Internet speed up the process.

Case in point? I had a friend who was using information on the Battle of Stirling, 1304 in her book. I was floored by the wrong ‘facts’. I inquired where she got her information and she said several sources from the net. I went to look. They were all quoting the same original source?a very legit website wikipedia.org/ They describe the Fall of Stirling Castle to Edward the Longshanks: "For four months the castle was bombarded by lead balls (stripped from nearby church roofs), Greek fire, stone balls, and even some sort of gunpowder mixture."

First off, its wrong to call explosive powder at this period of time ‘gunpowder’. Gun being the key word. It cannot be GUNpowder before there were guns. Already, this is presenting the information in an incorrect light, which can lead to misinformed assumptions. John Barbour says the first use of gunpowder in Britain was Edward III’s invasion of Scotland in 1327. Stirling was 23 years earlier. So was there gunpowder use at Stirling?

Yes and No.

One has to look at records of Longshanks exchequer for that period to begin to unravel the real answer. In fact, you need to look at two things: One that happen the year before Sterling, and one that happened the year after. In the latter, a seemingly unrelated incident is the key to unraveling the whole question. In 1305, one Jean de Lamouilly kidnapped the earl of Pembroke and held him hostage. Why? Because Jean was ticked at monies due him that Edward I failed to pay. This odd incident seems to have little bearing on the question, until you notice references to Lamouilly as being credited with why Longshanks had ‘fireworks’ at Sterling. Michael Prestwick in his Edward I biography lists Lamouilly as ‘Burgundian Jean de Lamouilly, who used sulphur at Brechin’. Slowly the puzzle pieces start to fall into place.

When Longshanks ordered his muster at Whitsun in 1303?his near annual harassment of the Scots?instead of assaulting Stirling Castle, as everyone expected him to do, he ignored that fortress on the rock. Edward turned his eye on Brechin. At Brechin, you very likely see the first use of the explosive combination of ingredients that would in the future become labeled gunpowder. There is a bill in Edward’s accounting?bless the man he kept meticulous records. A large quantity of sulphur was purchased and fetched to Brechin, according to accounting records: ‘sulphur to be used for burning the castle’. Sulphur burns. When added to a fire this would make for a dangerous situation . Poor people, it also stinks like rotten eggs!

Sulphur is one of the three key ingredients in the making of gunpowder. The other two: charcoal and saltpeter. Well, Longshanks used the sulphur to burn Castle Brechin ?how did you burn something? With wood. What happens to wood when it’s burned? Charcoal. Suddenly, Longshanks now has two of the three ingredients for a big explosion. He only lacked Saltpetre.

Saltpetre is not a rare element. It’s a naturally occurring agent when vegetable matter and animal and human waste get into a mix with dirt and water. Then saltpetre forms all by itself. It’s a white powdery substance. So how did this material get into a place where Longshanks’ sulphur and charcoal were? Very easily! During the Middle Ages, it was uncommon to sweep floors daily. In castle life, they laid down rushes?reeds, cut and dried for this purpose. Mud (dirt) was tracked in, then rushes would be laid. Then more dirt was tracked in. The dogs lived in the castle so animal waste would be about, likely human waste as well! Food scraps were tossed to the dogs, bones and such fall to the floor. And yet, more reeds were laid! This process went on all winter long. Come spring, they would ‘shovel’ the mess out. Reeds = vegetable matter + human/animal waste + dirt, toss this on some dung heap, add the very wet Scottish rainfall and you have the recipe for Saltpetre! So when Longshanks used sulphur to burn Castle Brechin, he burned sulphur, wood changing to charcoal, and both came in contact with the third in gradient of the deadly mix: Saltpetre. BOOM!

It’s recorded that Longshanks went to winter quarters in late 1303 to early 1304. It probably took a bit of trial and error to figure out just what had happened. But Longshanks did. In his records for the purchases before the siege of Stirling, you will find a bill for sulphur?as with Brechin?but this time the bill shows the purchase of saltpetre. Longshanks now knew the three key ingredients to blow something up. It was not ‘gunpowder’ - because that name would come later, but it was the basis for it. Brechin 1303 was the first use of a ‘gunpowder type substance’ in Britain for war. Though the whole incident was likely an accident, it didn’t take Longshanks’ shrewd long mind to see it’s potential. By April of 1304, he was ready to use his new explosive fire powder in the siege of Stirling.

How did Jean de Lamouilly get into all this and why did his later kidnapping of the earl of Pembroke have any bearing? Lamouilly was at Brechin and Stirling. Sulphur is not a stable material, it’s very dangerous to handle, so they needed someone trained in this? Lamourilly. One can deduce from his protest and later kidnapping of Pembroke, Longshanks failed to pay him for the sieges of Brechin and Stirling and after numerous complaints, he took the earl hostage, held him for ransom of the monies due him.

So yes, explosive powder was used at Brechin and Sterling, predating the 1327 dating of its first recorded use in British warfare by John Barbour.

Another bad assumption, saying mini balls were hurled at the defenders of Stirling, if they had gunpowder at Sterling, the stripping of lead off the church roofs were used in some early ‘mini balls’, like Longshanks used some sort of guns. This is a bad leap in logic. They were melted down and used in the lead in counterweights for the siege engine Longshanks had built specifically for Stirling?the monstrous Warwolf.

So, before you place all reliance in online sources, check them against several written resources as well. As children we played that old ‘telephone game’, where we formed into a line and one person whispered something into the person’s ear next to him, and on down the line. At the very end, the last person would have to say what he heard aloud. Everyone laughed because it rarely got close to what the first person originally uttered.

Unfortunately, there are too many on websites playing ‘telephone’ with history.


© DeborahAnne MacGillivray
29th December 2004
All Rights Reserved
Do Not Use Without Written Permission

 

 


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