The History of Leith

September 23, 2004

The English Military in the time of Elizabeth I

England did not have a standing army at that time, and relied on the strength of the ‘Trayned Bandes’, who acted as a sort of National Guard. The trained bands were made up mostly of the middle-class, who gathered together once a month to train as a unit, and to socialize with other town-folk.

Criminals, homeless and other undesirables were not part of these groups. If they entered military service, it was usually against their will. These conscripted troops were usually the ones Elizabeth sent off to other countries when she decided an army was needed.

The main weapon employed for use in any sizable army of the time was the pike. A pike was long pole, made of Ash, Oak, or other suitable wood, with a steel point fixed to the end. The pole was anywhere from 12 to 20 feet long. It’s main use was to repel cavalry, but could be used in an offensive manner as well. The front lines of the opposing forces would level their pikes at one another and advance as a unit, leading to what was known as a push of pike.

Firearms are gaining a much wider acceptance during this period as well. In years earlier, guns had been little more then a barrel on a stick. They had terrible accuracy, and were used primarily for their shock value. Horses and men were unaccustomed to facing guns, and the smoke and noise frightened them terribly. By the late 16th century, guns were much more common on the field of battle, and entire tactical doctrine had been created around the use of pike and shot in war. The most common firearm used at the time was called a matchlock, since it was fired by applying a burning match (cotton cord soaked in saltpeter) directly to the priming pan, by means of an external lock mechanism. These were almost always smoothbore guns, since rifling was still an expensive and time-consuming process. They were still inaccurate, slow to reload and fairly unreliable, but they were still a huge improvement over the hand-cannons of previous years. Rudimentary flintlock weapons were beginning to appear at this time, but they were far from common. Artillery was also coming in to it’s own on the battlefield, replacing the catapults and trebuchets of previous years. Cannon of the time was usually cast of iron or bronze, and fired iron or stone projectiles. Cannon could be found both in the field, and onboard ship. It was the development and use of field artillery that spurred great changes in the area of siege warfare in this time, prompting revisions in not only the methods of building and defending a fortified position, but in attacking them as well. Many notable military writers of the time considered fortifications built in the ‘modern’ way, to be nearly impossible to take through force, but instead their attackers would be forced to conduct a protracted siege.

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