So far in this book, I have written as if there was very little politics in technology. Certainly, metals had value, and sometimes were valuable enough militarily or economically to fight over, or to alter the course of history. But for ancient times we do not have enough documentation to be able to see the intricacies of political decision-making that must have been associated with such events. There are much better records from Renaissance times, and in the rest of this Chapter I will recount the complex maneuvering that went on around the iron industry in the Weald district of southern England. The main point is not the actual events, though they were important to European history in the 1500s and 1600s. The point is that we can see the same sorts of behavior among living politicians dealing with rather similar questions: people do not change! And in the end, everyone lost.
Iron production dropped dramatically with the breakdown of Roman authority, but by late medieval times, iron production was enough to fill local needs, with an occasional large order from the King. In 1242 the Archbishop of Canterbury was asked to provide 8000 horseshoes and 20,000 nails from his estates in the Weald, to be delivered to Portsmouth, almost certainly for Henry III's campaign in France that year. The largest order for which we have records was in 1253, when the Sheriff of Sussex had to provide 30,000 horseshoes and 60,000 nails.
The typical Wealden iron-works in medieval times was a bloomery furnace, which produced wrought iron. The bloomery was typically built in a valley, and the local stream was dammed into shallow ponds, or had a sluice cut from it, to run a mill with a water-powered hammer that would help forge the bloom into wrought iron. As far as we can tell from the scrappy records, the workers dug ore from shallow pits during the summer, when they ran into less trouble with water collecting in their diggings. The ore was roasted in piles, to help to break up the nodules of ore. The nodules were damp as they came out of the ground, and roasting not only drove off much of the water, but cracked them, saving workers time and trouble in hammering them into suitably small pieces. At the same time, much of the iron carbonate was converted to oxide. All this preparation made the smelting easier, faster, and cheaper on charcoal fuel, because the roasting could be done with brushwood, log wood, or charcoal, whichever was available and cheapest. The smelting and forging, however, required charcoal, and this was done during the winter, when the streams would run more strongly and reliably to run the water-hammers. Medieval iron production was never intense enough to run into a fuel problem. The local woods provided enough brush and branches to make into charcoal.
By the early 1400s cannon could do serious damage to castle walls. Castles had to be redesigned to resist them, and until that happened, kings and princes who invested in cannon and used them efficiently waged successful campaigns. When Henry V called in 1415 for "Once more into the breach, dear friends!" he was encouraging the troops into the ruined barbican gateway at Harfleur that had been smashed open by his new cannon. In 1449-1450, French cannon battered into submission 60 castles in four days, driving the English out of most of northern France. The Spanish reconquered southern Spain from the Moors with the aid of cannon to batter breaches in the walls of fortresses.
The early European cannon were made of long wrought iron bars forged together to form a circular barrel, with wrought iron hoops fixed around them to hold them together. When well made, these were effective, but there were naturally many points of potential weakness, especially after repeated firing. King James II of Scotland met his end this way in 1460. Eager to use the new technology in the border wars against the English, he went over to watch his new cannon "The Lion" knock down the walls of Roxburgh Castle. He was standing beside it when it burst.
These early cannon were heavy, and very difficult to move. Commanders quickly realized that cannon were easiest to use in fixed positions, and before long, cannon were mounted as defensive weapons in and on forts and city walls. The city of Dijon, in Burgundy, had 92 cannon in 1445, and the style, lay-out, and design of fortresses changed to accommodate cannon as well as to resist artillery bombardment.
In an ironic twist of fate, Burgundy came to be the source of the best cannon. The same craftsmen who had for several centuries been casting the great bronze bells for Gothic cathedrals and abbeys throughout Northwest Europe turned to casting bronze cannon instead: the shape and size were not too different, and both required strong flawless manufacture to precise specifications. Bronze cannon were lighter than wrought iron, much safer to use, more accurate, and more powerful at any given size. The great Turkish sultan Mehmed the Conqueror blasted great breaches in the walls of Constantinople in 1453 with a giant bronze cannon cast for him on site by a renegade Christian, before the apocalyptic final assault that ended the thousand-year Byzantine civilization. In retrospect, it is astounding how quickly cannon technology spread throughout Europe and the Moslem world.
This was truly a military revolution. But it was a revolution that was applied to set-piece siege warfare. There were no effective cannon at sea, and there were no effective cannon (or hand guns) in armies on campaign. The next step was the development of cannon that were light enough to mount on ships, yet powerful enough to be ship-killers in battle. Those same cannon were light enough to drag around in the field, and for the first time it became possible to envisage personal firearms, light enough for a soldier to carry. All this happened during the 16th century.
Blast furnaces were already being used in Europe to make iron cannon balls: cast iron rather than wrought iron. Cannon-ball technology had advanced along with cannon. The days of stone cannon balls were over, though cannon-balls were still called "gunstones." Iron was denser than stone, so had more hitting power. Stone cannon balls had to be carved one at a time, and were never perfectly spherical. This meant that they did not fit the barrel well, wasting the energy of the gunpowder. Instead, smiths in England and elsewhere made composite cannon balls. First, a mass of wrought iron was forged into a rough lump that would make most of the volume of the ball, then it was placed in a mold, and molten lead was used to finish it to shape. This process was still time-consuming and expensive, especially the forging of the iron, though it was cheaper than casting balls from pure lead, or from bronze. Casting also gave cannon-balls of uniform size, which allowed gunners to fire more accurate, more powerful shots.
Once cast iron was available from blast furnaces, cannon balls could be mass-produced fairly cheaply. Workers would pick up gobbets of molten iron in large ladles with long handles, then pour the iron into waiting molds. The resulting cannon-balls had the great advantage of uniform size.
The Weald iron industry really took off under Henry VII's successor.The new King, Henry VIII, came to the throne at the age of 17 in 1509, as the new era of warfare was settling into maturity. England was holding precariously to the last remnants of its centuries-old territory in northern France, centered on the fortress-ports of Calais and Boulogne. These outposts gave political and military leverage both against the traditional enemy France, and the powerful duchy of Burgundy, which was usually a military ally but always an economic competitor. But England was relatively backward militarily, and had been left behind in terms of artillery and fighting ships.
Henry VIII seems to have felt very conscious of his frail claim to the English throne, and this paranoia played itself out in various ways throughout his long reign (1509-1547), ranging all the way to bouts of murderous rage at enemies real and imagined. Henry was the first English King to require the address "Your Majesty" instead of the simpler "Your Highness" which had been good enough for his Plantagenet predecessors. We all know that Henry beheaded two of his six wives, but he also executed many of the nobility who had the misfortune to carry Plantagenet blood (they were potential claimants to the throne) and many other courtiers on suspicion of treason of one sort or another. On a larger scale, Henry broke with the Pope and declared himself head of an independent English Church, and almost as soon as he inherited the throne he picked fights with his neighbors, Scotland and France, declaring war on France in 1512.
Immediately this military activity brought orders to the Weald ironmasters. Although Henry had some bronze guns, they were very expensive, and Henry chose the cheaper, local solution that also fostered an early equivalent of an English military-industrial complex. One agent alone supplied 9 tons of iron "gunstones" [cannon-balls] in August 1513.
At first, the English had great success. They defeated the French at the Battle of the Spurs, and this early success in France allowed Henry to take over the city of Tournai, a major center for armaments production. The Queen of France apparently appealed to the misplaced sense of chivalry of the Scottish King James IV (grandson of the unfortunately exploded James II), who led the Scottish army to total destruction by the English at the Battle of Flodden, also in 1513. Almost all the Scottish nobility, including King James, were wiped out.
But low-level war and uneasy peace with France was to go on for many years. And that meant money for military preparations, and military preparations meant iron, for weapons, armor, and especially for guns: personal firearms for an increasing proportion of the army, cannon for ships, bigger cannon for shore forts and castles, small field guns for the army, and huge guns that could be used in sieges. And to a large extent, iron production meant the Weald. By 1520 the Weald had begun a rise in iron production that was to reach very high levels. Iron workers were brought in from the iron-making areas of northern France, probably as expert engineers in an early example of technology transfer.
In principle, blast-furnace technology could also be used to cast iron cannon. But early attempts in Europe did not work. Partly, there was little incentive: iron guns were markedly heavier than bronze, so more difficult to move around and to handle in battle and in sieges. Bronze was readily available, and bronze-casting furnaces did not have to reach the high temperatures required for casting iron. In England, where bronze was not readily available while iron was, there may have been more incentive to persevere after early failures.
In 1541, William Levett was the royal "gunstone maker", that is, he made cast iron cannon-balls at a foundry in the Weald built by his elder brother in 1534. Levett is not a normal English name, and the brothers may have originally come from an immigrant family. Certainly Levett was an innovator, and in 1543 he built a new blast-furnace at Buxted, to try to cast iron cannon. He brought in another foreign expert, Peter Baude, who had been casting bronze cannon for the King in London.
Levett and Baude were successful, and the Buxted works produced the first one-piece cast iron cannon in 1543. Their early cannon went into fixed positions in coastal forts, where weight did not matter much. Progress was rapid. A foundry with two furnaces was built in 1546, so that enough molten iron could be supplied at one time to pour into larger molds and produce larger cannon. By 1549, 53 forges and blast furnaces were operating in the Weald‹not all for military iron, of course, but a dramatic increase. And the industry more than doubled over the following 25 years. By 1574 there were 110 furnaces and forges in the area, producing several thousand tons of iron, including several hundred tons of cannon.
The new iron cannon were excellent guns, and in particular they were excellent value for money. They were not only cheaper than bronze, and harder and stronger, so had more hitting power. Their only disadvantage was weight.
For a hundred years, English iron cannon were the best in the world. It's not clear why, because cast iron was widely produced in Western Europe. The historian Ernest Straker thought that the secret may have lain in the mold-making from the local Sussex clay. Whatever the reason, iron cannon became important strategic weapons, comparable to modern fighter aircraft. The English supplied iron cannon to friendly powers, as we do today with our fighters, and they tried to keep them out of the hands of potential enemies, as we do.
It is not an exaggeration to call the Wealden iron industry a military-industrial complex. Many rich and powerful families were connected with the iron industry‹the Boleyns, the Sidneys, the Howards, the Nevilles, the Dudleys, and the Sackvilles were all landowners in the Weald. The political controversies that swirled around it make the story of the Weald eerily similar to 20th century examples.
The new Wealden iron industry required water, fuel, and transport, and there were disputes about all of them. Neighbors complained as streams were dammed and diverted, and roads were ripped to pieces as wagons loaded with charcoal, iron ore, iron, and iron products churned along them. Queen Elizabeth's Government passed laws in 1584 requiring every sixth ironworks wagon to carry stone and gravel to re-surface the road it was using. But there were continual complaints and prosecutions and fines of ironmasters who ignored the law, and none of the fuss did much good to the roads. Coaches were allowed to charge higher fares in Sussex than in any other county in England in the 1650s, and as late as 1786, an observer commented that the only road in Sussex fit for carriages was the 1700-year-old Roman road, Stane Street: ironically enough, Stane Street was so well constructed because the Romans had built into its foundations the slag from their ironworks in the Weald.
I want to concentrate here on fuel, and on the wider political arena. There had been enough wood to supply the medieval industry, but the pressure on the Wealden forests grew enormously, beginning in the 1520s and accelerating with the tremendous growth of the iron industry from the 1540s onward.
Henry VIII's government was seriously concerned about timber supplies. The problem was not just economic, it was strategic. The new large warships the Navy was building required large, old oak trees (one battleship of the time required more than 2000 100-year-old oak trees) and to be useful, the trees had to be growing within reasonable distance of water transport because they were too large to haul very far overland. The best oaks grew in southeast England, close to London and close to the Wealden iron industry. So Parliament passed a law that said that after 1544, a certain number of mature oaks were to be left (for national needs) during logging. Woods could not be cleared and converted to fields, and so on. However, the Weald was specifically excluded from the provisions of the law, and one must assume that this was the result of pressure on behalf of the vital military supplies being manufactured there.
But iron-making was not the only industry in the Weald. In particular, wood was exported to the English-controlled areas in northern France, and these shipments (also strategically important) formed much of the trade of the old, silting ports of Rye, Hastings, and Winchelsea, on the coast south of the Weald. Other industries also exploited the woodlands: suppliers of wood and charcoal for brewing, glass-making, dyeing, home construction, carpentry, and domestic fuel.
When Henry VIII died in 1547, leaving the boy King Edward VI as monarch, England was governed by a regency council of noblemen led by the "Protector of the Realm," the new King's uncle, the Duke of Somerset. Somerset was a military commander, and was probably concerned more about the strategic value of the Weald than anything else. To a military commander, the Weald was vital for two things: military iron, and the wood supply for the English-held outposts in northern France. One of Somerset's early acts was to set up a commission of inquiry to look into the whole question of wood, timber, and the relative merits of the iron industry in relation to the southern ports and their trade.
The people of the ports took the opportunity to vent their anger with a vengeance, and the commission reported their words. Today, people who get a chance to appear at televised Congressional hearings are acutely aware that they have to produce a "sound bite" that may be broadcast on the evening news. That will do more for their cause than anything written in the eventual dry pages of the Congressional report, which few people will read. In Tudor times, reports were read, and people seem to have crafted their language very carefully to achieve comparable results. The language is vivid and powerful, and the themes are universal. These writers knew how to press every available political button: rising prices, physical and economic hardship for many people, prospects of massive unemployment and social disruption, damage to trade and danger to strategic national interests.
There were more than fifty ironworks close to the south coast, complained the "jurors" (sworn witnesses) from the seaports. Each works consumed 1500 loads of wood a year, and caused collateral damage to the remaining forests during the harvesting. The price of wood had more than doubled in 15 years, while the average size of a "load" had gone down by a quarter. The ironworks were using so much wood that there was a danger that the wood supply for the ports would be exhausted, and there would be no wood for shipment to the English territories in France. There would be no building timber for houses, windmills, bridges, piers and jetties, or boats; there would be no wood for military or domestic needs
"for the making of gunstocks, wheels, arrows, pipes, hogsheads, barrels, buckets, sieves, saddletrees, dossers, bellows, showles [shovels], skopets, bowls, dishes, bills, spears"[etc., etc. Notice the emphasis on items that the army would need!].
A great number of people would be put out of work by the iron industry:
"all the inhabitants of the towns and villages... shall be driven to seek their living in other places and there utterly to forsake their dwelling, whose number we shall not be able to express, if the mills and furnces be suffered to remain."Only a few people were benefiting from the ironworks, while
"many a thousand not yet born feel with their parents the great hurt and incommodity engendered by their continuance."And, said these pitiful petitioners, adding the poignant human touch, the ports of Hastings and Rye would
"lack necessary wood for fuel for the relieving of poor fishers after their arrival from their daily fishing to dry their clothes and warm their bodies, by whose trade chiefly the said towns stand, the same will shortly decay."Ironworks should be closed down unless they were at least ten miles (some ports said 20) from the sea, said the petitioners.
Thomas Darell, one of the commissioners, put in his own complaint. Alexander Collyn had built a furnace at Lamberhurst, and had bought timber rights from Sir John Gresham. Collyn had apparently felled most of the oak trees and was now beginning on the beeches. Given that there were six other ironworks nearby, this would mean that the woods would be
"utterly wasted and destroyed, to the utter undoing of a great number of the inhabitants and tenants in that part."Furthermore, Collyn had diverted a stream to power the water-hammer at his furnace. Given that the former stream bed had acted as a property line for several landowners, and the county boundary between Kent and Sussex, Darell predicted that
"hereafter may ensue much trouble and business in that part and great hurt and charges to the inhabitants there."It is difficult to tell whether Somerset's commission had the same motivation as our present-day congressional inquiries, namely, mainly to allow people to vent their anger, and to allow Congressmen some TV time and publicity. Thomas Darrell's testimony certainly suggests that some commissioners were genuinely horrified at the impact of the industry, though the Darrell family went on to become ironmasters themselves in later years. However, the chairman of the commission, Sir Thomas Cawarden, was an ironmaster, and the eventual result of the enquiry was much the same as most Congressional hearings today: nothing was done. One assumes that the political power of the ironmasters blocked action, especially the draconian closure that the seaports demanded.
One has to be fair, however. The complaints were obviously exaggerated for dramatic effect, just as happens today in Congressional hearings. Counter-arguments have been offered by modern scholars, and were no doubt included in the discussions at the time.
Very few people see coppicing these days, but you can get some idea about it by thinking of the pruning that's done to urban trees or to fruit and nut trees in orchards. Young branches sprout back, so that the urban tree can look ornamental and the orchard tree can produce the best branch system to hold lots of crop. The pruned branches are often large enough to be sold as firewood. I feed my wood-burning stove with pruned fruit wood (cherry or almond), which not only keeps me warm outside, but gives me the satisfaction of knowing this is Ecologically Correct firewood. No trees have been deliberately felled to feed my stove.
Coppicing has another advantage. Charcoal (real charcoal, as opposed to the clay-filled charred sawdust briquettes sold to us as "charcoal") does not transport very well on carts over rough roads: it is brittle and breaks up into fragments that are useless for an iron furnace. Charcoal had to be made near the furnace, which again means that each furnace was drawing on a fairly limited area of forest. Modern calculations suggest that a furnace and forge could be supplied from a 3-mile radius if 25% of the land around it was properly coppiced. As far as we can tell from the records, coppicing in the 1550s was not up to modern-day efficiency, but certainly enough to qualify as legitimate careful forestry. Landowners would sometimes specify a continuation or an extension of coppicing in their wills. Certainly forest clearing was going on, but the iron industry was not usually a major offender. It did take a lot of the blame, however, now and at the time.
Whatever went on behind the scenes in 1548, no action was taken to apply national forest laws to the Weald. The exemptions continued for the ironmasters. The feelings of the locals reached breaking point in short-lived rioting and sabotage, and his political enemies used the disturbances as one of the pretexts for getting rid of the Duke of Somerset, who was dismissed as Protector in 1549. Charged with treason, he was executed in 1552, one of his crimes being that the work of his commission had stirred up "sedition, insurrection, and rebellion"!
In 1558, the first year of Elizabeth's reign, the government passed a law forbidding the felling of trees to make charcoal for iron smelting, but again political and economic pressures forced the exemption of the Wealden charcoal-makers from that law. By 1581, in the face of an increasing threat from Spain, the supply of timbers for shipbuilding was so endangered that the Government forbade felling of trees for any reason within three miles of the coast, within 22 miles of the River Thames, or within the Weald. By this time the law could pass without effect on the strategic production of cannon in the Weald, because coppicing rather than tree-felling supplied almost all of the charcoal. For example, Sir John Pelham directed in his will in 1580 that coppicing should be promoted on his estate, and even eighty years later we find the Pelham estate producing hundreds of cords of "copse wood" a year, and only a few dozen cords of "log wood".
In short, the iron industry has been unfairly blamed for the deforestation of the Weald. Deforestation was not confined to the Weald: whatever caused it was more than iron-working, and I shall discuss the problem much more in the next Chapter. However, the accusation of deforestation was used as a powerful propaganda weapon against the iron-masters.
For England and Elizabeth in 1560, potential or actual enemies included strong neighbors: Scotland, France, and the Spanish who were firmly established in what is now Belgium. The French had retaken all of northern France, including the fortresses of Calais and Boulogne, and the two countries were officially still at war. The Scots had strong ties with France ("the Auld Alliance"), and Mary Queen of Scots, the heiress to the English throne after Queen Elizabeth, was already calling herself "Queen of England". Queen Elizabeth and her ministers had a very difficult task in threading through the complexities that threatened to unite England's enemies against her. England's only two advantages were her fighting ships and skilled seamen, which made any invasion across the Channel dangerous, and they depended on the iron cannon that they carried.
Late in the 1560s, more trouble arose. The Spanish, now under the fanatically Catholic King Philip II, shipped 20,000 soldiers to take the city of Antwerp, in an attempt to stifle a rebellion by their Flemish provinces, and to re-establish Catholicism among these heretical Protestants. In 1568 they beheaded twenty prominent Flemish leaders in Brussels, and this drove the provinces into an open war against Spain that would last 80 years. By the end of 1572 the Spanish had gathered an enormous army and were making major headway into the heartland of the rebellion, now Holland.
The English watched carefully. The Spanish army was renowned and feared throughout Europe. Equipped with the most modern firearms, it was the largest army seen so far in Renaissance Europe; its ranks included many battle-hardened veterans of Spanish wars against the French and the Moslems, many of them professional mercenaries. In August 1572 the part of the Spanish army fighting against the Dutch contained 67,000 men, and by March 1574 it reached 86,000, at a time when England could raise a total of perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 men, less well equipped, less well trained, and less experienced. The situation was much like that facing England in 1940: if an invading army could reach the English shore, it could not fail to conquer the island. England's defense had to rely on stopping the invader from crossing the Channel, and that meant relying on English ships, English sailors, and most of all, on English cannon.
The English could not face the Spanish in open battle on land, but they could do so at sea. As we saw in Chapter 8, Elizabeth helped Sir Francis Drake equip a major raiding expedition to Spanish America. But although it was astoundingly successful, it did not bear on the main problem.
In 1573 Elizabeth appointed Francis Walsingham, her chief spymaster, as Secretary of State. Walsingham faced a difficult situation. English cannon were the best in the world, and the English faced a potentially deadly array of enemies. Cannon were being produced for army and navy in the Weald. However, cannon were also being shipped overseas, and unless they were going to the Dutch, they were going to actual or potential enemies. But the ironmasters of the Weald included some of the most powerful families in England. How should Walsingham deal with this? National survival might depend on keeping iron cannon out of enemy ships.
The historian Ernest Straker suggests that Walsingham deliberately engineered a publicity drive against the ironmasters. His vehicle was to generate public complaints to the Privy Council (the body that officially provided advice to the Queen). Walsingham knew exactly which buttons to press. First, Christopher Barker complained that a hundred ironworks were ravaging the forests of the Weald. Furthermore, cannon were being sold secretly to foreigners. Barker raised two horrifying prospects: that English cannon mounted on foreign ships would strangle English trade:
"the great stoare of ordenance [cannon] that hath been convayed and solde to strangers out of this Realme, whereby their shippes are so well appointed that no merchant shippe may passe thorow the seas"and that the tree-felling in the Weald would have an effect on ship-building:
"unless speedie remedie be provided in this respect there shall not be timber sufficient to be had within these few yeares... for Her Majestie to builde any shippes."More important, perhaps, was a petition from Ralph Hogge, for many years the principal maker of cannon-balls for the Queen. Hogge reminded the Privy Council that there were persistent complaints that cannon were being sold surreptiously to enemy ships, and that he (Hogge) was being blamed for it. Hogge pointed out that he provided the Queen with cannonballs for £8 a ton, while others charged her £12 and £13, and that he never shipped any cannon overseas without a licence. However, many furnaces were shipping cannon illegally out of the southern ports to the French and Spanish without a licence. Hogge named names in a separate sheet attached to his complaint, and he warned that the leakage of cannon abroad would only get worse unless action was taken. (Hogge's English is wonderful, but so badly spelled that I cannot quote much of it! A sample:
"yor enemie is better fourneshed with [cannon] than or owne country ships ar"Whether Walsingham engineered the complaints or not, they hit the target. On February 3, 1574, the Privy Council issued subpoenas for 77 ironmasters to appear in person to testify about their activities. The Royal messenger Richard Pedley rode 483 miles in 19 days over winter roads to deliver them. Some of the ironmasters, the most powerful, including Sir Thomas Gresham of Gresham's Law, ignored the summonses. Others made excuses: "an old man of 80 years and not able to travell" or "lame in his legges and feete"; but Walsingham probably succeeded in choking off much of the leakage. As the great Spanish Armada was being prepared in January 1588, the Spanish were trying to buy iron cannon, but in vain. Iin the event, most of the guns on the Armada were bronze. After the Armada was destroyed by a combination of English tactics and bad weather, the Privy Council instructed the English High Admiral, Lord Howard of Effingham, to send "a discreet gentleman" to visit the iron foundries and stop the casting of guns.
No-one imagines that the smuggling trade in iron cannon was choked off entirely. The decaying ports along this coast probably had smuggling as their major industry until well into the 1800s. The point is that cannon are not like brandy or tobacco or silk, low-volume, high-value goods that can easily and quietly be transported on horseback across the countryside. Rudyard Kipling wrote about the smugglers riding through the villages of the Weald on winter nights:
Five and twenty ponies, trotting through the dark
Brandy for the parson, baccy for the clerk;
Laces for a lady, letters for a spy,
Watch the wall, my darling, while the "Gentlemen" go by!
Full of iron mines [the Weald] is in sundry places, where for the making and fining whereof there bee furnaces on every side, and a huge deale of wood is yearely spent, to which purpose divers brookes in many places are brought to runne in one chanell, and sundry meadows turned into pooles and waters, that they might bee of power sufficient to drive hammer milles, which beating upon the iron, resound all over the places adjoyning....The iron Maisters... cast much ordinance thereof and other things to their no small gaine: now whether it bee as gainfull and profitable to the commonwealth may bee doubted, but the age ensuing will bee better able to tell you.The iron industry began to change in the 17th century. The Swedes in particular were mining very high-quality iron ore, had vast forests, and cheap labor. They began to ship iron (even to England) at prices that the English could not match. They designed new, lightly built cannon for use by field armies, and the astounding successes of Swedish armies in the 1620s and 1630s led other nations to buy or imitate their weapons in the same way that Israel has become an important weapons exporter in our times. The Swedes certainly took cannon sales away from the English. When 4000 tons of cannon were shipped to Holland in 1628, it was not a cash sale: it was to redeem the Crown Jewels, which King Charles I had pawned to the Dutch!
An explosion in charcoal prices after about 1630 in England essentially closed down the cheaper end of the English iron industry, which could no longer compete for fuel on the domestic market, or for sales on the international market. The primary reason for the price increase and falling sales was relentless pressure on English forests by all kinds of interests, but, of course, someone had to take the blame, and the natural reaction was to blame the foreign competition, which was portrayed as evil and unfair. There was political pressure for banning the cheap imports. (This is playing out today in the United States in the chip-making industry, but it has also happened to shoes, clothing, ships, televisions, and cars.)
In 1664 an petitioner to King Charles II asked for an import duty on foreign iron. He complained that
"Northerne Countryes beyond Sea are so extraordinarily abounding in woods iron mine & other conveniencyes for making Iron, and especially by ye cheapnes of theyr mens labor who work as Slaves (nor with that liberty which the meanest of your Majesties subjects comfortably enjoy) that of late years... they are enabled to send vast quantities of that commodity to other Nacions..."The petitioner predicted the end of the English iron industry, massive unemployment, dependence on an unstable foreign source for iron, and loss of business for English ships. (Exactly the same sorts of arguments are being made today about cheap Chinese products, many of which are manufactured by prisoners in labor camps, or cheap Indonesian products, made with cheap child labor.)
The petitioner of 1664 was complaining about Sweden. The Swedish iron mines were indeed worked by slave labor, mostly prisoners of war from the campaigns of the Swedes into Germany, Poland, the Baltic, and Russia during the religious wars in 17th-century Europe. The petitioner got his import duty, but it did not help. The Wealden iron industry was forced to concentrate more and more on high-quality cast iron, which largely meant cannon production.
There was still domestic demand for armaments. The King's ship Sovereign of the Seas, launched in 1637, carried 102 guns, and by 1673 the English battle fleet totalled well over a hundred ships with a firepower of nearly 10,000 guns. (The Royal gunmaker made 1500 cannon in 1665 alone.) The pattern of low-level, high-quality production for the Army, Navy, and English merchant ships continued during the early 1700s until the invention of coke as a cheap fuel for blast-furnaces killed off the last charcoal-fired furnaces of the Weald and transferred a revitalized English iron industry to the coalfields. In the last days of the Wealden industry, charcoal accounted for over 80% of the cost of making cast iron.
Today, the ruins of furnaces and forges, scatterings of slag, and the ponds that supplied the water for bellows and hammers are dotted all over the landscape of the Weald, but are fading with time. In some places only the place-names remain. They look simply like quaint Englishisms unless you are attuned to the meanings behind them: Abinger Hammer, Upper Forge Pond, Hammerwood, Ordnance Place, Hammerfield, Gun Green, Furnace Farm, Hammerden, Burners Hill, Smithy Wood, and many other names that contain Minepit, Cinder [=slag], Forge, and Furnace.
And then there is that fine old English pub The Neville Crest and Gun at Eridge, in the heart of the Weald. In its name and its sign, the pub features the family crest of the 19 generations of Nevilles that have owned the Bergavenny estate for over 500 years, and were landlords drawing rent from ironmasters and woodcutters in the heyday of the Weald iron industry. And, of course, the pub had a Gun on the front lawn until someone stole it. Since it lost the Gun, the pub has gone sadly downhill, and its ancient frontage is polluted by a large plastic play house.
Page last updated April 1999.
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