Royal Armouries 17th Century Marine salvage project

Portrait of Pepys by John Hayls

“This morning is brought me to the office the sad newes of “The London,” in which Sir J(ohn) Lawson’s men were all bringing her from Chatham to the Hope, and thence he was to go to sea in her; but a little a’this side the buoy of the Nower, she suddenly blew up. About 24 [men] and a woman that were in the round-house and coach saved; the rest, being above 300, drowned: the ship breaking all in pieces, with 80 pieces of brass ordnance. She lies sunk, with her round- house above water. Sir J(ohn) Lawson hath a great loss in this of so many good chosen men, and many relations among them. I went to the ‘Change, where the news taken very much to heart.” Diary of Samuel Pepys, March 1665″

This is an important conservation project which is also enhancing our understanding of the design and evolution of Naval guns from a period when the Commonwealth had just fought the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-1654) and by the time of the Restoration aspired to become a supreme tool of War and guarantor of Commerce.

The project focuses on 3 guns, 2 from the wreck of the London a warship which was blown asunder by an explosion of powder cartridges and sank in 1656, and one composite Drake gun. It is estimated as a 5 year elapse project and is supported by funding from The Arms and Armour Heritage Trust, the Radcliffe Trust and the Leche Trust.

Conservator Matthew Hancock during a talk

The project is trialling the latest processes for removing chloride ions from metallic relics recovered from sea water,  This will be of critical importance to other conservation initiatives that pre-dated these techniques developed between the 1960s and 1980s.  This will be enable evaluation of the impact on the long term stability of items treated with earlier techniques.

The guns recovered from the London are both very rare bronze cannon, one by gun founder Peter Gill, thought to be the only surviving example of his work and the other bearing the Commonwealth crest and thought to be one of a handful  of surviving examples of a bronze gun of the Commonwealth. The Drake is helping to increase our understanding of the evolution and production methods of this genre of solution to producing lighter weapons whilst preserving hitting power.

Three guns once on HMS London which sank off Southend in the Thames Estuary during the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667).
Some on the guns on the HMS London were originally used on Dutch warships before being placed on HMS London, the cannons are believed to have been involved in The Restoration, transporting the son of Charles II, the future King James II, from his exile in the Netherlands.
The cannon were sold to a buyer in the US at an auction in 2010 having been found by a diver in around 2007.
Following a two-year investigation involving the Essex and Kent police, Historic England, the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the diver was prosecuted for making a fraudulent claim of where he had found the cannons. He had insisted they had been found in international waters. However following the investigation it was proved they were from HMS London, which was at the bottom off the estuary just off Chatham in Kent.

They have since been repatriated to the UK. (Antique traders Gazette, Laura Chesters 15 Dec 2017).
The Warship London is now designated as a historic wreck under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973

HMS London

The ‘London’, as depicted by van de Velde in 1656. © National Maritime Museum

HMS London was a 64 Gun second-rate Ship of the Line deigned by John Taylor a built in Chatham in 1656: see

1660  Broadside Weight = 534 Imperial Pound ( 242.169 kg)
Lower Gun Deck  12 British Demi-Cannon  (32 Lb)
Lower Gun Deck  12 British Culverin            (17 Lb 5 ½ Oz)
Middle Gun Deck  12 British Culverin
Middle Gun Deck  12 British Demi-Culverin  (8Lb –  9Lb)
Upper Gun Deck      16 British Demi-Culverin

Crew Complement
Date  # of Men
1660 360
1660 450   Establishment for war abroad
1660 360   Establishment for war at home
1660 280   Establishment for peace

A 36 Pounder rigged for action..
Drawing by Antoine Morel-Fatio, Public Domain, Wikipedia

Arming of a Naval Officer

The Commonwealth Gun recovered from the wreck of HMS London resting within its desalination bath.

“Flagmen of Lowestoft”: Admiral of the Red Sir John Lawson, Posthumous portrait by Peter Lely. Portrait: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Greenwich Hospital Collection

Lawson was formerly Captain of the London when in the Parliamentary Navy. In 1660 he again commanded the London as 2nd in command of the expedition to repatriate Charles II from the Netherlands Ϯ. On 3 June 1665 he was wounded in the knee at the Battle of Lowestoft, when engaging the Dutch Fleet. The wound became gangrenous, killing him 2 weeks later. He was buried at the Church of St Dunstan-in-the-East, London at night, only navy officers accompanying the coffin. By this date, in response to the growth in plague fatalities burial at night was mandated, so again compliance with this despite not being a plague death may have been expedient.

Ϯ (See “1666 Plague, War and Hellfire”, Rebecca Rideal, John Murray Publishers, London 2017).

An English buff coat c. 1640-1650. Typically made of oil-tanned cow-hide. The lower skirt where it protects the thighs are up to 5cm thick.
Photo V&A T.34-1948

Admiral Sir John Lawson is portrayed wearing a buff coat over a sleeved jacket. Over this is a high quality but relatively plain blackened breast and back-plate. The rivets securing the liner, plated straps and hasps securing these are gilded.

Suspended from his sword belt is what is probably a ceremonial hanger distinguished by a robust lions head pommel. All elements of the hilt are also gilded. A similar style of hilt appears in other Lely portraits in the Flagmen of Lowestoft series. This might indicate a common naval pattern but could just as likely reflect Lely’s artistic preference or perhaps props.

The portrait of (formerly) General-at-Sea George Monck, c.1665/66 Portrait: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Greenwich Hospital Collection.


Commonwealth Guns

Prior to recovery of the Gun from the London only one cannon still marked with the Arms of the Commonwealth existed. This was the Royal Armouries Leeds – 4.5” demi-culverin – The Commonwealth gun (1649-1653). This cast iron cannon was found in an area which was most probably the site of the Battle of Schveningen fought between the English and the Dutch fleets on 31 July 1653. It seems likely it had been shipped from the Tower to Tilbury for outfitting the Oak, one of two English ships lost that day.

Royal Armouries Leeds Commonwealth Gun:

When compared to the example at Fort Nelson we can see that the escutcheons are of a simpler design, without the cusped upper edges (also seen on commonwealth coinage). However, there are stylistic features common to both guns (such as a very narrow vent field – the section within which the vent hole is found; annular groove to the rear of the 2nd reinforce moulding, above the commonwealth arms etc.) which are found on cannon manufactured. (Nautical Archaeology, 17.1; the Commonwealth Gun, G.M. Wilson).

The bronze London gun appears to bear a more sophisticated representation of the Arms of the Commonwealth. After the Restoration of Charles II Commonwealth Arms would have been effaced hence the extreme rarity of extant pieces.

Close-up of the Commonwealth Gun showing (left) the outline of the Arms of the Commonwealth of England. Left the patinated bronze barrel. Right the same image manipulated to enhance contrast in black & white
Photographs courtesy of the Royal Armouries, Fort Nelson 2018
Flag of the Commonwealth

The Council of State on 22 February 1649 stated: “that the ships at sea in service of the State shall onely beare the red Crosse in a white flag”. The order was signed by Oliver Cromwell on 23 February. On 5 March 1649 the Council ordered “that the Flagg that is to be borne by the Admiral, Vice-Admiral, and Rere-Admiral be that now presented, viz., the Armes of England [Red St. George Cross on white] and Ireland [gold harp on blue] in two severall Escotcheons in a Red Flagg, within a compartment.“ (see

Thus by March 1649 the coat of arms of the Protectorate became two escutcheons, one bearing the Cross of St George, the other the Harp of Ireland.

Commonwealth silver Half-Crown of 1656. Obverse

The London which was launched in 1656. Her cannon would most likely pre-date that year but based upon the commonwealth arms would not pre-date 1649. Whilst Scotland was reunited with England by an Ordinance of 12 April 1654, coinage of 1656 still bears the twin escutcheons charged with the English Cross of St George and the Harp of Ireland. It is possible to discern the Harp within the right escutcheon on this cannon.

The Peter Gill Bronze Cannon

Possibly the only known example of a Cannon produced by Peter Gill and bearing his name – Royal Armouries 17th C
The Gill gun has been re-bored indicating re-use of an earlier weapon for the London.
Charles 1st Cypher

Left: The Crowned Tudor rose remaining on the upper part of the barrel.  Compare this with a full Charles I cypher with a chained anchor enclosing a Tudor rose. This latter appears  on R. Roth’s dawings of a Bronze demi-culverin drake from the Sovereign of the Seas which is inscribed “JOHN BROWNE MADE THIS PEECE ANO 1638”.  Jean Boudriot publications/ Sovereign of the Seas: The Seventeenth-Century Warship By James Sephton, Amberley Publishing 2013).

The Dutch Composite Drake gun – an attempt at producing lighter but effective naval cannon

The composite Drake was designed to deliver a lighter cannon without reducing the weight of shot or force of charge that could be accommodated. The extant pieces were produced in Amsterdam and English Ordnance records confirm purchase by the English Navy occurred. As can be seen, however, the composition has inherent potential weakness and would be prone to error in manufacture. An aspirant innovation which failed to capture volume uptake.

Diagram of the composition of the Rotunda Drake, a 4 Lb 3 ¼ “ cannon. Approx. 4 ft 9 “ long
The Composite Drake from the Batavia now sectioned to show sectional construction. Here the main iron tube consists of banded staves indicative of an earlier design than the Fort Nelson example which has a longitudinal tube.
Donated by the Receiver of Wreck on 8th August 2014. Found on or near Goodwin Sands and reported by Mr Aaronovitch, who kindly waived his right to a salvage award.
Built up of copper alloy and iron, probably soldered using lead alloy.
The copper alloy covering is ornamented with bands of interlace at the main mouldings and cascabel, including button. It is provided with dolphins. According to the inscription behind the vent, it weighs 260 Amsterdam pounds.
Calibre 60-70 mm

Norwich Castle

Due to the generous donation received from the AAHT, Norwich Castle has significantly supplemented its collection of replica medieval arms and armour. Previously, visitors to the castle have found the arms and armour talks to be one of the most engaging events held at Norwich Castle, with 90% of visitors rating it as excellent in 2015 and 92% in 2016. Thanks to the AAHT’s grant the Arms and Armour Talks received an incredible 98% excellent rating last year (2018).

Swords aren’t always pretty

The additional equipment that the AAHT grant allowed us to produce has filled significant gaps in the timeline of the evolution of medieval arms and armour. As a result, we have been able to depict a range of historic soldier’s equipment across different strata of feudal life throughout the middle ages. Visitors of all ages, interests, backgrounds and genders have been able to understand the variety of equipment that was used and develop a greater emotional connection to the past. Importantly, we have also used examples of skeletal remains to ground the talk with the reality of medieval warfare, revealing the true, terrifying effects of the weaponry to highlight why evolving designs of armour were essential to surviving the medieval battlefield.

Norwich Museum at Night
Discussing converted farming tools

The Arms and Armour Talks have been enjoyed by thousands of visitors since the collection was improved and have featured throughout the summer holidays and at all the major public events held at Norwich Castle such as Heritage Open Day, Museums at Night, and televised on Children in Need!

We have received heartfelt feedback from visitors who have really begun to appreciate the skill, science and engineering that can go into making arms and armour – or the hurried conversion of farming tools to makeshift weapons. Visitors can now appreciate the sense of panic that peasants would feel as trained and armoured knights charge towards them, or the feeling of invulnerability that a full harness of armour could provide. We have received wonderful stories from children who have been inspired by the collection and adults who have taken their new-found interest to the next level by taking up blacksmithing.

Hands on with a 140lb longbow

The benefits of the improved Arms and Armour collection have been felt beyond the public Arms and Armour talks. Summer schools, scout groups, home educators, and youth groups have all requested arms and armour sessions as part of their visit to Norwich Castle. The daily tours of the castle now use the hand-crafted 140lb draw weight longbow to engage with visitors, dispel myths, and help them to appreciate the incredible strength that would have been required to use this iconic weapon. School groups have been requesting additional sessions on medieval arms and armour to begin their topic on medieval history. Our upcoming outreach program, ‘A Knight Out’, will be taking the show on the road to thousands of people at events across the country next year. The improved arms and armour collection now features proudly in the visitor experience of Norwich Castle.

The grant received from AAHT has allowed all of this to happen, fascinating people with the history of arms and armour, which we shall continue to do for years to come.