(Lack of) Gun Control in Elizabethan England

I was amused to read recently a story on the BBC about a dog accidentally shooting its master (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-19630411).  Coincidentally, I had just been looking through the Calendar of Assize Records for Kent in the 16th century and had been struck by the number of references to guns and accidental shootings then – although none by dogs!  I was looking for references to murder, and indeed I found plenty –  as well as numerous accounts of theft and many sad stories about infanticide and accidental deaths – and I was surprised to find so many accounts of shootings.

The Wardmote Court Book in York contains only one mention of a gun – John Browning was presented for shooting at pigeons in 1583 (YCA E31, p.176) – and I confess I’d always assumed that guns only became readily available in the 17th century with the outbreak of civil war.  But the Kent assize courts make it clear that there were plenty of guns around at the end of the 16th century too,  although most of the incidents involving guns that make it to the assize courts seem to have been accidents. I get the impression that guns were quite new at this point, the kind of gadgets or ‘boy toys’ that men wanted to check out – often with disastrous consequences.

John and Nicholas Morbred, for instance, were eating and talking together in a parlour in Flimwell in 1587 when William Cogger came in carrying a loaded gun.  “He stood the gun in a corner, and shortly afterwards Nicholas Morbred finished eating and got up to look at it.  He picked it up, and while he was idly examining it the gun accidentally went off, shooting John Morbred in the head.” (p.264)

Similarly, William Horseley of Chilset, a labourer, was clearly fiddling when he killed Robert Hawlett.  He was in Thomas Wood’s house when he picked up a loaded handgun belonging to Wood.  The assize record explains: “While he was tampering with the lock the gun suddenly went off, hitting Robert Hawlett, who was sitting in the corner of the chimney, in the stomach, and causing a wound from which he died on the following day.”  The jury decided on a verdict of death by misadventure.  (p.248)

Guns were just as liable to go off accidentally outside.  The militia were equipped with guns called ‘calivers’ and exercises sometimes ended in accidental shootings of the kind that killed blacksmith Isaac Cavell in 1588. (p.283)  A tailor called George Higham was also a member of the militia who leaned his gun against a post in a field in Doddington.  “As he did so, the gun accidentally went off”.  The ball struck and killed John Markes who was standing talking to a friend in a wood some 360 paces away.  This too was considered death by misadventure. (p.291)

And sometimes people were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The unusually-named Abimaleck Johnson of Eridge in Sussex was hunting meat for his master’s hawks in Waterdown Forest when he saw a heathcock (presumably some kind of bird?) sitting in a hawthorn tree. He fired at it with his gun, but “by misfortune” some of the shot hit a yeoman called John Baker “who was concealed in a brake on a hill behind the tree”.  The unfortunate Baker died of his injuries the following day.  (p.116)
It seems that it wasn’t long before the full potential of the gun as a weapon was realised.  John Andrewe and unknown accomplices were armed with handguns when they burgled John Pope’s house in Bromley Green in 1592.  They tied up   Pope and stole 13s. in money, 2 silver rings and 2 silver pins as well as neckerchiefs, table napkins, a variety of other cloths and a tablecloth worth 10s.  Pope apparently survived the ordeal and Andrewe was found guilty of burglarly and sentenced to hang.  (p.335)

Unless otherwise specified, all page references to Calendar of Assize Records: Kent Indictments, Elizabeth I, edited by J.S. Cockburn (HMSO, London, 1979).


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