1495 siege of Waterford

During an eleven day siege of Waterford in 1495, a river bombardment by the cities defenders on Reginalds Tower, successfully sunk two and repelled nine other ships in an eleven day siege.  A cannon from one of those sunken ships was discovered in Waterford in 1901, and to date it continues to be the oldest known cannon from an engagement in Ireland, perhaps not surprising as it was also the first known use of cannon in a conflict in Ireland.

A recent blog explored the discovery of a 16th Century sailing ship off Duncannon, thought to be the Cromwellian Navy Flagship Great Lewis.  In it we mentioned the discovery of an intact ship lying beneath the sands of the harbour and how important it is to Irish and International underwater archaeology. 

An 18th century sketch of the tower. Via Seán Ó’Briain Waterford History Site
Copyright NLI More info and hi res from http://catalogue.nli.ie/Record/vtls000619679/Holdings#tabnav
According to an article by Joe Falvey in an article in the Munster Express there was an added defence to the tower consisting of an outer wall upon which the canon were mounted.

As important and exciting that the discovery is, and the hope that future excavations might bring important artifacts to the surface including cannon, it is worth remembering that we already posses the oldest known Cannon in the country.  The Cannon was mounted on the side of a 15th Century ship, one of eleven involved in a siege that took place from the 23rd July to the 3rd August 1495. 

The back story to the siege is one of political intrigue and starts with a young man who arrived in Cork with a claim to royal origins.  The chap was Perkin Warbeck, who claimed to be one of the children of the deceased king, Edward IV.  After Edwards death his two sons, Edward V, King of England (12 years old) and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York (9 years old) were locked into the  Tower of London by the man appointed to look after them, their uncle, Richard -Duke of Gloucester.  Richard did the dirt as they say, the boys “disappeared” and he assumed the throne as Richard III.  He would later be killed in battle and the crown passed to Henry VII.[1]

News of a rival for the crown of England was music to many ears, including Cork’s Earl of Desmond, who had his own interest in upsetting the political regime.  Using the story of the young prince who had been cheated out of his rightful birthright, Desmond  whipped up a fuss and raised an army to over through English rule in Ireland.  Recognising the main threat to any progress as Waterford, Desmond and Warbeck assembled an army at Youghal and marched on the city, and eleven ships landed at Passage, later travelling up to the city.[2]

Perkin Warbeck, a 15th C sketch
Via Wikipedia Public Domain

A siege was laid, but the citizenry were prepared.  The stout defences of the city walls were well founded, and a large dam was built across Johns Pill which flooded the marshes to the East of the city, giving extra security.  Any attacks were repulsed and following a sortie into the enemy camp the siege camp was routed and a number of prisoners were dragged into the city, beheaded and the heads mounted on sticks around the market place and walls.[3]

Meanwhile the eleven ships seemed to fair no better (Frustratingly I could find no specific description of the type of craft).  Canon mounted on the walls and defences that surrounded Reginalds Tower were able to blast the ships from their vantage point.  At least two ships were lost (one with all hands), the other nine ships broke and run for cover under a barrage of cannon, eventually mooring off Passage East.  (According to my cousin James Doherty, and some of the guides in Reginalds Tower, troops were landed from the ships near the tower, but the dam across Johns Pill was opened and the rush of water drowned some and led to the routing of others) Following the lifting of the siege, Warbeck fled to Passage East and embarked one of the waiting ships.  The Waterford citizenry were not content however, and four ships (described by one source as Galleys) were prepared and gave chase, but with no success.

Ireland’s oldest cannon on display in Waterford. Author Image. With thanks to Waterford Museum of Treasures.

Warbeck continued to find favour with others who sought to undermine the English crown, but it would appear he was only ever a pawn in more powerful peoples games.  He was finally captured by Henry VII and was hanged in 1499, but not before returning to Waterford for an even less successful attempt on the city in 1497.

Remarkably the siege of 1495 represents the very first recorded use of cannon in Ireland[4]  And the victory helped give Waterford its proudly displayed motto: ‘Urbs Intacta Manet Waterfordia’,  ‘The City of Waterford Remains Untaken’[5]

The city crest including the motto. Note three Irish galleys from an earlier victory . Author image.

The cannon mentioned at the outset is housed in Waterford’s Museum of Treasures and was dredged up from the river on the 4th January 1901. (Coincidentally, I think the dredger Urbs Intacta was in operation at that time).  The newspapers of the time were very exercised by the discovery and quickly dated the ordnance and its significance.  It was dredged up somewhere opposite the Clock Tower and at a point described as mid-way in the river.  At a meeting of the Waterford Archaeological Society in 1901 Major Cuffe gave a presentation on the significance of the ordanance and the item was on display.[6]

It’s a typical late 15th century gun which originally would have been attached to the gunwale of a sailing ship. It is almost a metre in length, and it most likely fired stone shot, rather than iron cannon balls.[7]  Its known by a number of names such as a Pierrier cannon (stone thrower) or a breech loading swivel gun. (Both links include some fine photographs)

I might return to the recovery of the cannon at a later stage. But if you want to see this amazing piece of ordnance, it’s on display in the Waterford Museum of Treasures

I’d like to thank the staff of Reginalds Tower and the Waterford Museum of Treasures who were a great source of information and support in researching this piece. I would also like to put out a call for any further information on the siege and the events over those eleven days. Despite reading everything I could find on it, including several modern books, I’m amazed so little detail is available. It’s also remarkable that many of the online sources about Warbeck and his campaign say little of his Irish journeys and in many cases nothing of the Waterford siege. I find this astonishing. Had Waterford fallen, its possible, if not probable, he would have had a secure base in Ireland to challenge the throne, which would surely have emboldened other enemies on the continent.

I found further support for the claim that this was the earliest use of Cannon in Ireland since publication. [8]

Next week, we visit the Ross River in a guest blog by Brian Forristal

[1] Walton. J. O’Donoghue. F.   On This Day Vol 1. 2013. Waterford

[2] Ibid

[3] Downes. E.  The Story of Waterford. 1914.  The Waterford News.  Waterford (pp58-61)

[4] http://irisharchaeology.ie/2014/05/irelands-oldest-cannon/

[5] Walton. J. O’Donoghue. F.   On This Day Vol 1. 2013. Waterford

[6] Waterford Standard – Wednesday 27 February 1901 page 4

[7] McEneaney, E. & Ryan R. (eds) 2004 Waterford Treasures, M.Y. Gallaghers, Waterford.

[8] Hayes-McCoy, G. A. “The Early History of Guns in Ireland.” Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, vol. 18, no. 1/2, 1938, pp. 43–65. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25535185.