The humble flint
It was at an English Civil War event last summer with the Taunton Garrison at Dunster Castle when it happened. I won’t say it was a eureka moment, but it gave me pause for thought. We were in the display arena overlooked by the historic castle and surrounded by a hundred or so members of the public. The troops were lined up as I discussed with the crowd: who we were, what we were wearing, what weapons we carried etc
The talk came to the musketeers and how we had different ignition systems: the matchlock and flintlock. Discussing the matchlock I repeated the well-known facts that a matchlock musketeer could go through a foot of match in an hour, or a mile of match in a year! Those facts alone are staggering. When one thinks of the logistics, the supply and the making of match to supply tens of thousands of soldiers during the English Civil War it soon becomes a mammoth undertaking. But then I turned to our flintlock musketeers and a question popped in my mind. Well…several.
For flintlock muskets, carbines and pistols where did the flints come from?
Who supplied them?
How much did they cost?
Were there professionals in the industry?
Did musketeers knap flint on the march or on campaign?
What quantity of flints were around?
So I started looking into, ‘flint,’ and began building on my limited knowledge gained from Phil Harding on Time Team – ooh arr!
To begin with…what is flint?
Flint is Silicon Dioxide. A popular theory believes that flint was created millions of years ago, when marine animals / organisms died and were, ‘attacked,’ by silicon particles. These would cocoon the dead animal, and over time, over millions of years would create a fine crystalline grain that is perfect for, ‘knapping.’ The creation of flint however is not agreed by experts by any means, but the above thesis seems fairly common.
The process of creating a useful implement tool from flint is called knapping or lithic reduction. The first term comes from the Germanic, ‘knopp,’ meaning to shape, strike or to work whilst lithic refers to stone e.g. monolith. In basic terms, flint knapping is removing: flakes or blanks from a core by striking it with a hammer stone or a percussor. These striking objects can be: a pebble, a deer antler, hard wood or a bone. Once a blank or flake has been knocked off then they need to worked again to produce the required tool. According to James Dilley in his ‘Flint Tools through the Ages, and the Art of Flintknapping,’ he states that the use of flint tools can now be dated back 3.3 million years. These tools were found in Kenya and pre-date the genus Homo!
So in the UK, where is the best place to get flint? Looking at Picture 1, it is clear to see that East Anglia and the Southeast of England (light mint green colour on map) have the richest sources of flint. Moving forward a few years(!) the first flintlock type mechanism was the snaphance or snaphaunce from the 1570’s and 80’s. This was the first gun that ignited the gunpowder by having a spring-loaded flint being flung forward to scrape against steel to create sparks. All future flintlocks for the next 200+ years relied on this technology including the famous British Brown Bess. The actual science of creating sparks relies on the flint striking the steel (frizzen) and scraping off iron particles of, ‘magnetite,’ Fe304 which fall into the gunpowder in the pan. The sparks are therefore created by a rapid and exothermic oxidation of small particles of iron into magnetite.
So during the English Civil War, despite the matchlock being the most dominant ignition system, there was still a considerable demand of flintlocks. Dragoons, cavalry, firelock parties and guards for powder stores all needed flintlocks. How many flints were needed for all these soldiers? It is impossible to say. Being a reenactor who has a brand new flint shatter on the first shot, tells me that a single flintlock musketeer would need a large amount either on his person or within easy reach. As can be seen in the attached video, getting a large number of soldiers supplied with flints would require a small army of people to: quarry the flint, quarter it (break it into manageable pieces), knapp it to create the actual flints and then to finally transport it around the country on badly maintained roads.
Looking at Picture 1 again, it also shows quite clearly that parliament who held East Anglia and the Southeast had ready access to the best sources of flint during the English Civil War. There would obviously be other sources in other parts of the British isles for the royalists, but the royalists would struggle to import flint as parliament controlled the navy and the sea-lanes.
So how many questions can we answer?
How many flints were produced for musketeers during the English Civil War?
How much did they cost?
Who produced them?
Did people knap them on site?
I have no answers for these questions, just more ideas…mainly I want to start knapping flint during a reenactment event as it will create more lively discussion with the general public.
But we do have some references from the middle years of the 17th century. In 1655, Oliver Cromwell is recorded to have communicated with a London gunmaker who was offering to supply the army with 11,000 flints. In the 1660’s, the British Board of Ordnance supplied English gunmakers with, ‘large quantities of gunflints cut by themselves. These were called wedge shaped flints of Clactonians.’
But England must claim real fame when it comes to gunflint manufacture. The Brandon Gunflint Company near Thetford was created by Philip Hayward in 1790. In 1804 they were commissioned for 360,000 flints! They are also famous for, ‘supplying the British army with flints for the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. In fact, Brandon was still supplying flints around the world until the 1960’s. By the time they closed, they had supplied up to 4 million flints to countries such as: China, Malaya, Java, Sumatra and countries in Latin America and Africa.
The knapping of flint for gunflints has also been made infamous for creating the first industrial disease – silicosis (the inhalation of flint dust). It’s other name was knapper’s rot. At Brandon over a certain period of time, three quarters of worker deaths were due to silicosis and 7 out of 8 died from the disease before they were 50!
So gunflints, so many questions and very few answers. But, it has opened up I imagine, a fragment of history that has never been investigated or researched properly. I’m off to watch a bit more Phil Harding – ooh arr!
Further reading - James Dilley ‘Flint Tools through the Ages, and the Art of Flintknapping
A devilish soldier
Percy Kirke – Governor of Tangier and colonel of the Tangier Regiment (Queens Royal Surrey Regiment)
His regiment’s badge was a lamb hence the name, Kirke’s Lambs…a twisted name when reading about some of their activities after the battle of Sedgemoor.
His time in Tangier fighting the Moors had clearly left its mark on him and his men. At Taunton after the battle, he ordered rebels to be hung up without a trial and apparently his men looked on with much amusement. It was reported that as the dying men’s legs twitched, music was ordered to play in time with the twitching.
After the battle Kirke was given the unpleasant duty of, ‘cleaning up,’ after the battle. This involved: dispensing justice, rounding up rebels, rounding up those who had aided and abetted rebels and looking after the royal army’s wounded and killed.
Richard Alford, the churchwarden of Westonzoyland recorded, ‘there was killed of the rebels upon the spot 300, hanged with us 22 of which 4 were hanged in gemmasses. About 500 prisoners brought into our church, of which 79 were wounded and 5 of them died of their wounds in our church.’
Kirke was soon found to be complaining about his new responsibilities. He grumbled that the locals were saying the dead had not been buried deep enough and that they had been put to great expense in building gallows and gibbets. He was forced to ask local authorities to, ‘press ploughs and men to come…where the rebels are buried, that there may be a mount buried on them.’
Percy Kirke, later in King James II’s reign resisted calls from the king to change religion to Catholicism. He was reported to have told the king that he had previously promised the ruler of Morocco that if he were to change religion he would embrace Islam.
What should go into a history visit?
When planning school visits obviously one of the key questions is, what does the school actually want?
Even if there is a very specific set of requirements I will still endeavour to put a spin on the day. This could be discussing a controversial argument (perhaps one not universally covered in schools) e.g. It would have been better for Great Britain to remain neutral in 1914 and not get involved in the Great War.
Researching and reading history as a hobby, I tend to veer off from mainstream publications and find myself reading sources such as:
The Artillery Train of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford 1640
The Mathematical and Military Sciences in Renaissance England
The Philomena of John Bradmore and its Middle English derivative:
A perspective on surgery in late medieval England
Maurice Kyffin;s advice on training infantry in Ireland, October 1597
A guide to the use of muskets during the English Civil War
The Cockpit of Ulster: War along the river Blackwater 1593-1603
The Sword of the Law, Elizabethan soldiers’ perception and practice of the law of armed conflict (1569-1587)
The Navy in the English Civil War
Networks, News and Communication: Political Elites and Community Relations in Elizabethan Devon, 1588 – 1603
Learning Lessons from War? Inclusions and Exclusions in Teaching First World War History in English Secondary Schools
On the frontlines of teaching the history of the First World War
“He Sees Now What He Looked Like”: Soldier Spectators, Topical Films, and the Problem of Onscreen Representation during World War I
Medieval Siege Warfare: A Reconnaissance
Some very random titles in this small selection – but every one offers fascinating insights, ideas and subjects to discuss which may not be able to be taught in a squeezed curriculum. Being able to offer this, ‘depth,’ for a subject will give more colour and inspiration to these wonderful subjects.
So what should go into my visits?
Colour, depth, unique perspectives and above all – passion for the very best of subjects!