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A Reluctant Assassin

Looking at the various aspects of Tudor life I’ve explored in previous mystery series, I realised I’d barely touched on the military (though one or two characters are ex-soldiers). So, on the lookout for a new protagonist to feature in a forthcoming trilogy of novels, I stumbled on Will Revill: a captain of artillery, scarred both mentally and physically by his service in the war in the Low Countries. I was interested to explore the dilemma of a man who does not want to take human life again, but is brought to it by force of circumstance.

The Spanish Armada - Nicholas Hilliard - Public Domain
The Spanish Armada - Nicholas Hilliard - Public Domain

Elizabeth the 1st disliked wars, reportedly saying that they had such unpredictable outcomes. Yet at times she felt she had little choice but to intervene in other people’s conflicts (notably in France and in the Netherlands), during the seemingly endless struggle between the forces of Protestantism and Catholicism for mastery of Europe. Eventually, with the growing threat from Spain, the superpower of the day, she signed the Treaty of Nonsuch in 1585 and committed troops to Holland to assist the Dutch rebels in the desperate struggle against their Spanish overlords. The war would drag on for decades, bringing England itself close to invasion and, some would say, to within a hair’s breadth of becoming a Spanish province. The first book in my trilogy is set in 1589: the year after the notorious Armada.

Like other protagonists of mine, Will Revill is an outsider: a university drop-out from a farming family in Devon (disclosure: I live in Devon and once worked on a farm). For better or worse, like other restless men he has ended up in the army, taking ship for the Low Countries with the Earl of Leicester’s forces, and eventually involved in such brutal engagements as the siege of Bergen op Zoom. Instead of a cavalry soldier or infantryman, however, I wanted an officer of a different stamp - which led me to the artillery.

In fact, this (sometimes overlooked) aspect of Tudor warfare had always interested me. Now I had to embark in detail on a new area of research: the gunnery of the Elizabethan era, to the point where I knew my cannons and demi-cannons from my culverins, demi-culverins, falconets, sakers and robinets; what size of ball each carried, and how much powder was needed to fire it. It was intriguing to learn about, for example, the equipment used by a gunnery crew, the number of horses required to haul a siege gun across country and the sheer, back-breaking work needed to get it into position and make it ready. Who knew that the largest gun of all, the basilisk, could throw a ball weighing sixty pounds – but needed sixty pounds of powder just to fire it? Or that, if a gun’s barrel was not allowed sufficient time to cool after firing a few shots, it could explode, likely killing and/or maiming its entire crew? Not me, but I’m learning. Most illuminating of all, perhaps, was the video I saw on Facebook showing how a cannon of the period was loaded, aimed, fired, then cleaned, cooled and reloaded: an often dangerous and unpredictable business.

The first Will Revill thriller, A Reluctant Assassin, sees Revill undertake a murky ‘dirty-ops’ mission which he loathes but is forced into - hence the title (no spoilers on how it turns out!). But for his second book he is back in military service – with a twist, of course.

The gunners of Elizabeth’s army are at times an underrated force. I hope to shed a little light on their world, its trials and dangers – and tell some intriguing tales in the process.

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