Mastering Artillery and Festivities?: Burgh Appointments in Aberdeen in 1523

In April 1523, an entry in the council register of the Scottish burgh of Aberdeen appointed two individuals, Thomas Menzies and Patrick Lesly, as Masters of Artillery for the following year.[1] Out of context, this appointment seems unsurprising. The first recorded Masters of Artillery in Aberdeen were appointed in 1512; both Menzies and Lesly were significantly involved in burgh government in the 1520s and in April 1523 had also been appointed to a small council advising on defence against a feared English attack.[2] However, eyebrows are often raised for, in the same register entry, the two men were also appointed as Lords of Bon-Accord, Aberdeen’s ‘lord of misrule’ figure, who led the burgh’s traditional seasonal celebrations.[3] At first, appointing the Lords of Bon-Accord to take charge of the burgh artillery, particularly in a year in which war with England threatened, seems irresponsible, if not wilfully ignorant, on the part of the burgh council. However, further investigation highlights that the two roles shared several key similarities.  

Image: Map of New Aberdeen from James Gordon, Abredoniae novae et veteris description (1661). Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland from


Firstly, it is important to recognise the organisational scope of both roles. The Lords of Bon-Accord might be expected to organise plays, burgh ridings, decorations, dances, and banquets.[4] The role of the Masters of Artillery in Aberdeen involved acquiring supplies for the artillery, raising relevant funds, ensuring gunners were paid, and playing a role in organising the physical defence of the burgh.[5] Both roles therefore required an individual with both the time to facilitate, and the skill to organise, the activities within their remit.


Aberdeen’s civic government was relatively closed, and only limited individuals, like Menzies and Lesly, would be considered appropriate holders for roles which confirmed, or affirmed, status. Indeed, in Aberdeen in 1531 the role of the Lord of Bon-Accord was described specifically as ‘an office of honour.’[6] While the prestige of the role of the Master of Artillery was less explicitly stated, at the national level Lord Methven, the third husband of the Dowager Queen Margaret, was, in 1528, appointed ‘gret Lieutennat of the gret artilyhie quhilk with us is an office honourable’, suggesting that a command role over artillery imparted a degree of status and honour.[7] It is also notable that the Menzies family, who dominated Aberdeen’s politics in the sixteenth century, continually ensured their control of the burgh’s artillery, seemingly both for security and as a statement of status and authority.

Utilising Gunpowder

Masters of Artillery were involved in ensuring the burgh was supplied with gunpowder which was, in turn, frequently used during burgh festivities. Gunners commonly played a role on these occasions while, in Edinburgh, entertainments in the first half of the sixteenth century often referenced payments for gunpowder, sometimes explicitly delivered to the local equivalent of the Lord of Bon-Accord.[8] In Aberdeen, it is also known that an artillery salute was fired in 1512 at the royal entry of Queen Margaret, and that the Lords of Bon-Accord were heavily involved in organising royal visits to the burgh in 1492 and 1552.[9] It is highly likely, therefore, that the Lords of Bon-Accord would have played a role in organising the salute in 1512, although it is perhaps not coincidental that this is also the first year for which a record of the Masters of Artillery survives for the burgh.

The roles of Master of Artillery and Lord of Bon-Accord therefore, shared several common features – both required organisational skills, bestowed status and required a degree of mutual knowledge. While there is no evidence at present that the conflation of these roles was explicitly repeated, a recurrence would perhaps not be as surprising as it had, at first, appeared.

[1] Anna Mill, Medieval Plays in Scotland (Norwood, 1978), p. 142.

[2] ACA/1/9, p.108; ACA/1/11, p. 272; William Kennedy, An Alphabetical Index [….] 1398 – 1800 (copy), MS 595 (1826), Vol. 10 p.81; Vol. 11 p.99.

[3] Mill, Medieval Plays, p.142; Michael Lynch & H. Dingwall, ‘Elite Society in Town and Country’ in E. Patricia Dennison, David Ditchburn & Michael Lynch (eds), Aberdeen Before 1800: A New History (East Linton, 2002), p. 183.

[4] Mill, Medieval Plays, p. 27.

[5]ACA/1/11, p 90.

[6] Mill, Medieval Plays, p. 143.

[7] David Caldwell, Guns in Scotland: The manufacture and use of guns and their influence on warfare from the fourteenth century to c. 1625 (University of Edinburgh, Unpublished PhD thesis, 1981), pp. 181-2.

[8] Philip Butterworth, ‘Theatre of Fire: Special Effects in Early English and Scottish Theatre’ (London, 1998), pp. 132-3; John Smith, The Hammermen of Edinburgh and the Altar in St Giles Church (Edinburgh, 1906), p.30.

[9] Mills, Medieval Plays, p. 133, 149; Priscilla Bawcutt (ed.), The Poems of William Dunbar, Vol. 1 (Glasgow, 1998), p. 64.

Holy gunpowder™ purchased from the Pope for the Solothurner master gunner in 1444

Buried in the lines of the accounting books of the City of Solothurn lies a mention of the purchase of saltpetre from the pope himself in 1444 (fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Item dem fürmann der den salpeter von unsern heiligen vatter dem bapst bracht 2 gulden (For the wagoner which brought the saltpetre from our holy father the pope. 2 gulden). Solothurn, Staatsarchiv, BB25, vol. 4 (1444), p. 105. Transcribed and photographed by the author.

The Pope in Basel… dealing saltpetre?

Pope Eugene IV (1383-1447, see fig. 2) was indeed present in Basel, several times during the longest Ecumenical Council (1431-1449) in history.[1] This council assisted in the city’s great economic expansion and cultural development. Even the Medici opened a banking agency there between 1433 and 1444. Emperor Sigismund was responsible for the safety of the council and expected the Swiss Confederates (with the assistance of the allied towns of Fribourg and Solothurn) to ensure peace during the assemblies. This explains why the city of Solothurn was heavily involved in discussions about matters regarding defences – especially about artillery – between Basel, Bern and Fribourg. It does not explain, however, why the Pope would deal in saltpetre.

Fig. 2: Portrait of Pope Eugenius IV after Jean Fouquet (in the miscellany of Onofrio Panvinio, Rome, 1568). Wikimedia Commons.

 Saltpetre in the recipe… with vinegar or urine?

Gunpowder was used in Europe from the fourteenth century onwards. Its basic components are: saltpetre (potassium nitrate), sulphur and coal, but a lot of additional elements found their way into the early recipes, such as wood shavings, urine, wine, vinegar, a variety of salts, camphor or salammoniac. The anonymous author or compiler of the Firework book (Feuerwerksbuch) of ca. 1420 explains how to corn gunpowder into “lumps” (Knollen) to deal with the problem of dampness:

Moisten a mixture of saltpetre, sulphur, and charcoal with “good wine vinegar. And grind the mixture together with a wooden mortar and make it so moist with the vinegar that it will clump together, and then roll the lumps as large as you want them to be. Then take a glazed round deep saucepan or a pot or a copper bowl and press the lumps in wet just as you would force a cheese into a pot; then knock it out onto a board – it will come out easily.”.[2]

This process is illustrated in another Firework book kept in Zürich (Fig. 3) where one can see the air-drying process in the sun. These Knollen are then prepared by the master gunner to ready the gunpowder to fire. The process of producing gunpowder in Europe is not well documented before the second part of the fifteenth century, and remains somehow obscure or even ‘magical’, mostly because its production remained to a large extent experimental.

Fig. 3: Making of Knollen (corning gunpowder) illustrated in anonymous, s.t. [War Technology], Upper Rhine, around 1420-40 (Zürich, Zentralbibliothek,
Ms. Rh. Hist. 33b, fol. 36v). E-codices,

The least stable element in the mixture is the saltpetre because the potassium nitrate is obtained through a process that involves bacterial action (discovered, in the 19th century, by the microbiologist Serge Winogradsky). Saltpetre was indeed produced in Europe, for example in Frankfurt.[3] However, better-quality saltpetre arrived at the time from the Orient, [4] with northern Italy being one of its most important commercial gateway int Europe. In the same year saltpetre was purchased from the pope, the Solothurn accounting book also registers a greater amount of saltpetre bought at the fairs in Geneva, without, however, giving an indication of its original provenance.[5]

Guns on the wall and master gunners at service

Already in the last quarter of the fourteenth century, several master gunners were hired by towns or princes for their well-needed services.[6] In Solothurn, the first documented master gunner appears in the sources in 1442.[7] By 1444, the accounting books mention at least two master gunners: Master Berchtold and Master Heinrich.[8] Several lines in the accounting books of these years show these masters traveling to Bern and Basel and buying gunpowder, portable firearms and cannons to equip the town’s defences and fighting forces. Portable guns were also produced locally by the skilled metalworkers (here by the armour maker in 1444)[9]. The security of the Council of Basel was not the only concern of Solothurn. East of the town, war was waging in fits and starts (the so-called Old Zürich War of 1436-1450), and in the West, conflict arose with the “Armagnacs”, French mercenaries under the command of the daupin, the future Louis XI (Battle of Saint-Jacques sur la Birse, 1444, see fig. 4). The city of Fribourg, and old ally of Solothurn, follows the same timeline, with the first master gunners in service of the town in 1443/4. But just like in Solothurn, firearms were already in use earlier.[10]

Fig. 4: Battle between Armagnacs and Swiss forces in front of Basel (Saint-Jacques sur la Birse, 1444), illustrated in Benedikt Tschachtlan Bern chronicle, 1470 (Zürich, Zentralbibliothek, Ms A120, p. 861). E-manuscripta, Zentralbibliothek Zürich,

 Papal gunners and holy gunpowder

The use of gunpowder advanced in the fifteenth century, and so did the manufacturing technology of guns and canons, gunpowder circulation and the master gunner’s trade. However, it remained unpopular in discourses and depictions, where gunners are easily associated with diabolic figures. The first printed edition of Saint Augustinus’ De Civitate Dei (printed in Basel by Johann Amerbach in 1489) for example depicts a devil shooting a gun (fig. 5). Despite this widespread association, the papacy had fully embraced the progress of the artillery since early on.[11] Pius II (1458-1464), the third Pope in succession to Eugene VI, owned 13 guns, which he named after the 12 apostles and his mother, Vitoria[12].

Fig. 5: Devil shooting a gun, details, illustrated in the De Civitate Dei of Aurelius Augustinus (woodcut from Meister des Haintz Narr), printed by Johann Amerbach (Basel, 1489), detail. Münchener Digitalisierungszentrum (BSB – Ink A-863 – GW 2888) urn:nbn:de:bvb:12-bsb00025317-8

The papacy hired a master gunner in 1450, Jörg of Nuremberg. He was captured by the Turks when casting guns in Bosnia for the Duke Stephen the Great of Moldavia in 1456. He then served the Turks until 1480 when he was sent to Alexandria from where he escaped and returned to papal services.[13]

But what about the pope as dealer of saltpetre in 1444? It remains unclear if this was a regular papal side-business or if some cunning sellers of gunpowder benefited from the presence and fame of the pope in Basel to sell their product to the Solothurn master gunner. With Basel being at the centre of widespread trade at the time, and in view of the fact that a good-quality product from the Orient might have easily found its way to the upper Rhine region, one call well imagine how a “trademark” of holy gunpowder could have impressed a town involved in war at the time.

Credit for the main image:  Frontpiece of the De Civitate Dei of Aurelius Augustinus (woodcut from Meister des Haintz Narr), printed by Johann Amerbach (Basel, 1489), detail. Münchener Digitalisierungszentrum (BSB – Ink A-863 – GW 2888) urn:nbn:de:bvb:12-bsb00025317-8

[1] The 17th Council had 25 sessions in Basel, Florence and Ferrara between the year 1431 and 1449.

[2] Translation of Bert S. Hall, Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 1997), p. 71. The digitized manuscript and bibliographical information about it are available at the University Library of Heidelberg (online:, accessed 20.05.2020).

[3] Bert S. Hall, Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 1997), p. 58.

[4] Wilfried Tittmann, ‘China, Europa und die Entwicklung der Feuerwaffen’ in Europaïsche Technick im Mittelalter: 800-1400. Tradition und Innovation, edited by Uta Lindgreen (Berlin: Gebr. Mann, 1996), pp. 317-32.

[5] Item fazin hatt bracht von Ienf Salpetter und zentner 18lib Ienf gewicht tut an Solott’ gewicht 10 zentner 61lib da hort ein zentner nach Ienfer 12 guld und 12gross. tut in einer / summa 29 gulden und 1gross SS. Solothurn, Staatsarchiv, BB25, vol. 4 (1444), p. 82. Transcribed by the author.

[6] Leng, Rainer, ‘Zum Verhältnis von Kunst und Krieg in den illustrierten Kriegslehren des 15. und 16. Jahrunderts’, in ‘Mars und die Musen’: das Wechselspiel von Militär, Krieg und Kunst in der Frühen Neuzeit, ed. by Jutta Nowosadtko and Matthias Rogg, Herrschaft und soziale Systeme in der frühen Neuzeit, 5 (Berlin: Lit-Verl, 2008), pp. 33–58, here p. 40.

[7] Item ein Büchsenmeister der die büchsen beschiessen sollte verzart an Clewin lopsinger 10SS. Staatsarchiv, BB25, vol. 2 (1442). Transcribed by the author.

[8] Louis Jäggi (500 Jahre Schützengesellschaft Der Stadt Solothurn, 1462-1962 : Die Entwicklung Des Schützenwesens Der Stadt Solothurn von Ihren Anfängen Bis Zur Gegenwart (Solothurn: Union Druck, 1962)) mentions the two masters in 1444, but ommitted the master mentioned in 1442.

[9] Item dem Harnascher im Hensli peters hus vmb siben handbüchsen 7guldn. Staatsarchiv, BB25, vol. 4 (1444). Transcribed by the author.

[10] In a document of 1431, large and medium cannons equiped already the fortification walls. For references and details about the master gunner, see Willy Schulze, ‘Freiburgs Krieg Gegen Savoyen 1447-1448 : Kann Sich Eine Mittelalterliche Stadt Überhaupt Noch Einen Krieg Leisten?’, Freiburger Geschichtsblätter, 79 (2002), 7–54 <>.

[11] Bernard Rathgen, ‘Feuer- und fernwaffen beim päpstlichen Heere im 14. Jahrhundert’, Zeitschrift für historisches Waffenkunde 7 (1915-17), 1-15.

[12] According to the writings of Enea Silvio Piccolomini (1405-1464). I would like to thank Kelly DeVries for this reference.

[13] Based on the master gunner own account (printed in the 1480s), see A. Vasiliev, ‘Jörg of Nurember: a writer contemporary with the fall of Constantinople’, Byzantion, 10 (1935), 205-9, quoted and commented in Peter Purton, The Medieval Military Engineer (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2018), p. 260.

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