Mortars at the Tower of London

By: shortfinals

Jun 03 2011

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Category: British Isles, Castles, England, France, Great Britain, London, military, Museums, Royalty, Scotland, ships, World Heritage Site


Focal Length:7mm
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London is one of the great ‘world cities’, of that there is no doubt. Her wealth of architectural gems, great art collections and much more ensure that London is thronged with tourists from Spring through Autumn. The attraction of London is often based on the amazingly rich history of the city, and one of the great buildings of Europe (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, #488, 1988 listing), the Tower of London. Technically, its correct title is ‘Her Majesty’s Palace and Fortress, the Tower of London’, and this gives you some idea of its initial use. Started in around 1070, the White Tower (the central keep of the fortress) was intended by William the Conqueror – Guillaume le Conquérant – to be the principal fortress and armoury for his conquest of the remainder of England.

It is singularly appropriate, therefore, that as well as the marvellous treasures of the Crown Jewels, the Tower would house some items from the Royal Armouries Collections (there are many more held in Leeds in Yorkshire). Outside the Tower, close to the River Thames, you can find two very large mortars. They are both cast iron, but have differing histories, despite looking fairly similar.

The mortar on the left is of Spanish design, and dates from the 18th century. Unusually, both the base and the barrel have been cast as one unit. The calibre of the mortar is 13 inches, which seems to be a common heavy mortar calibre, as preserved British mortars at Crownhill Fort, Plymouth, are similar. The range of this weapon would be around 3,000 yards, and it is likely to have been used as a fixed installation in a fortification, or at sea in a bomb ketch. These were unwieldy vessels but could produce deadly plunging fire against land targets, such as that provided by bomb ketches of the Royal Navy at both the First Battle of Copenhagen (1801), the Second Battle of Copenhagen (1807) and in many other engagements during the Napoleonic Wars. When installed in a fortification, because the angle of elevation was fixed, the mortars would be carefully sighted (and sited) so that when a target reached a certain point (at a predetermined distance), the battery would open fire with telling effect, hurling their large, 200 lb, explosive shells at the enemy.

The other mortar is also a cast iron weapon (some older mortars and cannon were cast in bronze). This time the mortar has trunnions, which allow the weapon to be elevated, in its carriage, to the required angle to engage attackers. It is of 16″ calibre and bears a maker’s mark ‘TW’; it is an earlier piece, and is dated ‘1684’. Interestingly, it resembles Italian weapons of the period and is described as this. The barrel, however, reveals a cast design of the ‘Lion of St. Mark’, the symbol for Venice and the Venetian Republic. This maritime power and trading giant dominated the eastern half of the Mediterranean Sea (and more) during the 17th century. The mortar came from Corfu, as a gift, and since the Venetian Republic ruled that island from 1401 to 1787, the markings on the weapon make perfect sense.

This mortar was presented to the British Government in 1842, during the Victorian era, at a time when Great Britain still ruled Corfu as a British Protectorate (it did so from 1815-1864). The Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands at this time was James Alexander Stewart-Mackenzie, a noted Scottish diplomat, so it is quite possible that he was behind the gift of the mortar! All in all, these two weapons are fine examples of an ancient form of artillery.

3 comments on “Mortars at the Tower of London”

  1. A very interesting post – I didn’t know about these two pieces. Both fine specimens of their time.
    You seem surprised by the fact that one of the mortars has a fixed elevation, but this was not unusual. In fact, in England and Spain such mortars were the rule rather than the exception until well into the 18th century. Range for fixed-elevation mortars was varied by using more or less powder, as the case required.


    • Thank you for this Aristotelis! I was struck by the massive ‘presence’ of these mortars. Much more threatening than the nearby cannon.


  2. Indeed they were, and not just in appearance. Instead of concentrating their fire pounding patiently at the walls until they crumbled (like cannon), the mortars rained fire directly on the besieged, bypassing their defences – a weapon of terror and destruction.


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