In 1497, Waterford city was besieged by an army led by Perkin Warbek, a Flemish noble with aspirations to the English crown. Warbek had proclaimed himself the rightful king of England and then proceeded on a number of a disastrous military campaigns against Henry VII. These involved battles in England, as well as Ireland, where the Earl of Desmond was sympathetic to his cause. A small cannon discovered in 1901 along the River Suir in Waterford city most likely links to this unusual and bloody episode in Irish history. Not only that, it is also Ireland’s oldest surviving cannon.
The assault on Waterford had gone terribly wrong for Warbeck. His men were unable to breach the city walls, and the siege dragged on for eleven days. Then a sally forth by the townsfolk caught a contingent of Warbeck’s Flemish troops by surprise and many of his men were killed, whilst more were taken prisoner. The unfortunate captives were shown little mercy and were marched to the city’s market place, where they were decapitated. In a macabre move, their heads were then put on ‘public display’ (McEneaney, E. & Ryan R, 2004, p. 112).
Meanwhile on the River Suir, Warbeck’s naval force was also in trouble. A cannon located on Reginald’s tower was causing havoc. It managed to sink two of the attacking ships and the remainder of the fleet was forced to retreat under heavy fire. This confrontation represents the very first recorded use of cannon in Ireland and it is highly likely that the small bombard under discussion belonged to one of the sunken ships. The siege is also the source of Waterford city’s motto, ‘Urbs Intacta Manet Waterfordia’, ‘The City of Waterford Remains Untaken’, which was granted by Henry VII in recognition of the citizens’s loyalty.
The Waterford cannon is a typical late 15th century gun and originally it would have been attached to a sailing ship. At just under a metre in length, it most likely fired stone shot, rather than iron cannon balls (McEneaney, E. & Ryan R, 2004, p. 112). Now on display at the wonderful Waterford Museum of Treasures, it most likely represents Ireland’s oldest cannon.
Arthurson, I. 2013 The Perkin Warbeck Conspiracy 1491-1497, The History Press, Gloucestershire
McEneaney, E. & Ryan R. (eds) 2004 Waterford Treasures, M.Y. Gallaghers, Waterford.