Some Thoughts On Britain and the “Military Revolution”

The one thing more important than opulence is defense — Adam Smith

Military architecture has been a subject of interest in the “West” since at least the siege of Troy, and the eighteenth century was no exception to this. However, the design of fortifications — as well as the training and background of their designers — underwent significant change in the two centuries preceding the 1700s, and this was chiefly due to the use of artillery to bombard fortifications.[1] The eighteenth century was largely a period centered on dealing with these changes in an institutional, strategic, and tactical sense, as each nation attempted to work out new systems of offense and defense within the context of artillery. Further, each nation dealt with these issues separately, and in ways perhaps peculiar to their own culture and geographic requirements. In interrogating this subject in the context of Britain, the following questions spring to mind. What did these changes in architecture entail? How did Britain fit into these changes over time? How did the role of the engineer develop and change over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Britain?

Until the coming of artillery in the fifteenth century, the military balance between defense and offense in the middle ages was clearly with the former, and much of this arose from the, “proliferation of stone-built castles,”[2] in Europe. Accordingly, as castles and fortifications increased in number, the, “true end of military activity [during the middle ages] became the capture and defence of fortified places.”[3] This was still true in the eighteenth century. Unfortunately for the defenders of these traditional castles, the walls that surrounded them were typically high and hollow, and thus they were easily breached by cannon fire. This weakness was brought home in stunning fashion by the invasion of Italy by Charles VIII in 1494-1495.[4] The siege-train of Charles VIII carried with it some forty guns[5], the effectiveness of which — against the now antiquated fortresses of Italy — brought Niccolo Machiavelli to declare that, “the power of the artillery is such that even the strongest walls will in a few days be battered down by it.”[6]

Consequently, the invasion of the peninsula served as a catalyst for experimentation and change in the art of siege-craft and defense. Also, as European nations struggled to counteract the devastating impact of artillery upon their once impregnable citadels, those who designed fortifications — the engineers[7] — increased in importance. These engineers — who originally moved out of the ranks of professional architects, but who later rose out of Europe’s military regimes — would quickly solve the initial problems that artillery posed. However, their influence was slow to diffuse amongst those states like England, which were isolated enough to question the merits of large expenditures on military technology that might quickly become obsolete in an age of rapid change.[8]

What then were the changes in fortification wrought by artillery? First, the walls were lowered, broadened, increased in thickness, and built at right-angles, which allowed fortifications to bear bombardment more easily and created better lines of fire. This, unfortunately, made fortifications more vulnerable to charges and surprise attacks, since defenders could no longer easily see the ground immediately in front of them. As a result of this weakness, by the seventeenth century, it was, “axiomatic that the approaches to all sectors of a fortress should be swept by converging fields of fire, both cannon and musketry.”[9] This need for converging fire was accomplished with the invention of the angled bastion, which consisted of gun-towers, “that projected at an angle beyond the walls and carried artillery which could not only cut down any assault on the main defences, but also keep the enemy’s siegeguns at bay and cover the blind spots around the neighboring bastions.”[10] Both of these innovations seriously limited the effectiveness of an enemy’s artillery and infantry fire.

Also, further improvements were built onto the defensive system described above, which came to be known as the trace italienne, after its roots in the ideas of Italian Renaissance architects.[11] For instance, there was the addition of serial rings of outworks, which were designed with angled walls (typically they looked like a star or diamond) just like the angled bastions that were alongside the fortification itself. As cannon became more powerful and numerous, so these rings of outworks increased in number and complexity around fortifications. Further, wide and deep ditches, known as counterscarps, were added alongside the main fortress to thwart the efforts of those building gunpowder mines. Also, within the ditch area — if it was dry — were situated by the late seventeenth century numerous outworks that would act as a second line of fire from the fortress itself.[12] The genesis of modern cartography in fifteenth century Lombardy also played a significant — if sometimes dubious[13] — role in the creation and development of the trace itallienne as well, since it (along with the invention of triangulation by the Dutchman Snellius) allowed for the planned construction of entire defensive complexes that were based on the strengths and weaknesses of specific geographic regions.[14] However, despite these significant changes in military architecture, fortifications continued to be designed with narrow and limited goals in mind (just like their medieval predecessors), “to repulse assault and keep the attackers out.”[15]

Although England — especially after it joined with Scotland under reign of James I, and more formally with the Act of Union in 1707 — was far more insular than its primary European military counterparts France, Spain, and the Empire, successive English governments were also concerned (at least in time of conflict) with the growing developments in artillery technology. In fact, as early as 1539, Henry VIII drew up a detailed plan (or as he called it, “Device”) for repelling his new Catholic enemies and their artillery. Unfortunately, the construction of the twenty-eight new forts that this plan called for was not entrusted to the new clique of professional architects and engineers that were rising on the continent, but to local master-craftsmen, whose work was outdated before it was even completed. With their concentric, hollow walls, these fortifications on the southern and eastern coasts, “could not withstand heavy bombardment,” and, “round bastions proved easy,” targets for the mining of fortifications with gunpowder bombs.[16] Although Henry initially resisted any criticism regarding this project[17], he quickly changed his mind after the French invasion of Solent, accepting at least officially the new system of fortifications and the engineers behind them. Henry thus initiated a process that would end in the creation of Britain’s first engineering academy in 1741, the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich.[18]

Elizabeth I also recognized the need for fortifications fitting the new style, especially after the aborted Spanish invasion in 1588. However, her administration, which was not atypical for Europe, tended to authorize the creation of new fortifications only in times of tension. In fact, one of her advisors, Sir Thomas Wilson noted that Elizabeth seemed to share the, “opinion of the Lecedemonians, that fortifying towns doth more hurt than good.”[19] Obviously such a policy saved the crown money, while wisely allowing for military technology to sort itself out, something which Elizabeth’s father had failed to do in 1539. However, it did do much to hinder England’s development of the new engineering styles that were rising on the continent, while also hampering the growth of engineering as a field of military study.

This parsimonious policy with regard to fortifications was to continue throughout most of the reigns of James I and Charles I. Therefore, in England — as well as Scotland and Ireland — only a few locations actually possessed modern fortifications by 1642, and these were all on the coast, away from the major arenas of fighting during the Civil Wars. Only after the outbreak of combat were key areas like the rival capitals London and Oxford encircled with breastworks, serial rings of bastions, and redoubts.[20]

Still, despite the rush to build fortifications during the Civil Wars, in general, the trace itallienne was slow in coming to England, and did not arrive in full form until the reign of William III, who was far more familiar with the system (and perhaps more inclined to use it, due to his positive experiences with the trace itallienne on the continent) than his subjects.[21] “The British Isles, then, were a zone where the transformation in fortification and siegecraft was incomplete, gradual and relatively tardy.”[22]

Much of this tardiness likely stems from the lack of intense open warfare — except for the Civil Wars — that England underwent during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as compared to continental Europe. Therefore, in many ways, England’s insular nature, while it allowed some interest in coastal fortifications, postponed the large scale development of modern fortifications throughout the kingdom, and — as indicated above — was one reason why a regular engineering corps was so slow to develop within the English military regime. Both of these conditions would change out of necessity under the reigns of William and Mary and Anne I, as the kingdom became embroiled in continental military affairs in a way it had not been since the Hundred Years’ War.[23]

Now that we know what these engineers designed, and how their designs diffused through the British Isles, what can we say about the development of engineering within the British military? First, by 1688, the chief military engineer of Britain, the Surveyor-General, fell under the command of the Master-General of the Ordinance.[24] The Surveyor-General, whose position was largely administrative in nature, was “seconded” by the Principal Engineer, who was charged with, “the keeping of models and plans of all fortresses and with the inspection of works as directed,” as well as with, “the planning and conduct of sieges.” To aid him, the Principal Engineer was allowed two “inferior engineers,” who were to be intimately trained in the field of mathematics. It was this hierarchy that hired (or drafted out of the ranks of regular officer corps), trained, and directed the varying numbers of line engineers which were used in guiding the siege-craft techniques of the British army.[25]

This emerging corps of officers either organized and designed the construction of fortresses, or they helped to design siege tactics that would undermine the defenses of an enemy’s fortress. This organizational division was in marked contrast to the castle builders of the middle ages, who were craft oriented in nature, and not officially affixed to medieval armies.

However, despite these developments in the field of military engineering, until the late seventeenth century (and probably into the early nineteenth century) formal education — the sine qua non of an engineer — was viewed with disdain by the vast majority of officers within British army.[26] To this cadre of officers — who had lost much of their belief in class obligation after the leveling effects of Cromwell’s New Model Army — war was considered an “art” not a “science.” For these old style military officers — whether they be of the gentry class or not — it took “character” to be a, “practitioner of the art. ‘Knowledge’ could be left to the natural philosophers.”[27] Thus, military engineers — who either rose from the ranks of the officer corps or came from outside of it — were often treated as if they were “hired functionaries,” or “servants,” and not true members of the army.[28] Consequently, there was a indelible bias within at least a portion of the British army (the traditional officer corps, in other words) against those who would practice a military profession which required at least some formalized instruction and training.

Additionally, the British army, like most of the armed services of Europe, was based on a system of patronage that had been in force since lords held retainers during the middle ages. Such a modus operandi for the recruitment of officers could potentially harm this new cadre of engineering educated officers who did not have potential patrons as the traditional officer corps did.[29] That engineering officers did find patronage in the likes of William III and the Duke of Marlborough speaks to their ability to gain favor and impress their commanders.

There were, however, countervailing forces which also worked in favor of military engineers. With the advent of the printing press, books on military affairs were published. By the beginning of the seventeenth century it was possible to read translations in English of the works of Xenophon, Polybius, Caeser, Thucydides, Livius, and many other classical military writers. Alongside these translations, contemporary writers also published their thoughts on military affairs in books and in the new periodical literature that was slowly developing during this period. Further, as siege warfare — the most technical military subject of all — came under greater examination by such notables as the French engineer Sebastien Vauban, “the idea began to catch on that was not merely a practical pursuit but also rested on a substantial theoretical basis,” which could only be explored through intense study.[30]

These trends coincided with the rise of instruction manuals for non-engineering officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) on the creation of redoubts and the defense of fortified structures. Lieutenant John Pleydell wrote one of the more famous of these tracts in 1768, which was entitled Field Fortification. In it he describes how officers of the infantry might build breastworks and redoubts, “without the assistance of an engineer.”[31] Such notions, even if in extremes they may do away with the need of an engineer, show the rising importance of their talents and their training.

Accordingly, despite the prejudice of the old officer corps, as the eighteenth century approached, the science of military engineering began to take shape, and it essentially entailed three duties — planning the construction, defense, and attack of fortresses.[32] However, military engineers in Britain did perform other tasks (especially in peace time), perhaps the most famous being General George Wade’s road building campaign in Scotland. Between 1726 and 1738, Wade built over 250 miles of strategic highways through the Highlands of Scotland to disarm and control the clans.[33] Unfortunately, since roads are neutral objects during warfare, the very highways which were to bring about British control were used by the Jacobites in 1745, “in their lightning march to the lowlands.”[34] Nevertheless, despite its partial failure, such a road building campaign does illustrate the growing importance and strength of the engineering services during the eighteenth century.

As intimated above, the period following the Glorious Revolution saw Britain heavily involved in European military matters. As a measure of this widening involvement, between 1680 and 1780, the British army tripled in size.[35] Concomitant with this increase in size came greater formalization — ranks and pay rates were fixed, uniform color and style was more tightly regimented, and divisions within the army between field, engineering, and artillery officers were partially solidified.[36]

Further, engineering skills were applied in British campaigning with an intensity that broke ranks with the kingdom’s tardy past. In addition, British commanders were not disinclined to praise those engineers they felt worthy of laudatory words. Accordingly, the Duke of Marlborough is well known for his praise of Colonel John Richards, who, according to the Duke, distinguished himself at the siege of Bouchin. Richards eventually earned the Duke’s ultimate tribute when he was, “represented three times in the series of tapestries embellishing Blenheim Palace.” British engineers — under heavy fire — were also instrumental in directing the construction of the pontoon-bridges over the Nebel which aided Marlborugh’s victory at Blenheim. Engineers likewise aided Marlborough in his attack on the entrenched forces of Marshal Villars at Malplaquet.[37]

Furthermore, British engineers were sent to the expanding reaches of the British empire — in fact, places like Gibraltar became formidable largely due to their efforts. They were stationed in Barbados and Jamaica to design fortifications against invasion and slave revolts, and were also assigned to the East India Company regiments.[38] Many military engineers further aided British overseas interests by directing the design and construction of the dry-docks and building yards of the royal navy, the military backbone of the empire. Within just a few years after 1688, two new dry docks were added to the Portsmouth dockyard, and two new naval stations were added along the English coast, all under the direction of engineers and architects who had at least received some of their training in the military.[39]

What then can be said about the development of military engineering and architecture in England and Britain? First, both were slow to develop, due to the insular nature of the British Isles and the tradition against formal education in the British army itself. This did not change throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, even with the increase in fortress construction during the Civil Wars. However, clearly, the stock of military engineers was on the rise after the Glorious Revolution, and this was due in great measure to the needs of the Britain as it became embroiled in the military affairs of the continent. Military engineers were to prove their mettle and merit in battle time and time again under the leadership of William III and Marlborough, and these efforts greatly improved their standing as the eighteenth century wore on. Ultimately, especially after the founding of Woolwich in 1741, engineers would create a niche within the British military establishment that was based principally upon their merit, a development which augured the rise in professionalism that would sweep through the British military in the nineteenth century.


[1]Christopher Duffy, The Military Experience in the Age of Reason (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987), p. 289.

[2]Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 7.

[3]R.C. Smail, Crusading Warfare, 1097-1193 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956), p. 24.

[4]Martin van Crevald, Technology and War: From 2000 B.C. to the Present (New York: The Free Press, 1991), pp. 100-103.

[5]Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution, p. 9.

[6]Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince and the Discourses (New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1950), p. 332.

[7]The word engineer is derived from old French verb engignier — to contrive. Its use as a means to describe a profession began in the fourteenth century with the application of engignier to those craftsmen who built siege engines.

[8]Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution, p. 26; David G. Chandler, The Art of Warfare in the Age of Marlborough (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1976), pp. 241-245.

[9]David G. Chandler, The Art of Warfare in the Age of Marlborough, p. 235.

[10]Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution, p. 10-11.

[11]Ibid., p. 12.

[12]David G. Chandler, The Art of Warfare in the Age of Marlborough, p. 237, 239.

[13]Unfortunately for the defenders of these new defensive complexes, the maps and plans that helped engineers and architects more accurately design these fortifications often fell into the hands of enemy forces, thus undermining their effectiveness.

[14]Martin van Crevald, Technology and War, p.116-117.

[15]Ibid., p. 103.

[16]Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution, p. 26-28.

[17]In fact, Henry dismissed one critical Portuguese engineer by describing him as, “an ass who did not understand his business.”; Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution, p. 28.

[18]For a clear illustration of Henry VIII’s fortification plans, please see J.R. Hale, Renaissance War Studies (London: Hambledon Press, 1983), pp. 63-97.; David G. Chandler, The Art of Warfare in the Age of Marlborough, p. 282.

[19]Geoffrey Parker, Spain and the Netherlands, 1559-1659 : Ten Studies (Short Hills, N.J.: Enslow Publishers, 1979), p. 139.

[20]____________, The Military Revolution, pp. 28-29.; Martin van Crevald, Technology and War, p. 106.

[21]David G. Chandler, The Art of Warfare in the Age of Marlborough, p. 271.

[22]Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution, p. 32.

[23]David G. Chandler, The Art of Warfare in the Age of Marlborough, pp. 12-14.; John Brewer, The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688-1783 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), p. 27.

[24]The Board of Ordinance itself was a “quasi-military” organization devoted chiefly to the procurement of gunpowder and ammunition for the Army and Navy.; David G. Chandler, The Art of Warfare in the Age of Marlborough, p. 218.; Jenny West, Gunpowder, Government and War in the Mid-Eighteenth Century (Suffolk: Boydell and Brewer, Inc., 1991), pp. 9-16.

[25]David G. Chandler, The Art of Warfare in the Age of Marlborough, p. 218.

[26]In fact, the Royal Military College (Sandhurst) was founded in 1802 precisely because of the ignorance and incompetence that British officers displayed during the 1790s.; Brian Bond, The Victorian Mary and the Staff College, 1854-1914 (London: Eyre and Metheun, 1972), p. 59.

[27]G.W. Stephen Brodsky, A Social and Literary History of the British Army Since 1660 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988), p. 53.

[28]Christopher Duffy, The Military Experience in the Age of Reason, p. 290.

[29]Larry H. Addington, The Patterns of War Since the Eighteenth Century (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), pp. 2-6; Martin van Crevald, Technology and War, pp. 143-144.

[30]Martin van Crevald, Technology and War, pp. 141-142.

[31]J.A. Houlding, Fit for Service: The Training of the British Army, 1715-1795 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), p. 223-224.

[32]Christopher Duffy, The Military Experience in the Age of Reason, p. 15.

[33]David G. Chandler, The Art of Warfare in the Age of Marlborough, p. 227.

[34]Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution, p. 151-152.

[35]John Brewer, The Sinews of Power, p. 29.

[36]G.W. Stephen Brodsky, A Social and Literary History of the British Army Since 1660 , pp. 10-11, 66-68.

[37]David G. Chandler, The Art of Warfare in the Age of Marlborough, pp. 217, 229. 232.

[38]J.A. Houlding, Fit for Service, pp. 4-22.

[39]John Brewer, The Sinews of Power, pp. 31-35.; N.A.M. Rodger, ed., The Royal Dockyards, 1690-1850: Architecture and Engineering Works of the Sailing Navy (Hants, U.K.: Scolar Press, 1989), pp. 7, 11-19.

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