A unique bronze Falconet
cast by Thomas Owen for the
Chancellor of The Exchequer of England,
dated 1567

 
 

Of cast bronze, and with the following unique features for a gun made by a member of the Owen family: two sets of double decorative rings, the first reinforce with the Arms and the second reinforce with the motto of the owner Sir Walter Mildmay (c.1520-89), the chase deeply fluted. With a long cascable typical of known guns by this maker and signed and dated on the first reinforce.

Overall length 60 ½”. Bore 2 1/8”.

This exquisitely cast small cannon is of the greatest significance not only in terms of its place in the history of cannon-founding in Tudor England but also as an icon that tells us much about its original owner and his country in the year of its manufacture.

There can be no mystery about either its maker or its owner since both, in their individual ways, proclaimed their part in the cannon’s existence. The maker, Thomas Owen, signed the cannon: THOMAS OWEN MADE THIS PESE 1567.

The cannon’s owner, Sir Walter Mildmay, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the England of Queen Elizabeth I, denoted his ownership by having his Arms and motto cast into the barrel. His shield, although lacking the heraldic colours signified by petra sancta, may be blazoned as: per fesse, nebulée, three greyhounds’ heads erased, collared and ringed; a martlet for difference. The use of the martlet (the small bird) indicates that he was using his father’s Arms but “differencing” them with a martlet - the conventional heraldic device for indicating a fourth son. His crest, atop the shield of Arms, is: a leopard’s head erased and ducally gorged, ringed and lined; on his neck, beneath the coronet, three pellets. His motto, cast into a decorative panel between the trunnions, reads: VIRTUTE NON VI (truth, not life). This motto appears on a portrait painted for him seven years after he commissioned the cannon; it is one of several owned and displayed by Emmanuel College, Cambridge, which Mildmay founded in 1584.

Thomas Owen was one of a family of cannon founders that operated at the Houndsditch foundry in London in the mid-16th century. Two other guns are recorded as being made by Thomas alone and two by Thomas and his brother John together. The two others made by Thomas himself are in Castle Cornet, Guernsey (a falcon of 1550) and in the Military Museum, Lisbon (a culverin of 1571). This gun is unique in that it is the only one known by any member of the Owen family that bears the Arms and motto of a private individual; it is likewise unique, as an Owen gun, in having fluted decoration on its chase; it is also the smallest Thomas Owen cannon recorded.

Walter Mildmay was a typical product of his age: the Tudor period of English history. He was the fourth, and youngest, son of Thomas Mildmay, who had done well from loyally serving King Henry VIII (reigned 1509-47) and had made a fortune, as did so many others, from administering the dissolution of the monasteries in the late 1530s. Thomas Mildmay established a dynasty, acquired lands and was able to set Walter on the path to further riches and greater status. Walter had been born about 1520, studied law at Gray’s Inn and assisted his father in the Court of Augmentation - which administered the former monastic estates and their sequestrated property. A convinced Calvinist Protestant, Mildmay was knighted by King Edward VI in 1547, rose to great eminence at court during the reign of the young king (1547-53) and was granted the great house and estate at Apethorpe in Northamptonshire by the Crown in 1550.

Too efficient to be expendable during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary (1553-58), Mildmay was still an influential figure at court when Elizabeth became Queen of England in 1558 and he was immediately appointed treasurer of the new queen’s household. For the next eight years, Mildmay busied himself in gathering revenue for the Crown and did so with such conspicuous success that he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1566.

By 1567, when Mildmay commissioned this cannon for his country house from Thomas Owen, Elizabeth’s throne was financially secure but her country and regime were in constant and growing danger. Civil war in Scotland had provided constant instability in the north; the Catholic monarchs of continental Europe were vying with each other either to marry or to overthrow the queen; the conflict between the embryonic Protestant Dutch republic and Catholic Spain provided persistent rumbles from across the English Channel and the North Sea. Internally, there were powerful factions that had never accepted the legitimacy of Elizabeth’s claim to the English crown: many of these factions found their greatest native support in the north of England.

Individuals like Mildmay had much to fear from the overthrow of a regime to the success of which they had contributed so much. They were detested as nouveaux riches by the great families whose power, influence and traditional ways had been supplanted by the modernising and iconoclastic Tudors. Their new religion likewise set them apart from those who would, if they could, overthrow Elizabeth and her Protestant England. They had bought their estates or been granted them by the new regime, rather than inherited them, and, if they were going to retain what their assiduity, loyalty and talent had brought them, these assets had to be defended.

Thus, Mildmay’s Owen falconet: a light cannon to help his servants defend his country house against those who would take it from him and overthrow what thirty years’ hard work had achieved. Situated in central England, 100 miles north of London and perilously close both to the unstable North and an east coast exposed to foreign attack, Apethorpe was vulnerable.

In employing Thomas Owen to cast his cannon, Sir Walter Mildmay was bestowing personal patronage upon a family that had enjoyed Royal Patronage since the reign of King Henry VIII. Thomas himself had been appointed one of the “king’s gunfounders” in July 1546 and, on his retirement in April 1571, was given a life-grant of twelve pence per day from the Exchequer (administered by his patron, Walter Mildmay) in recognition of “his services…in the making of guns”: sadly, he enjoyed this pension for little more than a year, dying in May 1572 and being buried in the family’s parish church of St Botolph-without-Aldgate, London.

As we now know, the little falconet that Thomas Owen cast for Sir Walter Mildmay was never fired in anger and the nation to which Mildmay contributed so significantly was never overthrown: such is the value of hindsight. What remains, as tangible evidence of the gunfounder’s skill and the Chancellor’s need, is one of the finest, most important and most exquisite 16th century English bronze guns to have survived from that era - its fluted chase and finely worked Arms and motto evidence both of the talent of Thomas Owen and the achievement of Sir Walter Mildmay.

As we now know, the little falconet that Thomas Owen cast for Sir Walter Mildmay was never fired in anger and the nation to which Mildmay contributed so significantly was never overthrown: such is the value of hindsight. What remains, as tangible evidence of the gunfounder’s skill and the Chancellor’s need, is one of the finest, most important and most exquisite 16th century English bronze guns to have survived from that era - its fluted chase and finely worked Arms and motto evidence both of the talent of Thomas Owen and the achievement of Sir Walter Mildmay.


Image reproduced by courtesy of Peter Finer

 
 

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