The problem of mobility: Mons Meg, 1449-97

The problem of mobility: Mons Meg, 1449-97

Mons Meg, Edinburgh (Image 1). The difficulty of transporting these huge weapons is nicely illustrated by 'Mons Meg', the monstrous bombard which can still be seen today at Edinburgh Castle. The cannon was fashioned in 1449 for Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy and sent as a gift to James II of Scotland for help against the English. Mons Meg fired balls 51 cm (20 inches) in diameter weighing 175 kilograms (386 lb). Weighing over 15,000 pounds (nearly 7,000 kg) and some 15 feet (4.6 m) in length, the huge weapon proved difficult to deploy in the field. 

'In 1497, for example, 100 workmen and 5 wrights, as well as a special team of oxen, were assigned to ‘Mons’ during the Scottish campaign against Norham.  A pipe band played as the great gun moved majestically down the High Street, but just outside the city walls she broke down, and three days were required to repair the carriage.  As a rule, bombards could only be brought into action when they could be transported to the target by water.’*

Retired from active service in the 1540s, it was thereafter fired only on ceremonial occasions until, on one such occasion in 1680, the wrought iron barrel burst. Subsequently restored, it is fired for theatrical display during the annual Hogmanay celebrations, at the start of the firework display.

* Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800 (Cambridge, 1988), p. 9.

Tsar Cannon, Moscow (Image 2). Despite these difficulties, huge bombards of this kind continued to be made well into the sixteenth century. A prime example is the Tsar Cannon, which today resides in the Kremlin in Moscow. Although shorter (5.34 m) and lighter (3921 kg) than Mons Meg, this weapon, cast in bronze in 1586, is reputed to have the largest calibre of any bombard in the world: some 89 cm (35 in) in diameter, with an external diameter of 1.2 m (47.2 in). Originally mounted on a fixed frame in Red Square to defend the eastern approach to the Kremlin, then placed on a wooden carriage which burnt during Napolean's sack of Moscow in 1812, it was embellished with fresh decoration and placed on its present cast iron gun carriage in 1835.