Queen Elizabeth's Pocket Pistol, Naafi Restaurant, Knights Road, Dover Castle, Kent, UK (1)

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John Latter on October 18, 2007

As in many other instances concerning Dover Castle (eg the East Roman Pharos) it would seem that no two single internet or non-internet sources can completely agree in their descriptions of any of the castle's component parts. The 'long gun' (alternate view) now situated in the building housing the NAAFI Restaurant (close to the Canon's Gate entrance) is no exception.

The first source quoted in the appended 'Standard Info' ("Dover Castle" by R. Allen Brown), for example, begins:

This remarkable gun, which for some time has been known as Queen Elizabeth's Pocket Pistol, is a 12 pounder brass Basilisk

Wikipedia specifically define a basilisk as:

In military history, a basilisk is a large brass cannon.

Yet other sources state basilisks can not only be made of other metals but that the one at Dover is actually made of bronze. From Heritage Image Partnership ('a new online picture library, distilled from the vast collections of our partners such as the British Library, Guildhall and the British Museum'):

[The image shows] Detail from the barrel of a bronze 12 pdr basilisk, Dutch, Utrecht, dated 1544. A gift to Henry VIII from Maximilian Van Egmont, Count Buren, Stadtholder of Friesland (1509-1548). Count Buren was a distinguished military commander and was honoured by the King for his successes in the Boulogne campaign in 1544. The gun later became known as "Queen Elizabeth's Pocket Pistol".

From an English Heritage webpage on 'Environmental Monitoring':

Queen Elizabeth's Pocket Pistol (a large 16th century bronze cannon).

If there is some disagreement over which metal the gun is made of then at least most refer to it as a basilisk. Most, but not all: Infoplease - 'All the information you need' - have the following entry:

Culverin properly means a serpent (Latin, colubrinus, the coluber), but is applied to a long, slender piece of artillery employed in the sixteenth century to carry balls to a great distance. Queen Elizabeth's “Pocket Pistol” in Dover Castle is a culverin.

Although Dover Castle and Heritage Image Partnership agree that Queen Elizabeth's Pocket pistol is a 12 pounder, the 1832 publication "The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction" gives an altogether more imaginative figure:

Cannon were formerly dignified with great names. Twelve cast by Louis XII were called after the twelve peers of France. Charles V had twelve, which he called the Twelve Apostles. One at Bois-le-Duc is called the Devil; a sixty-pounder at Dover Castle, is named Queen Elizabeth's Pocket Pistol.

More realistically, The Sealed Knot has the following:

[William Eldred] had been the Master Gunner at Dover Castle and includes in his book information on test firing a bronze basilisk of four and three quarters inches bore, 23 feet in length with two degrees of elevation using 18 pounds of powder to project a ten pound ball twelve hundred yards. This same piece was part of [the Earl of] Essex's Trayne [medieval english for train] which was captured at Lostwithiel [See the First English Civil War]. It is now known to us as 'Queen Elizabeth's Pocket Pistol' and was back at Dover Castle when H.L. Blackmore's Ordinance Volume of 'The Armouries of the Tower Of London' catalogue was published in 1976. It is interesting to note that while this book quotes Eldred's test firing, the piece is listed as rated for a shot of twelve pounds. Yet Eldred says he hit the unspecified target with a presumably undersize ten pound shot!

A 10 pound ball over 1200 yards? From the Wikipedia entry for Queen Elizabeth's Pocket Pistol:

Between 1613 and 1622 the gun was used and was found to be capable of firing a 10lb ball a distance of 2000 yards.

"Dover Castle" by R. Allen Brown, on the other hand, contains:

The gun is of unusual length, 24 ft, and with a calibre of 4.75 in., it was reputed to throw a shot seven miles.

This agrees with Statham's "The History of the Castle, Town and Port of Dover":

[Queen Elizabeth's Pocket Pistol was] considered capable of carrying a twelve-pound ball for seven miles.

British History Online is somewhat more optomistic:

Near the edge of the cliff is a curious piece of brass ordnance, twenty-four feet in length, cast at Utrecht in 1544, and called Queen Elizabeth's pocket-pistol, having been presented to her by the States of Holland: it carries a twelve-pound shot, and it has been affirmed that, if loaded well and kept clean, it would carry a shot to the French shore.

Presumably only if it was loaded onto a cross-channel ferry first. Under such circumstances a non-landing ticket might be prudent, too.

British History Online's assertion that the gun was presented to Queen Elizabeth I by the States of Holland contradicts R. Allen Brown's statement in "Dover Castle" that it had been given to Henry VIII by Emperor Charles V and also Heritage Image Partnership's belief it was given to Henry VIII specifically by Maximilian Van Egmont, Count Buren, Stadtholder of Friesland. The answer to who is right may be contained in this webpage:

As the gun was known as Queen Elizabeth's Pocket Pistol as early as 1767, and the Duke of Wellington had the initials E.R. cast into the metal carriage, it would seem likely that information from the Ordnance Department records of the time supported the gun having been presented to Elizabeth I and not Henry VIII.

I wonder if part of the confusion has its origin in something like, "Here you are, Harry, this is for your daughter!"

Mention of the Duke of Wellington, however, is a reminder that the cannon and its carraige are two seperate items. A Dover Past and Present webpage states:

The iron stand upon which the gun is placed was cast from metal of guns brought from Waterloo.

And from "Dover Castle":

Its present ornamental carriage was made by the Royal Carriage Department in 1827.

Finally, James Tolkys (gun-maker) appears to be an anglicized form of Jan Tolhuys.

Standard Info

From "Dover Castle" by R. Allen Brown (Her Majesty's Stationery Office, HMSO 1974):

This remarkable gun, which for some time has been known as Queen Elizabeth's Pocket Pistol, is a 12 pounder brass Basilisk. As the inscription on the base-ring indicates, it was cast in Utrecht in 1544 by Jan Tolhuys. Subsequently it was presented by the Emperor Charles V to Henry VIII. It is known to have been mounted at Dover Castle as early as 1613. Contrary to its appearance, however, it was not simply a presentation piece. During the English Civil War it formed part of the King's artillery train. It was used at the siege of Hull in 1643, when it was captured, after which it was employed by the Parliamentarians at the siege of Sheffield in 1644 and was retaken when Essex's forces surrendered at Lostwithiel later in the same year. In the eighteenth century it was known as the 'long gun' and mounted on the cliff edge of Dover Castle. Its present ornamental carriage was made by the Royal Carriage Department in 1827.

The gun is of unusual length, 24 ft, and with a calibre of 4.75 in., it was reputed to throw a shot seven miles. Its most striking feature, however, is the wealth of Renaissance ornament in relief. Much of the barrel is faceted and profusely decorated with vases, acanthus leaves and grotesques, broken by panels showing allegorical figures, including Victory and Liberty; a male figure crowned with foilage is almost certainly a river god, since the word Scalda inscribed about it is probably a version of Scaldis, the Roman name for the Scheldt.

Near the breech are two shields, one bearing the English Royal arms, and the other, nearer the breech, surmounted by a coronet and surrounded by a collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece, bearing the arms of Maximilian van Egmont, Count of Buren and Stadtholder of Friesland. In association with the latter, the legend Dieu et mon Droict may suggest that it was made for presentation to Henry VIII. Between the shields is an inscription which boasts the capabilities of this exceptional piece of artillery:

BREECK SCVRET AL MUER ENDE WAL BIN IC GEHETEN DOER BERCH EN DAL BOERT MINEN BAL VAN MI GESMETEN

This has been translated:

'Breaker my name of rampart and wall, Over hill and dale I throw my ball.'

From "The History of the Castle, Town and Port of Dover" by Reverend S. P. H. Statham, Rector of St Mary-in-the-Castle (ie St Mary-in-Castro) (Longmans, Green, and Co., 1899):

It is generally believed that the handsome "long gun" still exhibited in the Castle was presented to Elizabeth by the States of Holland, and it bears the nickname of "Queen Elizabeth's pocket pistol". It was made by James Tolkys at Utrecht in 1544, is twenty-four feet long, and was considered capable of carrying a twelve-pound ball for seven miles. An inscription which it bears has been translated:

O'er hill and dale I'll throw my ball, Breaker my name of mound and wall.

In an old print of the Castle this gun may be seen standing in solitary glory upon the edge of the cliff, as though defying all and every enemy of England. [Page 287]

John Latter on November 13, 2007

The 'brown triangle' in the above photo where the upper slope of the carraige rises up to meet the underside of the barrel is part of a prototype 'bouncing bomb' (also contains a video link).

These bombs, designed by Barnes Wallis, were subsequently used by Guy Gibson and the RAF's 617 squadron in the Dambuster Raid of 1943 during the Second World War.

John Latter on November 23, 2007

Click to see an external view of the 'Naafi Restaurant' Victorian building which also houses Queen Elizabeth's Pocket Pistol and the remnant of the Barnes Wallis 'Bouncing Bomb'.

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Photo taken in Dover Castle, Castle Hill, Dover, Kent CT16 1HU

Photo details

  • Uploaded on October 18, 2007
  • © All Rights Reserved
    by John Latter
    • Camera: PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D
    • Taken on 2007/09/30 11:03:29
    • Exposure: 0.033s (1/30)
    • Focal Length: 21.00mm
    • F/Stop: f/4.000
    • ISO Speed: ISO200
    • Exposure Bias: 0.00 EV
    • Flash fired

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