Certain discourses …concerning the formes and effects of diuers sorts of weapons, and other verie important matters militarie

Concerned about the deficiencies of English armies, Sir John Smythe wrote Certain Discourses, which was published in 1590. An experienced soldier and formerly a diplomat for Queen Elizabeth, he wrote the book to bring to the attention of “our Nobilitie and chiefe Magistrates” the “strange and erronious opinions Militarie” of “diuerse of our chiefe men of charge and warre … in the tumultuarie, licentious, and staruing warres of the Low Countries.” The court was not pleased. Queen Elizabeth directed that all copies of Certain Discourses be “called in, both because they be printed without privilege, and that they may breed much question and quarell.” Smythe protested to Lord Burghley and Elizabeth. No further action was taken against him until an incident in 1596 that led to charges of treason and more than a year stay in the Tower of London.

Born about 1534, Smythe left England during the reign of Edward VI and distinguished himself as a soldier of fortune. He served in France, in the Low Countries fighting on the side of Spain, and in the armies waging war against the Turks. In 1574, Smythe began service in the English government. His diplomatic mission to the court of Philip II in 1577 ended with cordial relations with Spain, but led to no further assignments until the threat of Spanish invasion in 1588. England had no standing army. There were only laws about the mustering of troops and the arms and armor that gentlemen of wealth were required to keep. Smythe trained soldiers from county Essex and brought them to camp at Tilbury, where he severely criticized Leister, the commander-in-chief, about the overall training of troops.

These experiences provided the foundation for Certain Discourses—the lack of sound military science in the leadership of England’s armies, corruption in the treatment of the common soldier, and the lack of training of ill-equipped troops. The book provides valuable information about armor, armaments, and military tactics of the time. A primary focus of the treatise is comparison of the use of longbows (and crossbows) to the emerging weapons of choice: “Harquebuzes” and longer-range “Caliuers.” Smythe adroitly points out the existing deficiencies of firearms (e.g., inaccuracy, slow rate of fire, and unreliability) in favoring the battle-tried longbow. He provides many historical and recent instances to demonstrate his conclusions. However, his retrospective viewpoint was disputed at the time and overwhelmed by future innovations of gunsmiths.  

Chrzanowski 1590s *

STC 22883

Title List

1479–1550 | 1551–1580 | 1583–1608 | 1609–1675