Tag Archives: Greek fire

Use of a chemical weapon  in Medieval London (1460)

During “The Wars of the Roses”, between 1455-85, London was an important centre of political machination, and the Tower, the scene of a series of chilling politically motivated murders, in forgotten dreadful cubicles behind great locked doors.

There was also some actual action in the City; and indeed there were pitched battles on its outskirts, at St Alban’s in 1455 and 1461, and  at Barnet in 1471.

Wildfire being let loose from a flame-thrower

On this day in 1460, a Yorkist army arrived at the gates of London, and was admitted by Aldermen sympathetic to their cause.  At this, the Lancastrian garrison in the Tower, under Thomas, the Seventh Baron Scales, indiscriminately opened fire on the City in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to prevent its  occupation, using both  conventional and  chemical weapons from the Royal Armoury, causing both combatant and civilian  casualties,  and occasioning extreme public outrage, ultimately resulting in Scales’s  summary execution (*).  The chemical weapon, let loose from a  primitive and unreliable flame-thrower, was  “Greek fire” or “wildfire”, which may be  thought of as a form of napalm, that stuck and set fire to  everything – and everyone –  it came into contact with, and flared  up even more fiercely if water was cast onto it (*).

(*) As a contemporary chronicler put it: “They that were within the Tower cast wildfire into the City, and shot in small guns, and burned and hurt men and women and children in the streets”.