The use of fire-signals to give warning of seaborne attack goes back at least to the final stage of the Roman period in Britain, and was part of the Saxon defensive system against the Vikings. During the Middle Ages beacons were again prepared at various times of invasion scare, as they were still against Napoleon in 1804. Before the invention of modern communications, they were much the quickest and surest method of sending an alarm over long distances.
The network prepared against the Armada in 1588 shows the system fully developed, with watching points on the coast linked by lines of sight across lower ground to the inland hills. Each spot was chosen as part of a chain, connected with those of neighbouring counties. The actual beacons were sometimes iron fire-baskets on timber supports, and sometimes low circular stone erections providing a platform with underneath draught. With prompt work, the whole county could be alerted in half an hour.
In operation, the system required every beacon to be constantly attended and watch kept on all neighbouring sites from which alarm might come. Some highly combustible material was needed to get the fire going promptly, particularly in wet weather; but heavy mists on high ground would have made things distinctly difficult. One drawback was the danger of false alarm, and the lack of means to cancel one. An over-anxious coast-watcher mistaking friendly ships for enemies, or a heath fire mistaken for a beacon, might set the whole county in an uproar which would take days to settle.
On the alarm being given, the fighting men from each parish were to assemble and take their allotted posts or be ready to march to wherever plans required. A Muster Roll survives for 1569 covering nearly all Devon, and is available in transcript. It shows that representatives of each parish were summoned and required to state on oath the names of parishioners with sufficient wealth to be separately assessed to provide arms and armour, and precisely what; and the quantity to be provided by the parish in general. Then followed the names of ‘Able Men’ serving as pikemen, arquebusiers (with an early form of musket), bowmen and billmen. The pike, a long and heavy spear-type weapon, was by then replacing the bill – a shorter one with a scythe-like blade; and the arquebus was replacing the longbow, since the strenuous and lengthy training needed to use the latter effectively, was no longer generally undertaken.
Body armour of breastplate and thigh-pieces, with a helmet, was worn by the pikeman and billman, but the archer and arquebusier relied on heavy leather coats called ‘jacks’, sometimes strengthened with metal plates in vulnerable places. The bowman carried a sheaf of twenty-four arrows, and also a sword and dagger for close quarters: he could shoot five or six arrows in a minute, and if properly trained could hit his target with force at about 150 yards, while the arquebus took long to load and had a shorter range. But to fire the arquebus required no strength and very little training, while the bow needed plenty of both. The pike was some fifteen feet (4.6 m) long, and could be used with effect in defence or attack only with pikemen close-ranked and under discipline. The bill had a six-foot shaft, and was at its best in close fighting, but could be a danger to friend as well as foe if wielded in sweeping strokes.
Inland as well as seaside parishes were rated towards the cost of making and arming coast defences, the records of Morebath showing repeated payments for the ‘bulwark at Seaton’; and the maintenance and manning of beacons was also a parish responsibility. Major ports were also required to provide shipping (helped by their sub-ports and immediate hinterland), though by the time of the Aramada a serious fleet action could only be fought by galleon war vessels. Levied merchantmen could only be of use as supply tenders, to carry ammunition and other supplies to the warships. The 1588 levy called for three ships of over 100 tons from Plymouth and Exeter (the latter including Topsham and Exmouth), and two each from Dartmouth and Barnstaple, besides a small swift pinnace from each of these ports to carry orders and messages.