This is the story of saltpeter, the vital but mysterious substance craved by governments from the Tudors to the Victorians as an 'inestimable treasure.' National security depended on control of this organic material - that had both mystical and mineral properties. Derived from soil enriched with dung and urine, it provided the heart or 'mother' of gunpowder, without which musket or cann could be fired. Its acquisition involved alchemical kwledge, exotic techlogy, intrusions into people's lives, and eventual dominance of the world's oceans. The quest for saltpeter caused widespread 'vexation' in Tudor and Stuart England, as crown agents dug in homes and barns and even churches. Governments hungry for it purchased supplies from overseas merchants, transferred skills from foreign experts, and extended patronage to ingenious schemers, while the hated 'saltpetermen' intruded on private ground. Eventually, huge saltpeter imports from India relieved this social pressure, and by the eighteenth century positioned Britain as a global imperial power; the governments of revolutionary America and ancien regime France, on the other hand, were forced to find alternative sources of this treasured substance. In the end, it was only with the development of chemical explosives in the late Victorian period that dependency on saltpeter finally declined. Saltpeter, the Mother of Gunpowder tells this fascinating story for the first time. Lively and entertaining in its own right, it is also a tale with far-reaching implications. As David Cressy's engaging narrative makes clear, the story of saltpeter is vital t only in explaining the inter-connected military, scientific, and political 'revolutions' of the seventeenth century; it also played a key role in the formation of the centralized British nation state - and that state's subsequent dominance of the waves in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Born in England and educated at Cambridge, David Cressy has made his career in the United States, where he is George III Professor of British History and Humanities Distinguished Professor at Ohio State University. A social and cultural historian of early modern England, concerned with the intersections of elite and popular culture, central and local government, and official and unofficial religion, he has also written on literacy, kinship, calendar customs, book-burning, and the man in the moon. A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, a Guggenheim Fellow, and recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, David Cressy is a frequent visitor to England, where he has held visiting fellowships at Churchill College, Cambridge, and at Magdalen, St. Catherine's and All Souls Colleges, Oxford.