The St Winnow ship carving, late 15th/early 16th centuries
The storm is violent, and eternal. Clouds like thick folds of cloth gather over the ship. A demon’s face looks out from one corner of the sky, its bulging eyes fixed on the vessel and the terrified sailors. The ship surges up on the waves, which are so high that the rudder lifts clear of the water.
The perpetual tempest and the ship are carved on a wooden bench-end in the church of St Winnow, near Lostwithiel in Cornwall, which has some of the finest carved bench-ends in the county (1).
The St Winnow ship carving is well-known to those who study medieval ships. Like several of the other bench-ends in the church, it seems to date from the late 1400s/early 1500s. The ship is a square-rigger with three masts, sailing towards the left of the bench-end. The three-masted square rig was developed in the 15th century, by combining the four-sided square sails of North Europe with the triangular lateen of the Mediterreanean. It produced a much more maneouvrable type of vessel, which took Columbus and others across the Atlantic – something that happened at around the time this carving was made (2).
A ship of this kind normally carried a large square mainsail hung from a sailyard on the mainmast (centre), similar in shape to the foresail (on the left of the photo). The mizzen sail is on the mast near the stern (right), a triangle stiff with wind. If the carver had shown the mainsail in place, it would have obscured most of the praying crewmen, who are a crucial part of the design.
The church of St Winnow stands right by the river Fowey, a few miles upstream from the port of Fowey, which in the Middle Ages was a busy harbour. Seafarers must have worshipped at St Winnow in the 15th and 16th centuries, and to anyone who knew about ships at the time, the omission of the mainsail would have looked decidedly odd.
It is possible that the missing mainsail was not the result of an artistic decision. This carving could be a representation of a real event in which a ship lost its largest sail during a storm, leaving the crew with just the fore and mizzen sails to make some headway against the wind and waves. We can never know for certain. The artistic explanation might still be the right one, as rigging fore and mizzen in a real situation of this kind could be suicidal, leading a ship to capsize.
Even though as a ship image the carving is somewhat crude, it has a 3D quality – the artist tried to show both sides of the ship – and a lot of detail is shown. It has superstructures, a forecastle at the bow and an aftercastle at the stern, and the rudder is depicted realistically. The basket-like structure near the top of the mainmast is the topcastle, which served as both a lookout post and a fighting platform. Its military function is underlined by the presence of the bundle of long ‘sticks’ leaning on the right-hand side of the topcastle. These are gads, spears that could be thrown down on an enemy’s deck in battle, reputedly able to skewer a man from head to foot. The presence of these fearsome weapons is a reminder that there were also manmade dangers be found at sea in the Middle Ages – piracy and war.
But why does this ship appear on the bench-end at St Winnow? The most likely explanation is that it was a votive offering, commissioned by a sailor in thanks to God and the saints for surviving a storm. The man was perhaps a shipmaster, and may be represented by the sailor’s head on the aftercastle (right). As the historian Eamon Duffy writes, votive objects were powerful, ‘immediately intelligible claims that here was a power to heal and rescue’. Votive artefacts could take all kinds of forms, such as paintings or carvings, but could also include models of various kinds or even graffiti scratched on church walls (3).
Whatever the technical aspects of the carving, the spirit it conveys is the same as that expressed in the refrain of William Whiting’s Victorian hymn, ‘Eternal Father, strong to save’, also known as ‘The Navy Hymn’:
Oh hear us when we cry to thee,
For those in peril on the sea.
Daily facing the most violent elements known to humankind, medieval seafarers would have understood this sentiment.
Blog © Ian Friel 2014; photo © Ian Friel 1993
(1) St Winnow or Winnoc was a 7th/8th century saint, venerated in Cornwall and Brittany: D H Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford 1987, p 409.
(2) I Friel, The Good Ship. Ships, Shipbuilding and Technology in England 1200-1520, London 1995, chs 5 and 9.
(3) E Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars. Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (Newhaven and London: Yale University Press 1992), p 197.