The Great Ship of Snargate

DSCF8278 - Version 2

The Great Ship of Snargate, late 15th/early 16th century (colour enhanced for greater clarity)

Why does a medieval church in a small Romney Marsh village contain a large and very old painting of a warship?

The village of Snargate is about seven miles inland from the English Channel, a few miles north of the port of Rye. The painting was uncovered in the north aisle of St Dunstan’s church when old whitewash was removed in the 1960s. It is a big image, measuring roughly 1.5 by 2 metres (around 4 x 4¾ feet). The artist used red paint, now faded to a shade of terracotta.

Expert opinion in the ‘sixties dated this picture to the period 1480-1520, based on the type of ship, and I would agree with this. According to local tradition, the painting of a ship on the north wall of a Marsh church, opposite the main door (as at Snargate), meant that it was a safe place to hide smuggled goods. This may be true, but the heyday of smuggling in the Marsh came a long time after 1500 and it is likely that the painting was made for a different reason (1).

The ship is shown almost in silhouette. It was clearly not the work of a professional artist, and resembles a large, painted graffito. Despite this, the vessel was very carefully delineated: either the artist understood how real ships were put together, or was advised by someone who did. Parts of the ship are missing, due to lost plaster and the proximity of a later memorial, but a good deal remains, more than enough to make it possible to identify the type of ship and how it was rigged.

The ship is a four-master, with tall superstructures, consisting of a two-deck forecastle at the bow and a four-deck aftercastle at the stern. The mainmast (centre) and the foremast (right) have topcastles (fighting and observation platforms) and topmasts.   The yards and sails on these masts are shown facing the viewer, at right-angles to their normal orientation, and they carry four-sided square sails. The mizzen and bonaventure masts (left) have slanting yards designed for triangular lateen sails.

The bow of the ship is higher than the stern, one of the defining features of a carrack, the biggest ship-type of the 15th century.   The multiple arches shown in the castles are gunports, designed for small swivel guns – man-killers. By counting the gunports its possible to estimate that a ship of this kind would have had around 90 guns in the castles on each side of the ship, 180 in total.

It’s usually very difficult – and often questionable – to make a link between a ship depicted in a medieval art and a documented vessel. There is some reason, however, to link the great ship of Snargate with a specific ship.

One of the unusual things about this late 15th/early 16th century painting is that it shows a huge, heavily-armed, four-masted carrack. Ships of this kind were not common in England, but in the 1480s two royal carracks of this type, the Regent and the Sovereign, were constructed for Henry VII, the first Tudor king. The 600-ton Regent was built at Reding, around four or five miles from Snargate, in the years 1487-88 (2).

OS 1813 Snargate - Version 2

Snargate (to the right) shown on the First Edition Ordnance Survey 1-inch map, published 1813. Reding Street and Smallhythe can be seen to the northwest, just above the Isle of Oxney.

The choice of Reding as the building site was probably influenced by the proximity of the great medieval shipbuilding centre at Smallhythe, a couple of miles to the west. Henry himself visited Reding in August 1487, to view the construction work. The Regent was set afloat in the autumn of 1488, and towed down the River Rother to have its masts and rigging fitted at Rye.   This was completed in the spring of 1490, and the ship was ready for sea by July of that year. The Regent saw relatively little action for most of its service life, but in 1512 it was destroyed by fire during a battle against a French carrack off Brest, with heavy loss of life (3).

There are a number of reasons for linking the great ship of Snargate with the Regent:

–       the dating of the ship type;

–       the type of ship – a very large war carrack;

–       the rarity of such vessels in England in the late 15th/early 16th centuries;

–       the proximity of the Regent’s building site at Reding;

–       the scale of the construction project, important enough to warrant a royal visit;

–       aftercastle size: the Regent had at least three decks in its aftercastle (the Sovereign had four);

–       rig: the rig of the Snargate ship is virtually identical to that of the Regent.

DSCF388415th-century swivel guns on replica stocks, on display in the Museo Storico Navale, Venice

There is also the matter of armament. The Snargate ship had enough gunports to mount about 180 guns in its castles. This figure may sound fanciful, but we know that the Sovereign carried 141 swivel guns in its castles, plus 20 guns in the waist (the open deck between the castles) and four at the stern. In other words, about 85% of its ordnance was in the superstructures. The layout of the ordnance in the Regent is not known, but it had 225 guns in total. Allowing for a similar disposition of weapons to that of the Sovereign, we would get a figure of about 191 guns in the castles, not many more than the number of castle gunports shown on the Snargate painting (4).

Absolute proof is impossible, but I think that a good case can be made for seeing the great ship of Snargate as a representation of Henry VII’s Regent.  If this is the case, it could also be the earliest-known English ship-portrait.

Blog and ship photo © Ian Friel 2014

Do visit St Dunstan’s church at Snargate, but check opening and service times first. Don’t forget to leave a donation for the church!

(1) R S Sharman, A Guide to the Parish and Church of Snargate, Kent, 2nd Edition 1974, pp 8-9: the most recent edition of the Guide reproduces the earlier section on the Ship; Ian Friel, The Good Ship. Ships, Shipbuilding and Technology in England 1200-1520, London 1995, pp 157-70; there is a brief piece on the ship in G Nesbitt Wood, ‘Church painting of a 16th-century great ship’, Mariner’s Mirror, Vol 58, 1972, p 134.

(2) Figures for the tonnages for these two ships given in various books vary from 450 to 1000 tons, possibly reflecting different tonnage calculation methods. However, the original order for building the Regent specified a ship of 600 tons, and this is followed here.

(3) M M Oppenheim (ed), Naval Accounts and Inventories of the Reign of Henry VII 1485-8 and 1495-7, Navy Records Society Vol VIII, London 1896, xxi-xxii; G J Mayhew, ‘Rye and the defence of the Narrow Seas: a 16th-century town at war’, Sussex Archaeological Collections, 122, 1984, p 108; Susan Rose, England’s Medieval Navy 1066-1509, London 2013, pp 178-90; A Spont (ed), Letters and Papers Relating to the War with France, 1512-1513, Navy Record Society, Vol X, London 1897, xxiv-xxvi, pp 13, 49-50, 52, 59-60 and 63; Rose, op. cit., 189 reproduces a vivid contemporary illustration of the disastrous end of the Regent and La Cordelière.

(4) Oppenheim, op. cit., pp 187-96 and 254-91.






7 thoughts on “The Great Ship of Snargate

  1. I was excited to come across your account of the Great Ship of Snargate . I am researching the Talland Frescoes, which were unfortunately, but unavoidably, destroyed in 1849 as part of some rebuilding work to Talland Church (13 Century), near Looe in Cornwall. Only one account of these ‘fine series of frescoes’, by Dr W.H. Box, who was there at the time, exists today. His account in full entitled ‘Description of some frescoes recently discovered on the wall of Talland Church’ may be found in the Thirty First Report of the Royal Institution of Cornwall 1849. And is also reproduced in ‘The History of Polperro ‘ by Dr Jonathan Couch published in 1871.

    What interests me most of these coloured pictures, is that of a ‘large full rigged ship under sail, which from her slanting position appeared to be mounting over a long swell. She had four masts – on the foremost large square sails were set, while the others were rigged lateen fashion. Her sides were decorated with gaily painted bands and strakes with separately charged saltiers and crosses of opposite colours such as a red band with a black cross. Atop each mast head was a square green flag with a saltier in red’.

    Ed Fox – Marine Historian – has commented that: The fourth mast (the ‘bonaventure mizzen’) didn’t really make an appearance until around 1480 or so, about the same time that triangular lateen sails were first seen on English vessels. By the mid-17th century use of the bonaventure mizzen had all but died out, so the frescoes probably have an extreme range of about 1480-1650. However, bonaventure mizzen masts were still comparatively rare until the early 16th century.

    This seems to be a description not dissimilar to that of the Great Ship of Snargate. I too had come to the conclusion that it was a type of Carrack, with Royal connections but have no evidence to support this. There were no shipbuilding yards nearby to my knowledge despite the Cornish being a seafaring nation. And I can find no other connections. I too had also considered smuggling.

    I have a couple of possibles:

    The St Anthony a Portuguese Carrack wrecked off Gunwalloe in 1525 – Flagship of King John of Portugal and reputedly carrying the dowry of Princess Katherine Sister of the Holy Emperor of Rome;

    The Mary Rose or the, Henry Grace à Dieu (Great Harry), a Flagship of King Henry the Eighth – a Carrack built Warship with painted sides bands and strakes; or my favourite below;

    Or the rather romantic notion that it may have been the ship that brought Katherine of Aragon (future wife of Henry the Eighth and Queen of England) to England Plymouth in 1501! In which case we’re looking at a Spanish Carrack?

    This coloured wall painting and that of the Crucifixion were both covered over probably like many others during the Reformation by a most prominent picture of the Devil, traced in black on a White ground so appeared almost in relief. He had the most horrible countenance imaginable with a dark mantle thrown over his shoulders and clasped at the neck. He had two short thick horns bent slightly backward, on his head, and the balls of his enormous round eyes were painted a brilliant red to which an additional horror was imparted by their being surrounded with a slight circle of white.

    I would welcome your thoughts, comments and suggestions as I’m really struggling to find a reason for such a fine colourful wall painting of such a grand ship in a tiny rural Church in a relatively out of the way hamlet in Cornwall!

    By way of a PS – there would not appear to be any other references to ships in wall paintings in any other Cornish Churches ….

    Many thanks


    • Dear Clive, thanks for your comment – I’m glad that you found the piece to be interesting. The Talland paintings sound fascinating, and it’s a great shame that they have been lost. I’ll have to think about this one, though would agree with Mr Fox as regards the dating limits. Four-masters were not common and tended to be large ships (though one of Columbus’ small vessels was also four-masted). I’m a bit tied up with a project at the moment, but will get back to you next week. Best wishes


      • Dear Ian, Thank you for taking the time to reply. I have reread your piece on the ‘Great Ship of Snargate’ and find it totally fascinating: If only we could go back in time …..

        I hope your current project is going well.

        Best Wishes


  2. I suppose being realistic rather than romantic the picture of the ship could be seen as a celebration of our Naval power and as such the Henri Grace a Dieu – thanks to god – could be seen in that light.

  3. Pingback: THE GREAT SHIP OF SNARGATE - Ian Friel MA, FSA, PHD

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