A young couple photographed at Southsea, Hampshire, probably early 1900s

A young couple photographed at Southsea, Hampshire, probably early 1900s

One hundred and seventy-five years ago this year, the invention of photography was announced to the world.   In January 1839, William Henry Fox Talbot read a paper at the Royal Society in London on his process of ‘photogenic drawing’; eight months or so later, Louis Daguerre’s rather different photographic technique was made public at the Institut de France. Both announcements followed years of experimentation, and Daguerre had been the partner of the brilliant French inventor Nicéphore Niépce (died 1833), whose ‘heliography’ produced the first true photograph in 1826-27.  The term ‘photography’ or ‘drawing with light’, seems to have been first coined in France, not long after Niépce’s pioneering picture; the word first appeared in an English publication in 1839 (1).  Identifying a single inventor for a new piece of technology is not always easy, and as the historian Michel Frizot points out, ‘photography was not invented by one person’ (2).  This blog is not aimed at reopening the issue of Who Got There First.

Instead, I want to write about the fascination of historic photographs. By this, I don’t just mean images of major historical events, or portraits of the Great and the Good. To me, the term denotes photographs of anyone, anything or any place in the past. I know that people’s definitions of where ‘the past’ begins differ enormously, but that’s another issue I’m going to sidestep here.

What photography has given us is the ability to seize a moment and hold it forever – or at least for as long as the image will last.   In the days of print cameras, the technology and expense of print film and cameras meant that most people only took photos on special occasions – birthdays, weddings, holidays and so-on, or they visited a professional photographer.  Nowadays, photography has become ubiquitous, even habitual, thanks to the advent of point-and-click camera controls, digital photography and the internet, along with mobile phone cameras.   Our lives can be documented visually as never before.

'The past is a foreign country': sometimes it really looks like it, too. 'Grecian' dancing, c 1900-1920?

‘The past is a foreign country’: sometimes it really looks like it, too. ‘Grecian’ dancing, c 1900-1920?

To my mind, this makes the photographic record of the pre-digital world even more valuable.  That includes those images which at first might be dismissed as banal or dull – you know, studio portraits of unknown people, album shots of holidaymakers in deckchairs, unremarkable street scenes.  Some photos of this kind do get into archive collections or books, but a great number seem to end up at boot sales or in junk shops, the product of estranged families, solitary old age and house clearances. There’s a good chance that many of these images might end up in landfill if no-one buys them.

Market-day in Dinant, Belgium, summer 1938: from the album of a British tourist

Market-day in Dinant, Belgium, summer 1938: from the album of a British tourist

You might ask why any of this matters, if there’s no-one left to care what happens to the photos? With many of these images, the names of the people in them are unknown, the exact locations are uncertain and the only way you can date them is by reference to clothes, vehicles, and so-on. What use are they?

A Thames lighter being 'sculled' under old London Bridge, c 1930

A Thames lighter being ‘sculled’ under old London Bridge, c 1930

The answer to this is that each photo, however inconsequential it may seem, is a fragment of history, made all the more precious because it relates not to famous figures or events, but to ‘ordinary’ people. For example, the historian Avril Lansdell made telling use of pictures of this kind to show how British people actually dressed in the 20th century, as opposed to what the contemporary fashion mags might suggest was worn (3).  And in amongst all those portraits and holiday snaps are images of vanished buildings, long-gone street scenes and landscapes, and sometimes evidence of dramatic historical events. For all these reasons, such photos are worth preserving.

There can also be something terribly poignant about looking at people in an old photograph, like the attractive young couple at the head of this blog.   The photo was taken in the Hampshire seaside resort of Southsea, and their not-quite solemn expressions and linked arms suggest happiness – people on a day out, on holiday, or even honeymooning.  Judging by the clothes, the image dates from the early 1900s, and it is quite possible that they could have lived into the 1960s or later. Two World Wars, the Depression and the Cold War awaited them, but also the welfare state, rising standards of education and greater equality.  Standing in the photographer’s studio on that Edwardian day, they could have no idea of what was to come.  A similar thing could be said of us, staring out of a Facebook or Instagram page. Think of that next time you take a selfie.

Cuddly old 'Uncle Joe', Germany 1945.  Photo from the album of a British soldier who was part of the occupation forces

Cuddly old ‘Uncle Joe’, Germany 1945. Photo from the album of a British soldier who was part of the occupation forces

Blog © Ian Friel 2014

The photos in this blog come from my personal collection, most of them bought at boot sales.   The first stage in preserving such images is for them to be acquired by someone who cares about them.  The second stage is to find an eventual home for the collection – perhaps museums, libraries or archives  – where the original images can be looked after in the long term and made accessible to the public.

(1) Oxford English Dictionary, oed.com

(2) M Frizot (ed), A New History of Photography, Cologne 1998, p 23.

(3) A Lansdell, Everyday Fashions of the 20th Century, Shire Publications, Princes Risborough 1999.


The Age of the Hell Burners: fireships and terror weapons (part 2)


The fireship attack by the English fleet on the Spanish Armada off Calais on the night of 7th/8th August 1588 was the turning-point of the Armada campaign. The attack temporarily dispersed the Armada, drove it into the North Sea and opened the fleet up to the devastating close-range gunfire of the English ships.   After this, with the wind pushing it further north, the Armada lost all real hope of achieving its objective – to invade England and dethrone the Protestant Queen, Elizabeth I (1).

The commander of the Armada, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, had ordered his fleet to disperse because he thought that the eight English fireships might be floating bombs.  Why did these weapons engender such fear among professional soldiers and sailors?

The answer to this question has been explored by many historians, but usually only in terms of the history of the late 16th century.  I want to look at its wider implications, and the disconcerting links that it has with our own times.

Gunpowder was utilised as a propellant in guns from the 1300s, but by the 15th century it was also known that powder could be used en masse as a bomb, buried in a mine under the fortifications of a besieged castle or town. The results could be incredibly destructive – and decisive. For example, in 1503 a Spanish engineer set off a gunpowder mine under the rocky fortress of Uovo near Naples, then occupied by French troops.   The explosion not only demolished part of the rock, it also blew up the castle’s chapel and the senior French officers who were meeting inside (2).

Accounts of the 1588 fireship attack rightly ascribe the Spanish fear of floating bombs to the ‘Hell-Burners’ at Antwerp.   In 1585, Antwerp was held by the Protestant Dutch, but they were encircled by the Spanish Army of Flanders. The siege was one of many in the so-called Eighty Years War, in which the Dutch struggled to assert their independence from the Spanish Crown.   The Spanish siegeworks at Antwerp included a great wooden bridge laid across the River Scheldt, which cut the Dutch off from seaborne resupply and reinforcement.

In order to try to break the siege, the Dutch employed a disaffected Italian engineer named Giambelli to build some fireships and floating bombs for them. These were sent down the river towards the bridge. Most failed to do any damage, but one did go off. Its huge charge (nearly four tons of explosive, packed along with much shrapnel) blew a hole in the bridge and killed at least 800 Spanish soldiers. The explosion must have been the loudest man-made noise ever heard up to that time. The physical and psychological shockwaves caused by the Hell-Burner were enormous, for it was the first weapon to cause instantaneous death and destruction on a large scale (3).

The Hell-Burner incident was not the only Dutch assault with a floating bomb, however. There was another Dutch waterborne attack of this kind in early April 1588, this time on what might be termed a largely ‘civilian’ target.   An account of it reached Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham, a few days later. According to the report, a Dutch merchantman had entered Spanish-held Dunkirk harbour one night.  Ostensibly, it carried a cargo of beer and cheese, but there was evidently a large bomb concealed under the victuals.  After the ship had tied up, the crew made off in a boat, claiming that they had to retrieve an anchor left at the harbour mouth ‘… And within a short space after the ship with beer and cheese blew up a Breton ship with salt, 2 ships laden with munition of the king [of Spain], as [well as] victuals, cables and ordnance, with other great spoil among the ships and houses alongst near the quay sore spoiled, and a tower which standeth near the quay, the great stones on the top thereof were blown amongst the houses, which sudden blast did so terrify the Spaniards that they went whirling about the streets crying like cats…’   The writer of the report noted that if the bomb had gone off at low tide, all of the ships there would have been burned (4).

It is not known if a report of this attack reached the Armada before it sailed, but it underlines the sheer terror created by gunpowder bombs. They took the potential dangers of fireships to a new level, and this explains why Medina Sidonia issued his order for the Armada to get out of the Calais anchorage in the middle of the night.

The gunpowder bomb was here to stay, and made its appearance as a political weapon, as well as a military one. In England, its most famous manifestation was of course the Catholic Gunpowder Plot to blow up King James I and Parliament in 1605. Like the Armada, it became part of English Protestant legend, the defeat of both being commemorated and celebrated annually in the 17th century (5).

The 1605 attempt was not the only ‘gunpowder plot’ in England. After the city of Chichester in West Sussex fell to a Parliamentarian siege in 1642, the victorious commander, Sir William Waller, established himself in a house in what is now Priory Park.   That evening, in his own words, ‘I discovered a train laid to some barrels of gunpowder not far from my lodging…’   The assassination attempt failed, but Waller was not able to find out who was responsible (6).

Fifteen years later, a Colonel Edward Sexby and a group of republicans, angry at Cromwell for taking quasi-regal powers, planned to blow up the Lord Protector as his coach passed along a narrow section of road in Hammersmith. The plot collapsed, and some of the plotters were apprehended, but Sexby went on to justify the attempt as tyrannicide, in a pamphlet entitled Killing Noe Murder (7).

The presence of sulphur as an ingredient of gunpowder had always meant that the explosive carried a whiff of the demonic. The playwright Ben Jonson referred to Bertold Schwarz, the mythical medieval inventor of gunpowder, ‘who from the Devil’s-Arse did guns beget’, and in Paradise Lost Milton also portrayed the invention of gunpowder and guns as the work of the Devil (9). As well they might.

The fireships of Calais and the Gunpowder Plot have become part of a cosy national legend.   Even if the Armada is no longer remembered with revelry, we still burn Guy Fawkes in effigy every November 5th, and admire the whooshing rockets at firework displays, quite forgetting that the event marks an attempt to change the government by force.  If the plot had succeeded, it would probably have sparked off a war of religion in Britain.

It’s inevitable that the danger, fear, pain and horror associated with such things should fade over time – after all, there’s more than enough of them in the daily news.  However, this also obscures the fact that the gunpowder bomb marked a profound shift in the ability of human beings to do large-scale and indiscriminate violence to others with little or no warning.   One way or another, we are still living in the age of the Hell-Burners and the ships of fire.

The Duke of Medina Sidonia and his men had very good reason to be afraid of the eight flickering lights as they bore down on the Armada that August night.

Blog © Ian Friel 2014

(1) See my preceding blog, ‘Fireships and the first terror weapons (part 1)’.

(2) C Duffy, Siege Warfare. The Fortress in the Early Modern World 1494-1660, London 1979, p 11.

(3) Colin Martin and Geoffrey Parker, The Spanish Armada (various editions, London 1988 on), pp 74-76; National Maritime Museum, Armada 1588-1988, London 1988 , p 120; J Kelly, Gunpowder.   A History of the Explosive that Changed the World, London 2004, pp 131-32.

(4) The National Archives (TNA), Kew, SP78/18, 51: David Cabreth to Walsingham (spelling and punctuation modernised); see also Calendar of State Papers Foreign Elizabeth I 1586-1588, p 567, which discusses the report writer’s error with the date, and National Maritime Museum, Armada 1588-1988, London 1988 , p 120.

(5) Kelly 2004, pp 126-29; National Maritime Museum 1988, pp 283-84.

(6) P Gill, ‘The Siege of Chichester, December 1642’ in W Hussey (ed), Chichester 900, Chichester 1975, p 18.

(7) Alan Marshall, entry for ‘Sexby, Edward (1616–1658)’ in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, www.oxforddnb.com; British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk: ‘A brief Relation of the late Dangerous Plot for the Destruction of his Highness’s person’, Diary of Thomas Burton esq, volume 2: April 1657 – February 1658 (1828), pp. 483-488.

(8) Kelly 2004, p 81.

Fireships and terror weapons (part 1)



Although this 1956 reconstruction was intended to represent the Pilgrim Fathers’ 120-ton ship Mayflower of 1620, its design was largely based  on late 16th century English sources.  As such it gives a good idea of the appearance of the privately-owned ships in the English fleet that fought the Armada in 1588, eight of which became fireships.

The English fireship attack on the Spanish Armada on the night of 7th/8th August 1588 was the most effective assault made by an English fleet in the 16th century. The event is well known, but I want to look at it again because of its historical importance and because it is a story that has some uncomfortable resonances with our own times (1).

King Philip II sent the Armada in order to topple the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I and restore England to the Catholic faith.   War had broken out between the two nations in 1585 and would last until 1604. At no point in the conflict was England capable of destroying Spain, which had the world’s greatest maritime empire, but the Spanish perceived the English as a real threat. Amongst other things, they gave support to the Dutch Protestant rebels fighting Philip’s Army of Flanders, and English ships frequently  attacked Spanish vessels and possessions.

The strategy of the Armada campaign was simple. The Spanish fleet would sail up the Channel, avoid major battles with English naval forces, and link up with the Army of Flanders in the Low Countries, which was commanded by the Duke of Parma. Once this had happened, the Armada would convoy the Army across to England in a fleet of small vessels, landing in Kent.   The Armada was to contribute its own soldiers (more than 20,000 men), siege guns and military supplies to Parma’s force, and the joint army would then march on London. If the Armada had landed, the Spanish army – the most professional force in Europe – might well have carved its way through the English militia troops and reached the capital, with enormous consequences for the future.

However, Parma and even the Armada commander, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, had serious misgivings about the plan. Crucially, it assumed that faultless military and naval co-ordination was possible over long distances when messages moved at the speed of a ship or a messenger’s horse.

The Armada left Lisbon on 30 May, and after a long and stormy journey, finally sighted the English coast on 29th July.  Over the next week it progressed up the Channel, pursued and harried by the English fleet, but suffering no real harm.  The roadstead at Calais offered the only fleet anchorage within reach of Flanders (even though it was not a very safe haven), and the Spanish anchored there on 6th August. Soon after, Medina Sidonia discovered that Parma’s troops would not be ready for six days: Parma had only heard of the Armada’s impending arrival on the day that it turned up at Calais, and the Dutch were blockading his embarkation ports.

The English arrived at Calais on the 6th, and dropped anchor about 1½ miles from their opponents.  They were well aware of the invasion threat posed by the Armada and the Army of Flanders. The problem for them was that the strong defensive formation and formidable discipline of the Spanish fleet had made it impossible to get in amongst the enemy ships and do some real damage. Now that the Spanish were anchored, however, there was a new opportunity – fireships.

Sir William Winter, a sea captain of vast experience (he was about 63 years old) claimed that he came up with the idea of a fireship attack on 6th August and suggested it that evening to the English commander, Lord Admiral Howard.   It is possible that this is true, though the tactic was well known. It had featured in a book about tactics and weaponry called Inventions or Devices, published ten years earlier by the English polymath William Bourne, and Bourne probably got the idea from someone else (2). Even the Spanish were aware of the possibility of a fireship assault.

Fireships were seen as the best way of attacking a strong, anchored fleet. The aim of the tactic was to spread panic among the sailors of the target ships. They would be forced to cut their anchor cables as they tried to avoid being burned, throwing the fleet into confusion and making it far easier to attack with cannon.

Whoever came up with the notion, the plan was adopted by Howard’s council of war when it met in the early morning of Sunday 7th August.   An officer was sent to Dover for flammables, but it was soon realised that he could not get back before the next day. As time was of the essence, eight privately-owned English ships were pressed into service as fireships.   They were coated with pitch and tar, and filled with other fuel for the flames. Their guns were loaded, to make sure that they went off when the fire reached them, and each weapon contained two cannonballs, to maximise the impact of the attack.

At 11 or 12 pm (accounts vary), with the wind and tide in their favour, the fireships set off. They were manned by skeleton crews, who set the ships alight and then escaped in boats. Medina Sidonia had already anticipated the possibility of a fireship attack, and detailed a small ship to tow any such vessels out of harm’s way. However, when the eight blazing ships loomed out of the dark, he gave orders for the fleet to get under way.

No Spanish ships were hit by any of the fireships, and the Spanish did not leave the anchorage in panic.  Despite this, attack had a critical effect on the Armada. The fleet was temporarily dispersed, huge numbers of vital anchors and cables were lost (in an emergency such as this, it was quicker to cut cables rather than raise them), and the wind pushed many of the ships into the southern North Sea. In other words, the fleet was moving away from Calais and its chance of linking with the Army of Flanders.

With the Armada’s formation temporarily broken, the English were able to charge in among the Spanish ships. There was a pitched battle off the Flemish port of Gravelines the following day, just over ten miles NW of Calais. Rapid, close-range English fire caused heavy casualties and great damage.  Only one ship was sunk by direct fire, though the battering off Gravelines may have weakened some Spanish ships so much that they succumbed to storms on the way home (a disaster exacerbated by the lost anchors and cables).

The Armada resumed its formation after the battle, but the prevailing wind was still driving it further into the North Sea. The weather, and the pursuing English fleet, meant that there was no longer any realistic prospect of turning back and joining with Parma to invade England.  Effectively, the Armada campaign was over, and the fireship attack was the key to the English victory.

The Armada was a powerful, disciplined fleet full of experienced sailors and soldiers.   What was it about a mere eight burning ships that made them break formation? Even if each fireship had destroyed a target, the Spanish would have lost no more than eight vessels out of over 120.

The explanation is well known: Medina Sidonia thought that the fireships might be maquinas de minas, ‘explosion machines’. Floating bombs, in other words.

I want to explore this aspect of the story in a second blog, which will be published on 12th August. That will be the anniversary of the day on which the English fleet broke off its pursuit of the Spanish, and the Armada began its catastrophic homeward voyage round the coasts of Scotland and Ireland.

Blog © Ian Friel 2014 and photo © Ian Friel 1986

(1) The literature of the Armada is vast, but the account given here is based largely on Armada 1588-1988 (Penguin 1988), the catalogue of the 1988 National Maritime Museum exhibition, Colin Martin and Geoffrey Parker, The Spanish Armada, London (various editions 1988 on) and J K Laughton (ed), The Defeat of the Spanish Armada, Navy Records Society, London, 2 vols, London 1895 (reprinted Havant 1981). The latter is full of 16th-century documents, transcribed with modern spellings, and is a great introduction to the source material.

(2) William Bourne, Inuentions or Deuises. Very Necessary for all Generalles and Captaines, or Leaders of Men, as wel by Sea as by Land, London 1578; the manuscript can be viewed online thanks to the Schoenberg Centre for Electronic Text & Image, University of Pennsylvania (MS ljs345); the ‘8th Device’ is on pp 23r-24r:http://sceti.library.upenn.edu/sceti/ljs/PageLevel/index.cfm?option=view&ManID=ljs345

Spanish Armada in time travel shock

DSCF7065Monument to Edmund Norton, gentleman, who received a pension for ‘his good service by seae in Anno Domini 1588’ (St Bartholemew’s Church, Hyde, Winchester, Hants).  

Edmund died on 10th July 1600.  And on 20th July (see below).


426 years ago today, 29th July 1588, the Spanish Armada appeared off the coast of Cornwall. It also appeared in the same place, on the same day, on 19th July 1588.

So, as well as having surprise, ruthless efficiency, a fanatical devotion to the Pope and nice uniforms on its side (to paraphrase Monty Python), could the Armada actually break the time barrier? Or was this just an idea from a discarded Dr Who script?

Ah, no.

I don’t normally write blog posts in a hurry, but a series of  ‘anniversaries’ posted on Twitter has got rather annoying, and I think it’s worth pointing out a problem. The problem relates most immediately to the commemorations of the Spanish Armada campaign, which fall this July and August, but it affects some other anniversaries as well.

The day on which I am posting this is 29th July 2014, the 426th anniversary of the Spanish Armada arriving off the Cornish coast.   The Armada, a force of over 130 ships packed with sailors, soldiers and weapons, was sent by the Catholic King Philip II of Spain to invade England and topple the Protestant Queen Elizabeth (1). The Spanish plan failed, due in no small part to the English fleet.

To the Spanish, they sighted the Cornish coast on 29th July. To the English, it was 19th July.   The reason for this apparently bizarre difference was of course that the two sides were using different calendars.   Until 1582, all of Europe used the Julian Calendar, established in Roman times.   The flaw with the Calendar was that the Julian year was estimated at 365¼ days, which was slightly too long. Over time the Julian year became increasingly out of sync with the solar year. By the 16th century the difference between the two was as much as ten days.

The problem was dealt with by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, who decreed that ten calendar days would be cut out of one month in that year, with 4th October being followed by 15th October (the dates followed as normal thereafter, and subsequent Octobers were all their original length). This brought the calendar back in line with the rotation of the Earth. The difficulty here was that the Gregorian Calendar only applied to Catholic Europe: England and the rest of Protestant Europe did not adopt it until the 18th century, with Russia and Orthodox Christian Europe following in the 20th century (2).

Educated people in Elizabethan England were well aware of the new dating system, which they called ‘New Style’ or novo stilo. They sometimes used it, but most written documents in England were dated according to the Julian Calendar for the next 170 years. This is why the Armada seemingly arrived ten days before it actually did, in what would have been one of the greatest surprise attacks of all time. If it had happened.

There’s absolutely no problem in using the Julian Calendar for dates in England before 1752, but if your subject touches on international events, you can’t avoid using the Gregorian Calendar as well, because most of England’s foreign neighbours did. Some of the people who post the ‘anniversaries’ don’t appear to have picked up on the difference, or they are basing what they say on sources that either use the Julian Calendar without qualification or aren’t clear enough about the ten-day gap between the calendars.

At this point, I should declare an interest. I was part of the team that researched and staged the 1988 blockbuster Armada Exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. We stuck firmly to the Gregorian Calendar when it came to the course of the campaign.

Getting the dates mixed up is not just confined to people today, nor perhaps just to individuals.  The National Trust set off its national Fire Over England beacons on 19th July 1988, which was 400 years to the day since… the Armada was sitting in the port of La Coruña, awaiting a favourable wind. The reason given for this was that it was ‘only right’ to base the programme on the calendar used in England in 1588. This may have been so, but it does make me wonder (3).  The great pity about not using the Gregorian Calendar for all of the 1988 commemorations was that the days and the dates in that year and 1588 were the same. It could have given more of a sense of immediacy to the events.

This all might be dismissed as academic nitpicking, but I think if you’re going to declare this or that day as an anniversary, it’s better to be accurate than to be out by over a week.

Any way, I must go now. Some sails have just appeared on the horizon…

Blog and photo © Ian Friel 2014

(1) There are umpteen books on the Spanish Armada, but people interested in knowing more could read Colin Martin and Geoffrey Parker, The Spanish Armada, London (various editions 1988 on) or Armada 1588-1988 (Penguin 1988), the catalogue of the 1988 National Maritime Museum exhibition

(2) C R Cheney, Handbook of Dates for Students of History, London 1981, pp 10-11.

(3) ‘All at sea over when we duffed up the Dons’, The Guardian, 1988 (sadly my press-cutting doesn’t have an exact date!).

A ship called Barry

056ANot the ship called Barry, but a small fishing boat near Nerja, Spain, 1984:  it carries the sort of apotropaic eyes on the bow that could be seen on ships in the ancient Mediterranean

Emotional. Cultural. Spiritual. Political. Legal, even. Names can come with a lot of baggage, one way or another.   With people, names can tell you who a person is related to, who they were named after in the family, or sometimes even roughly when they were born.

Likewise, the names given to ships have always carried a lot of freight, so to speak. In medieval Europe, it was common to name ships after saints and other aspects of divinity. The principal aim here was doubtless apotropaic, to secure divine protection from harm on a voyage. The sea was a dangerous place in the Middle Ages – storms or accidents could wreck the biggest ships (and still can), and there was always the danger of attack by pirates or privateers.   This made ship-naming a matter of real significance, beyond the mere vanity of the owner.   In a similar spirit, eyes were often painted on ships in the ancient Mediterranean, to ward off evil (see the photo for a relatively recent example of this).

The regular re-use of a fairly limited number of names can lead to some confusion when it comes to studying medieval ships. For example, I’m currently finishing off a paper for The World of the Newport Ship conference at Bristol University (1).  As part of this, I’ve compiled a listing of English and Welsh ships from the years 1439-1451. This includes vessels trading to Bordeaux for wine (a big employer of English shipping at the time) and ships that were arrested for royal expeditions. As a fair number of vessels get mentioned more than once, I’ve tried to whittle the list down to what a minimum of 321 actual ships by eliminating repeat references – not an easy job.  To take just one instance, in 1443 the Devon port of Ottermouth had four vessels that were of the same type (picards) and were of the same size (30 tons). Each one was called Trinity!  What separates them out is that they were listed at the same time, and each had a different master.

When it comes to the kinds of names that these 321 vessels had, the results are predictable in one way (most were religious), but still interesting. Just over one in five of the ships (71) were named Marie or Mary, after the Virgin, the commonest name by a long way. This was followed by Trinity (35 ships), names related to Christ (Christ, Jesus, Saviour, 22 ships), George (for St George of England, 21 ships) and St Margaret (20 ships, a very popular medieval saint).   The fate of St Nicholas, better known to us as Santa Claus, is strange: despite being also well-known as a patron-saint of sailors, only 14 of these vessels were named for him. He was just ahead of St Christopher, the patron of travellers, with 12 ships, but both were ‘beaten’ by St Katherine (17 ships).  Even direct invocations of God, such as Grace Dieu, Goddesgrace and Godbefore, only occur in nine instances.

Of course, it’s possible that some of the ships with saints’  names denoted family members, but given that people were often named for saints, the religious connection would not have been lost on contemporaries.  Only a small number of ships had overtly non-religious names.  These included the name of the Moton of Fowey, named for a piece of armour, or perhaps just a sheep (‘mutton’).

Sometimes the religious names had a surname attached to them, identifying the owner.  An example of this was the 260-ton Margaret Talbot of Bristol in 1451, which belonged to John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury.  This sort of practise became much more common in the 16th century.

What is particularly interesting is that in the overwhelmingly male world of late medieval seafaring, over one-third (121, 38%) of the ships invoked feminine aspects of the divine.   Lest this seem too much like a kind of heavenly hit-parade, it has to be remembered that most of these names will have been intended to act as real defences against the very real terrors of the deep.

And the ship called Barry of Fowey?   Probably not a reference to the shipowner’s best mate Bazza, but a dedication to St Barry, an early-medieval saint reputedly buried at Fowey.

Blog © Ian Friel 2014, photo © Ian Friel 1984

1. http://www.bristol.ac.uk/history/events/conferences/newportship2014; registration has now closed.



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.






The Road to Hell

Conti-Atlas c 1935 - Version - Version 3

Weimar and the Ettersberg, from Conti-Atlas für Kraftfahrer (c 1935).  

   It’s strange what evidence of history you can find in banal, everyday objects.   On an impulse, years ago, I bought an old road atlas of Germany in a secondhand bookshop. To judge from internal evidence, Conti-Atlas für Kraftfahrer (‘Conti-Atlas for  the Motorist’) was published in about 1934, because it lists new designs of road signs that would come into use in Germany from 1st January 1935 (1).   The Conti-Atlas was designed in a bright, modern fashion for its day, with clear road maps and an appendix that listed cities and towns across Germany, 140 of them illustrated with streetmaps.

The names that are given to streets, squares and other public spaces reflect both the past and the present.  Even a cursory glance at the streetmaps in the Conti-Atlas reveals chilling evidence of the increasing grip of the Nazi party on German daily life in the year or so after Hitler became Chancellor in 1933.   A more detailed analysis of the streetmaps shows just how far this had gone.   Because the maps focus on town centres, they won’t include many suburban streets, and of course the analysis doesn’t cover places that did not have maps published in the Conti-Atlas. However, the roadbook featured plans of all the big German cities and towns, and quite a few of the smaller ones, so I think the results are reasonably representative.

Seventy-six of the 140 places did not seem to have any streetnames related to Nazism, though quite a few had names that celebrated the recently-deceased Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, the commander of the German army in the First World War and German President when Hitler came to power in 1933. The 64 other towns and cities all had roads and other features named after Hitler, Hermann Göring and the Nazi ‘martyr’, Horst Wessel.   Unsurprisingly, ‘Hitler’ names were the most common, linked with ‘strasse’ 44 times and ‘platz’ in a dozen other instances.   By renaming the old streets and squares of their towns, Nazi supporters were both trying to curry favour with the regime and underline its growing dominance.

Weimar c 1935 - Version 2Street-plan of Weimar  from Conti-Atlas für Kraftfahrer (c 1935). Adolf Hitler Strasse (printed upside-down) and Ettersburger Strasse are shown the left of the city centre.

The town of Weimar, featured in the Conti-Atlas map above, was the home of Goethe, the place where Germany’s 1919 constitution was promulgated (hence ‘Weimar Republic’) and a famous centre of German culture.   By the mid-1930s, very dark times had come to Weimar.  Its new Adolf Hitler Strasse led north from the town centre to Ettersberger Strasse, which ran to the Ettersberg mountain.   In 1937 the SS made a clearing in the forest on the Ettersberg and built a concentration camp there, Buchenwald.   Initially it was used for German inmates – Jews, Gypsies, Communists, Christians, gays, intellectuals or others, people seen by the regime as either inferior or as political enemies. Later, it became the biggest concentration camp in the German Reich, and provided slave labour for the German arms industry.  By the time the US Army liberated it in 1945, over 56,000 people had been murdered in one way or another in Buchenwald and its many sub-camps (2).

Following the war, the new Communist East German regime renamed Adolf-Hitler Strasse as Ernst-Thälmann Strasse, after the German Communist leader killed at Buchenwald in 1944.   For five years, the old concentration camp became a Special Camp run by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD. It was used to detain former Nazis and others, and some 7,000 more people died there.

At a time when many overtly nationalist parties have achieved significant victories in the European elections, and the Crimea has been annexed by Russia, it’s worth remembering what happened the last time Europe pulled itself apart.   The new streetnames in the Conti-Atlas are a reminder that events can take a turn for the worse very quickly.   And, as the Conti-Atlas shows, the road to Hell can be well-signposted.

Blog © Ian Friel 2014

(1)      Conti-Atlas für Kraftfahrer.   Deutschland 1:50000 Mit Den Reichskraftfarhrbahnen, Continental Cauotchoc-Compagnie G.M.B.H., Hannover.

(2)      http://www.buchenwald.de/en/69, Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorial Foundation, accessed 27 May 2014.