The Great Ship of Snargate

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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Scratched records

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A thank-offering for a successful voyage, or a fearful prayer before setting sail?  A 13th/14th century ship graffito in Rochester Cathedral, Kent.

To many people the word ‘graffiti’ conjurs up images of desecrated walls, gang-tags and urban decay.   Although some graffiti has a more positive purpose and image, as with the work of Banksy and other mural artists, it remains controversial and is never going to be popular with everyone (let me also say at the outset that I’m not advocating that people nowadays should put graffiti in places where they don’t have permission to do so).

The making of graffiti was once commonplace and apparently widely tolerated (1).  Originally taken from an Italian verb meaning ‘to scratch’, the term ‘graffiti’ (singular: graffito) was first applied to unofficial markings made on building walls and other surfaces in the mid-19th century (there was no special word for it in English before that date).   The modern negative associations of graffiti seem to be tied up with the invention of the paint-spray can in the mid- 20th century.  All of sudden, the spray can made it possible to make large graffiti quickly: the speed of the spray gave less time for anyone to intervene and stop the process.

What could be called ‘historical graffiti’ – graffiti that predates the spray can – is perhaps most familiar to people from ancient churches, which tend to survive better than ancient secular buildings.  That said, you can often discover historical graffiti in old houses, such as the remarkable 16th/17th collection in Tudor House Museum, Southampton (2).  Stone and plaster were the two most common materials used for scratched graffiti, but it can be found on wood, glass and any other surface that could take a mark.  Sometimes graffiti was made with pencil, charcoal, paint or some other medium, but these do not survive as well as scratches.

For anyone studying graffiti as historical evidence, there is a problem.  Unless the context of a graffito can be dated closely in some way, you have to rely on comparative dating, based on the style or content of the image.  For this reason, some scholars think that this stuff is useless as evidence of the past.

There is also the danger of fakery, but I think that this is a small problem.  It can happen, though. For example, an (apparent) Viking-Age runic inscription was once discovered in Sweden (3).  When translated it read:

Joe Doakes went east in 1953 – he discovered Europe, Holy Smoke.

However, there’s no money in faking graffiti.  I also suspect that there is little fun in it, beyond the dubious pleasure of getting one over on us poor, trusting scholars.

But are historical graffiti worth preserving and recording?  I believe so.  For periods before literacy was commonplace and paper was cheap, drawing or writing graffiti was the only way that most people could set down their thoughts, feelings or very existence in durable form.  To my mind, this transforms something that may seem trivial and banal into a precious survival.  It can be really depressing to enter a medieval church and discover that some zealous former vicar or churchwarden had the walls scraped to remove what they doubtless regarded as ‘eyesores’.  In removing old graffiti they also removed part of the personality and history of the building.

Most scratched graffiti is small-scale, which is not surprising, as it takes less time and energy to draw a small image than a large one.   Any historic graffito that is over about 30 cms or a foot across counts as ‘big’.  The largest one I have ever seen is in Dartington Hall, Devon, a truly stupendous image of a 15th/16th century ship that is around 3 m in length (4).

In the past, there were probably as many reasons for making graffiti as there might be nowadays: love, hate, lampooning people, expressing your identity, your beliefs and so-on.  Some graffiti has a very dark purpose, such as venting the bile of racists and other extremists, but other examples can be more hopeful.  The British writer Nicholas Monsarratt, working in South Africa in the early days of apartheid, saw something chalked up on a public building that to him conveyed both despair and hope, in three words: ‘God is black’ (5).

Up until the Protestant Reformation of the mid-16th century, a proportion of the graffiti in English churches most probably had some kind of votive purpose.  This means that it was a prayer for help and safety in the future, or a thanksgiving for a trial safely overcome.   Such an explanation is certainly credible when it comes to a lot of medieval ship graffiti.  Seafaring was very dangerous, and a votive image might, it was believed, invoke the intercession of a saint or the Virgin Mary on the sailor or passenger’s behalf.

Probably the commonest type of old graffiti is the sort that just says ‘I was here’.  In Western Esplanade, Southampton, near the harbour, there is a rather decrepit brick wall that displays some of the most poignant graffiti of this kind that I have ever seen.   It includes a smiley face next to the phrase ‘GO ILLINOIS’ along with many names, including those of ‘H.Z.E. ATHERING OF ZION’, ‘CURT HODGES’ and  ‘CAL AVERY N(ew) Y(ork)’.  They all seem to have been made in 1944 by American soldiers waiting to board ships for the battles in France.  For some of these men, these scratched records were probably the last signatures they ever wrote.

Blog © Ian Friel 2014 and photo © Ian Friel 2013

(1) J Fleming, Graffiti and the Writing Arts of Early Modern England, London 2001, p 33.

(2) There is a very exciting project recently undertaken in East Anglia, the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey, which has an impressive online catalogue of images: see http://www.medieval-graffiti.co.uk; Tudor House Museum, Southampton: www.tudorhouseandgarden.com.

(3) Quoted in A Rieth (trans D Imber), Archaeological Fakes, London 1967, p 160.

(4) For the image, which I recorded in 1983, see p 73 of I Friel, ‘Devon Shipping from the Middle Ages to c 1600’, in M Duffy et al. (eds), The New Maritime History of Devon, London 1992.

(5) In Japan, anti-racist activists have started and innovative programme to use Google maps to record the nature and location of anti-Korean graffiti in part of Tokyo.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-trending-26635848; Nicholas Monsarratt, The Pillow Fight, London 1965, p 366.