Lost Property: Identifying the Seventeenth-century Swash Channel Wreck

2010_complete_tcA photomosaic of the Fame wrecksite. (C) Bournemouth University

The Swash Channel leads to the main entrance of Poole Harbour in Dorset, and this is where the Swash Channel Wreck lies. The original name of the ship has been lost for close on 400 years.

Until now.

The Swash Channel Wreck is a Protected Wreck Site, one of 62 in the UK. This means that it has been designated by the government under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 on account of the historical, archaeological or artistic importance of the vessel, or of its contents or former contents.

The wreck of this 17th century armed merchant ship was first discovered by accident in 1990 and then rediscovered in 2004 by Wessex Archaeology. Subsequent work, led by Bournemouth University, has uncovered the structure and raised many artefacts. It’s a vulnerable site as well as an important one, and its condition is monitored.

Bournemouth University commissioned me to undertake a research project to see if it was possible to identify the ship. The subsequent hunt led through more than 15,000 manuscript pages in Dorset and London. It’s a bit of a cliché (to say the least) to compare historical research with detective work, but this project certainly felt like it. Many of the paper trails didn’t go anywhere, a few led to ‘possibles’, and one took me to what I believe is the right answer.

The Swash Channel Wreck is at a depth of between 7 and 9 metres on the edge of the Hook Sands. The hull is carvel-built and about 40 m of the port side survives. This is remarkable, because it includes some of the upperworks, though the structure is split into two pieces. Tree-ring evidence suggests that the hull contains some wood felled between 1619 and 1639 in the Netherlands or Germany, with at least one timber from a tree cut down in the year 1628. The hull had an outer plank sheathing, designed to help protect the main planking from marine organisms. This indicated that the vessel might have been on a voyage to or from the tropics.

Judging by the number of surviving gunports, the ship carried 26 or more carriage-mounted guns, though most of the weapons themselves are no longer there. No cargo was found in the hull, but some Dutch domestic pottery was discovered which dated to the years 1625-1650 (1).

So, the ship was probably Dutch and operated between c 1620 and 1650, or a bit later. With this sort of timeframe, you might think that finding the right ‘candidate’ for the wreck should have been easy. No problem.

Ah, no.

For one thing, there was no systematic government recording of shipwrecks in Britain until the Victorian era. For another, the period 1620-50 predates the first English newspapers by a long way.

1625-42 wreck incident map

Map showing wreck incidents listed in my 1625-1642 wreck survey: Dutch wrecks are marked in red, and many positions are approximate only, e.g. ships identified as wrecked ‘on the Isle of Wight’. (C) Ian Friel 2013

This is not to say that there are no records of wrecks. The archives of the 17th-century state are full of letters, accounts, legal proceedings and other material concerning sunken vessels, some of it very detailed. As part of the search for the Swash Channel Wreck I pulled together as many wreck references as I could find in British sources (mainly for England and Wales) for the years 1625-1642. First and foremost I wanted to identify the Swash Channel Wreck, but also needed to get a sense of the nature and scope of the evidence and to set the Dorset wreck in context. The year 1642 was chosen as the end-date for the survey because the English Civil War started then, and a lot of central government record-keeping went to pieces until the 1650s.

The survey turned up 142 references to losses of specific ships. These were mainly merchant vessels that were important enough to generate paperwork. No doubt there were also many losses of fishing boats and small merchantmen which went unrecorded, but in this case ‘important’ generally meant ‘valuable’.

The single most common reason for reporting these wrecks (in 74 of 142 cases) was that they were lost property, not that they were disasters that endangered life and limb. The loss of a ship could be a huge financial blow for the owner and for anyone who had goods aboard. Small wonder that they made a fuss about it. The fuss was frequently caused by illegal salvage operations.

By law, a sunken ship could only be declared a ‘wreck’ if no-one escaped alive from it. If there were no survivors, the remains of the ship and cargo belonged to whoever owned the ‘right of wreck’ on the stretch of shore where the incident took place. In many cases, this was the local lord of the manor. However, if there were survivors, then the ship and its contents were deemed to be the property of its original owners.

This all sounds straightforward enough, but coast dwellers and others often disregarded the legal niceties and just grabbed anything they could. The vast majority of rural inhabitants were very poor, and a wreck could dump vast wealth virtually on their doorstep.

People could go to extremes to get hold of such booty. One Dutch wreck on the Essex coast in winter 1633, for example, was picked over by three different groups of salvors. One party extracted goods worth at least £5 million in modern terms, but a man in one of the other groups died because he and his companions had to work deep inside the hull in freezing water up to their armpits (2).

Hoorn - port 1980The port of Hoorn. (C) Ian Friel 1980

Dutch wrecks were fairly common around the English coast in this time, a reflection of the rising power of the United Provinces of the Netherlands at sea. Their ships travelled the globe, and in January 1631 one particular vessel set sail from its home port of Hoorn, near Amsterdam, on a voyage to the West Indies. The ship was the Fame, an armed merchantman owned by two men, Hercules Garretson and Cornelius Veene. The vessel’s master was called John Jacobson Botemaker, and in all there were some 45 people on board.  The Fame must taken a course through the Dover Strait and along the south coast of England, because at some point in February it anchored off Poole.

It is not known why the Fame stopped off Poole, but the English Channel can be an inhospitable place in winter and perhaps the crew were seeking to shelter in Studland Bay. If this was the case, it didn’t work, because there was a storm, and the ship seems to have dragged its anchor (that is, the anchor would not hold). The Fame was ‘overset and overwhelmed’, driven on to a sandbank and ‘broken in pieces and torn up’. ‘Overset’ meant that the ship was knocked on its side, or capsized.   Fortunately, the master and crew all escaped alive and got to land – so no way was the ship legally a ‘wreck’ – but people from the Poole area still came out and filched tackle, gear, victuals and other items from the stricken vessel.

Hoorn 1980 - merchants' houses - EDITEDFormer merchants’ houses in Hoorn, decorated with 17th-century ship carvings. (C) Ian Friel 1980

On 2 March 1631, soon after the incident, Garretson and Veene made a complaint about the looting of the Fame to the English High Court of Admiralty (HCA: the HCA was the central court for maritime cases). They wanted the HCA to put together a commission to recover the stolen goods and arrest the people who had taken them. As there were survivors, the owners had a claim in English law to everything that had been stolen, and all that was left in the ship. This was also backed-up by an international agreement. In 1625 the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of Southampton specified that the remains of any Dutch ships and goods wrecked on the British coast had to be restored to their original owners. The Dutchmen had a cast-iron case, but despite this, it seems that the HCA did nothing.

Fortunately, there is a local source that adds to the story. Poole had its own Admiralty Court from the Middle Ages, and records of its proceedings survive from 1550. The Court was meant to meet about once a year, with the Mayor serving as ‘Admiral’ and ’24 honest seafaring men’ acting as the jury. The boundaries of Poole haven extended from the border with the port of Wareham, to North Haven Point, and then as far out to sea ‘as a man could discern a Humber barrel to float upon the ocean’. This distance has been estimated at about three miles, and would have taken in all of Studland Bay and the site of the Swash Channel Wreck (3).

The Poole Admiralty Court had jurisdiction over a wide range of issues within its small maritime empire. These included matters such as theft, piracy, derelicts, flotsam, valuables found on dead bodies, accidental death, impressment for royal service, as well as the regulation of fishing and the fish market (4).

In practice, most Court meetings were taken up with workaday discussions of harbour management and the enforcement of rules. Wrecks were seldom mentioned in the 17th-century proceedings, but in the Court record for 24 June 1631 there is an entry regarding a ‘Mr Newland’ who had undertaken for a ‘Fleming to clear the harbour of the wreck of the Fame of Hoorn’ (spelling modernised; ‘Fleming’ was a catch-all English term for anyone from the Netherlands or Flanders). Newland had also agreed to place two marker buoys on the site by 1 August, on pain of a colossal fine of £200 – millions, in modern terms (5).

It didn’t happen.

Nearly a year later, on 21 May 1632, the Admiralty Court noted that ‘Mr Robert Newland the Younger of the Isle of Wight’ had still not cleared the channel of the ‘Flemish wreck’. He was ordered to do this, and to put two buoys on it by 25 July, or face the fine (6).

These two entries place the wreck of the Fame ‘before Studland’ and in a ‘channel’. The highest single fine that the Court normally levied was £2, so the figure of £200 shows just how serious a problem the wreck was thought to be.

The clear implication is that the sunken vessel was situated on the main approach to Poole Harbour and represented a real danger to shipping. The evidence fits very well with the position of the Swash Channel Wreck, lying right on the channel leading to the modern harbour entrance. Also, the Wreck lies on its side on the edge of Hook Sand, and this corresponds to the statement that the Fame capsized on a sandbank.DSCF1361 (1)The head of a classical warrior, carved on the rudderhead of the Fame of Horn, as displayed in Poole Museum. (C) Bournemouth University 2017

The Fame, of course, slots right into the 1620-1650 timeframe for the Wreck derived from the archaeological evidence. There are other things about the archaeology that also tie in with the documentary sources. The wooden hull sheathing would certainly be consistent with a vessel en route to the West Indies, as the Fame was. No cargo was found in the Wreck, and none is mentioned in the HCA complaint about looting, suggesting that the Fame was sailing out in ballast – i.e. empty of cargo on the first leg of the voyage.

It’s also very significant that a lot of the Wreck’s guns are missing.  Cannon are heavy, expensive items that tend to stay put when they hit the sea bottom. It may be that they were removed by local looters, but the problem with this idea is that the missing guns included most of those on the port side, which was nestled into the seabed and would have been very difficult for opportunist salvors to access. There is another possible explanation, though. Modern archaeologists might not be the first people to dive on the site.

Robert Newland ‘the Younger’ of the Isle of Wight must have been one of the sons of Robert Newland Senior, a wealthy merchant and shipowner (died 1637) who had wharves and warehouses on the island at Newport and East Cowes (7). Four years prior to the loss of the Fame, Newland Snr was involved with a celebrated Dutch salvor called ‘Jacob the Diver’ in the salvage of cargo, gear and weapons lost in the Dutch Eastindiamen Kampen and Vergulde Draeck on the Needles in 1627 (8).

Jacob the Diver’s real name was either John Jacob Janson or Jacob Johnson. He worked in this country, France and Ireland between 1620 and 1633, and was perhaps still operating here in 1636. Jacob had some kind of diving apparatus, which he used to descend on wrecks, and seems to have been very successful at recovering sunken goods and equipment (9).

The ‘Fleming’ who was working with Robert Newland Junior could well have been Jacob the Diver. If this was the case, it means that the Swash Channel Wreck was worked on by one of the most accomplished divers and salvors in Europe. This would account for the disappearance of so many guns, particularly those on the port side, which would have been very difficult to reach.

Presumably, too, Newland and ‘the Fleming’ eventually also cleared the Fame out of harm’s way, breaking it up – the starboard side of the Wreck is long gone. The Court proceedings do not refer to it again after May 1632, and the shipwreck was eventually forgotten.

The links between the historical and archaeological evidence lead me to believe that the Swash Channel Wreck is the Fame of Hoorn.

Unfortunately, research by historians in the Netherlands has not so far turned up any references in the Dutch archives to the Fame or those associated with it. However, given its declared destination, it is possible that the Fame belonged to the Dutch West India Company (WIC), a body set up in 1621 to control Dutch trade with the Americas, the Caribbean and West Africa. Run in true 17th-century Dutch fashion by a body of merchant oligarchs, the Heeren XIX, it had power to make both war and peace, as well as to trade. Like the contemporary Dutch and English East India Companies, the WIC had a terrifying reach (10).

Many of the records of the WIC were destroyed in the 19th century, so identifying the Fame as a ‘Westindiaman’ in this sense may be very difficult. There is an alternative possibility, though. The Fame may have been an ‘interloper’, a vessel on a private trading voyage under the noses of the WIC.

What gives this credence is the lack of any real follow-up to the complaint made by Garretson and Veene to the HCA.   Dutch shipowners with real political and economic clout – like anyone backed by the WIC – often used diplomatic channels to pursue matters of wreck looting in British waters. The case of the Salmon of Amsterdam, wrecked and plundered on the Dorset coast in 1632, even reached the English Privy Council, King Charles I’s own advisory body. Years later, during the short-lived English Republic, goods were taken from yet another Dutch ship sunk off Poole, the St Adrian of Middelburg. The owners of the cargo were important people, and included a Dutch ambassador. The Dutch raised so much hell about the matter that the dispute eventually landed on the desk of the dying Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell (11).

The apparent lack of any HCA follow-up to Garretson and Veene’s complaint may well indicate that they were interlopers, and lacked the corporate pull needed to get what they wanted. It’s also significant that the Poole Admiralty Court made no reference to the looting of the wreck.  Perhaps some of the ‘honest seafaring men’ of Poole were not so honest, but even they would have been forced into action if an HCA commissioner had turned up from London.  Commissioners had real power. The Dorset landowner involved in pillaging the Salmon in 1632 was threatened with being dragged before the HCA in order to explain himself.  Only by pleading extreme old age was he able to avoid an unpleasant, and possibly terminal, trip to the capital.

Whatever the full facts of the Fame affair, the ship and its remaining contents joined all of the other lost property lying on the seabed around England.

Future research may uncover more about the stories of this ship, its owners and crew. For now, the Swash Channel Wreck at least has its name back.

The Fame of Hoorn.

 

Acknowledgments

Very special thanks are due to Bournemouth University and Dave Parham, Associate Professor in Maritime Archaeology, for commissioning me to research this ship, and for allowing me to use the Swash Channel Wreck images in this piece. Thanks are also due to Tom Cousins of Bournemouth University for his help with the images.

The discovery, excavation and conservation of the Fame have involved the efforts of maritime archaeologists, scientists, conservators and others over years. Without their skill, commitment and scholarship the loss of the ship would only be known now as one incident among many others.   Their work has made it special, and made it accessible to an international public.

I would also like to thank the staff of The National Archives, Kew and the Dorset History Centre, Dorchester, for their courtesy and assistance.   The DHC staff were especially helpful in locating the Poole Admiralty Book, not then listed in the main DHC catalogue, which was of enormous significance for this research.   The Admiralty Book is an important document, and deserves to be published in full. It is one more demonstration, if any was needed, that local record offices are treasure-houses of history.

The upper part of the rudder from the Fame, with its distinctive rudderhead carving, is now impressively displayed in Poole Museum along with other items from the ship, and is very well worth a visit.

Notes

DHC    Dorset History Centre, Dorchester

TNA     The National Archives, Kew

(1)  https://www1.bournemouth.ac.uk/news/2016-04-01/beach-find-may-be-historic-swash-channel-wreck; https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000082; D Parham et al. 2012 D Parham et al., Swash Channel Designated Wreck Site, Bournemouth University. This present piece is based on my report for Bournemouth University, ‘The Mercy of the Sea’ – Identifying the Swash Channel Wreck, 2013.

(2) HCA 24/89, nos 187, 193 and 202.

(3) HCA 24/87, No 171, ff 1-2v; H P Smith, ‘Poole’s ancient Admiralty Court’, Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeology Society, Vol 49, 1928, pp 125-31; DHCDC/PL/CLA 24, Poole Admiralty Book 1550-1834.

(4) DHC DC/PL/CLA 24, unnumbered folios at the beginning of the volume.

(5) DHC DC/PL/CLA 24, f 60.

(7) DHC DC/PL/CLA 24, f 61.

(8) TNA PROB/11/174, will of Robert Newland.

(9) A Roddie, ‘Jacob, the Diver’, Mariner’s Mirror, Vol 62, 1976, pp 255-69, pp 259-60.

(10) C R Boxer, The Dutch Seaborne Empire 1600-1800, London 1977, pp 24-26 and 48-50; a translation of the WIC’s charter can be found online at: avalon.law.yale.edu/17th_century/westind.asp

(11) The Mercy of the Sea, pp 38-47.

© Ian Friel 2017

A balinger for the King

4.22   Balinger draft 2Conjectural sketch of a balinger (C) Ian Friel 2015.

Balingers were the frigates of medieval sea warfare: relatively fast, relatively small and suitable for a wide range of tasks, short of taking on a major enemy ship singlehanded. Henry V owned a total of nineteen balingers during his short reign (1413-1422), and they were the most versatile craft in the royal fleet. They were used in sea patrols, expeditions, invasion and battle fleets, convoy work, sea trade, fishery protection, the rapid transit of war supplies, reconnaissance, secret work (still secret after 600 years!), coastal defence, the transport of VIPs and other duties.

The word derives from the Old French baleinier, meaning a ‘whale-boat’, a vessel that presumably would have needed some speed in order to catch and harpoon a whale. As a ship-type, ‘balinger’ is commonly found in English sources of the second half of the 14th century and the 15th century. Balingers were sometimes confused with ‘barges’ in the documents, which may have been a larger type of balinger, but I’m not sure there is much point in making a lot out of the distinction.

Balingers were driven by both oar and sail. As a fighting craft, a balinger seems to have been long and narrow, with a shallow, low-built hull (so the oars could reach the water). All this seems to have made the balinger reasonably fast. The ability of balingers to move under oars, independent of the wind, must have made them an asset in battle or in tricky situations, such as covert landings in shallow water. Unsurprisingly, they were also popular with pirates (1).

Only one detailed building account survives for one of Henry V’s ships, and it is for a balinger. This was the 120-ton balinger Anne, and the document has been published in an English translation by Dr Susan Rose. Only part of the account is extant (most of the wages sections are lost), but its evidence is supplemented by a contemporary summary of the original, known as an ‘enrolment’ or enrolled account. When the Anne material is looked at in conjunction with other documentary and archaeological evidence from the period, it is possible to build up a reasonably coherent picture of how one of Henry’s ships was built (2).

This is not the only reason why the account is important, however.  As far as we know, all English-built ships before 1416 were one-masted.  The Anne was a two-master.  The second mast was a mizzenmast, positioned behind the mainmast and carrying a triangular lateen sail.  Two-masted rig originated in the Mediterranean, and helped to improve the manoeuvrability of a vessel.  Henry’s shipwrights and sailors seem to have learned how to build and use this rig by following Italian examples.

The Anne was actually the second two-master built for Henry V that year.  The other one was the balinger George, built at Smallhythe in Kent.  It was completed just over a month before the Anne, making it the first two-masted vessel known to have come out of an English shipyard.

One of the other important features of the Anne‘s story is that the master shipwright who built it – and was almost certainly its designer – was John Hoggekyn.  Hoggekyn was the man who would go on to create the biggest ship ever seen in England up to that time, the Grace Dieu.

The project was under the administrative charge of William Soper, a Southampton merchant and politician who was deeply involved with the royal ships from 1414 onwards. He compiled both the detailed (‘particular’) account and the enrolled summary.  The additional information in the enrolment crucially includes the overall cost of the work, wages included, was £179/19s/1¾d. In terms of its economic impact, the cost of this project would be equivalent to just over £70 million nowadays (3).

Shipwrights - St David's Cathedral MisericordLate 15th/early 16th century misericord in St David’s Cathedral, Wales, showing shipwrights at work – or not – on a clinker-built hull.

The building team consisted of Hoggekyn as the master shipwright, with boarders, clenchers and holders working under him. Boarders were senior shipwrights who probably undertook the shaping and fitting of timber, boards, masts and spars, and supervised the clenchers and holders. The clenchers and holders were involved in fastening the clench-nails at the edges of the boards, and it was these nails that held the shell of hull planks together. Clenchers worked inside the hull to clench the nail-points over metals washers called roves, in order to secure the nails, and holders operated on the outside to hold the hails in place as they were clenched. It was also common to have a few boys on site to act as general dogsbodies. Clinker construction dictated the structure of the medieval English shipbuilding craft. A shipwright might begin as a boy, then progress to holder, clencher, boarder and finally to master shipwright (4).

It took just under eighteen weeks to build the Anne. In theory the venture began on Thursday 18 June 1416, though breaks for religious feast days seem to have meant that the work did not get into its stride for a couple of weeks, by which time 23 shipwrights were engaged on the project.

Unfortunately, most of the wages section of the account is missing from 31 July onwards, though the enrolment does show that other carpenters were employed, besides the shipwrights.  These men were  used to fell trees, most probably somewhere off-site.  This is important, because may explain why the account does not mention the purchase of key timbers such as floor timbers and futtocks (hull frames used in the bottom and sides of a vessel) or beams.  It is likely that the ‘missing’ timbers were felled in one of the king’s woods,  such as the New Forest.   This timber was free when used for a royal project, and therefore wouldn’t feature in the accounts as purchases.

The Anne was constructed in a purpose-built waterfront dock, evidently closed off from the water by a dam. It’s possible to follow the process of construction though the account, because the payment-dates for materials were noted. The first purchases were some small barrels of pitch and tar, but the first structural element recorded was, appropriately enough, the keel. This 68-foot (20.7 m) timber was bought on 21 June, and over the next eight days a further 85 hull timbers were bought, including pieces for the stem and stern assemblies. Sixty-seven timber shores were also acquired, to shore up the hull as it was built.

Over two tons, seven hundredweight of clenchnails and roves (2.4 metric tonnes) also came in the first couple of weeks. A total of 1,619 boards were also used in building the Anne, and three-quarters of them were acquired by the end week 3. This is exactly what one would expect with a clinker-built vessel, because the shaping and erection of the plank shell was a fundamental part of the building process.

The major part of the hull planking and framing was probably completed in July and August. The planks were caulked with moss and oakum, by caulkers employed for the purpose, and the usual pitch, tar and tallow (‘wax’) were provided to fully waterproof the structure. Four hundredweight of calfatnail (203.6 kg) were also bought between 7 August and 5 October. ‘Calfat’ comes from the French verb ‘calfater’, ‘to caulk’, suggesting that these were nails connected with caulking. These may have been little saddle-shaped fasteners used to hold down batten on the inner edges of the clinker planking, to help hold the caulking in place. Metal fasteners and caulking battens of this kind have been found in some clinker-built medieval shipwrecks in the Netherlands (5).

The first reference to the ship’s rig dates from 23 August, when 294 ells of canvas were bought from a prominent London merchant named John Reynwell (Reynwell had also supplied the rigging for the king’s great ship Trinity Royal). Medieval England could not produce its own canvas, and this sailcloth was imported from Vitré in Brittany. An additional 42 ells of canvas came from a Southampton supplier. An ell was a cloth measurement, equivalent to 45 inches (1.14 m), so in total the rolls of cloth used measured 1,256 ft or 383 m in length.

The mainsail of the Anne was a ‘square sail’ in modern terminology – a four-sided sail. This was divided into a ‘course’ or body, which contained the largest area of canvas, and detachable canvas ‘bonnets’. The bonnets were strips of canvas that could be laced to the bottom of the sail (and to each other) in order to increase sail area. We can’t be sure of the size of the mizzen sail, though it will undoubtedly have been much smaller than the mainsail.  Both sails must have been made in Southampton, because the account records the purchase of ‘sail needles’ for the work.

The balinger’s mainmast, or ‘great mast’, was bought on 9 September, with the mainsail yard, bowsprit, mizzenmast and mizzen yard following on 21 September (the enrolment also shows that the mast had a topcastle). A couple of days later, just over 1¼ tons of ropes were acquired, to make the vessel’s rigging. One of the last purchases made for the balinger was an iron mekhoke, a U-shaped metal cradle used to help support the main yard when it was lowered.

The account does not tell us anything about the deck, rowing-benches or superstructure of the Anne, though as an oared fighting vessel, the balinger would have had ports for oars cut at regular intervals in the upper planks of the hull. The balinger  probably also had fighting castles at bow and stern, but again there is no clear reference to materials used for these.

The Anne was set afloat on Thursday 22 October 1416, pulled out of its dock by means of two cables. and taken to moorings.  It eventually passed into the keeping of the official in overall charge of the king’s ships, William Catton, on 13 November 1416. It seems that the final fit-out of the Anne was undertaken by Catton. His account shows that the balinger was supplied with 68 oars, each 24 ft (7.3 m) in length.

However, not everything to do with this new warship was strictly utilitarian. Soper employed a painter named John Rendyng to paint the topcastle, stern and sail of the balinger. We don’t know what colours or images were used, though it’s likely that the balinger carried a representation of St Anne, after whom it was named (6).

The Anne had just one shipmaster during its time as a royal ship, Ralph Huskard. It is an odd fact that out of the 61 shipmasters employed by Henry V during his reign, only three commanded both balingers and sailing ships. Huskard was one of the three. Quite why there was this disparity between sailing-ship masters and ‘balinger men’ is not clear.  It is possible that some special ability was needed for the management of rowing crews, or that balingers were seen as inferior to sail-driven vessels in some way.

Whichever way you look at it, Huskard must have possessed significant skills and experience in order to be given command of such a new and expensive warship. Its crews numbered between 60 and 100 sailors, and living conditions in the narrow confines of the balinger’s hull must have been grim. Maintaining control of a large crew in such a situation will have been challenging, to say the least.

At 120 tons, the Anne was one of the three biggest balingers in the royal fleet, and had an active naval career. In 1417 it took part in a sea patrol, and in company with another royal balinger, the Craccher, captured two Spanish ships. It is also very likely that the balinger took part in the great sea battle off the Chef de Caux in 1417, against the French and their Genoese and Spanish allies. Huskard was one of the nineteen royal shipmasters granted a salary soon afterwards, almost certainly as a reward for service in battle.

The following year, the Anne was one of several vessels used to rush supplies of saltpetre and gunpowder to Henry’s invasion forces at Caen, and in 1420 it took part in another sea patrol. The sea war was pretty much over by this time, though the balinger seems to have been used to help transport Henry and his retinue on various cross-Channel voyages in 1420 and 1421.

Henry V died in August 1422 and most of his royal fleet was sold off in the three years that followed, including the Anne. On 27 June 1424, it purchased for £30 (about one-sixth of its building cost) by a man from Saltash in Cornwall named John Slogge (7).

There is still a lot that we do not know – and may never know – about balingers. Even identifying one from wreck remains could be difficult, unless a substantial part of the hull remained. However, it may happen one day, and then we will begin to learn more about these once-important, long-vanished ships.  Maybe, buried under mud and silt in some West Country creek, lie the remains of Henry V’s Anne.

(1) I Friel, Henry V’s Navy. The Sea-Road to Agincourt and Conquest 1413-1422, Stroud 2015, pp 45-46, 83-85; S Rose, The Navy of the Lancastrian Kings. Accounts and Inventories of William Soper, Keeper of the King’s Ships, 1422-1427, Navy Records Society Vol 123, London, p 42; Oxford English Dictionary, http://www.oed.com, under ‘balinger’.
(2) Rose 1982, 222-28.
(3) The National Archives, Kew, TNA E364/61, G m 1v; E364/59, G m 2r; https://www.measuringworth.com/ppoweruk
(4) I Friel, The Good Ship. Ships, Shipbuilding and Technology in England 1200-1520, London 1995, pp 39-46.
(5) H R Reinders 1979 in S McGrail (ed), Medieval Ships and Harbours of Northern Europe, BAR International Series 66, Oxford, pp 41-43.
(6) TNA E364/59, G m 1r.
(7) Friel 2015, pp 53-54, 160 and 178; TNA E364/61, H m 1v.

The graveyard of the great ships

IMG_5882

The site at Bursledon: to the left, the site of the Grace Dieu, to the right, the possible site of the Holy Ghost.

‘But how do we know that?’ is a good question for people to ask of historians and archaeologists, and one that they have every right to ask. On 12 October Historic England announced that it was going to investigate and assess a feature in the River Hamble in Hampshire that I had identified as the possible remains of Henry V’s great ship Holy Ghost.  The media reaction has been intense and very positive, but it has made me think some more about the ‘how do we know?’ question.  This blog aims to go some way towards answering it (1).

Back in 1982, when working in the (now sadly long-gone) Archaeological Research Centre of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, I was looking one day at an aerial photograph of the Burseldon stretch of the River Hamble in Hampshire. Near to the known wreck of Henry V’s great ship Grace Dieu I spotted a shape resembling one end of a large ship, marked in the mud. This led me to think that a sizeable and perhaps very old vessel might be buried there. Knowing that that there was documentary evidence that the Holy Ghost had been laid up at Bursledon, it made me think that there was a possibility that the ‘ship-shape’ might mark the location of the Holy Ghost. My then Head of Department, Dr (now Professor) Sean McGrail, looked at the evidence I had put together in a document entitled ‘Bursledon II?’ (Bursledon I being the Grace Dieu) and decided that ARC would investigate further.   The fieldwork was decidedly low-tech – we probed the mud with long metal rods from a boat – but about six feet under the mud the rods started hitting something solid in the area of the ship-shape. I can still remember the sense of relief that we had not come on a wild-goose chase!

The presence of the solid object was also confirmed by sonar work carried out by a University of Southampton postgraduate student, Hanna Steyne, in 2001 (2). Historic England will be undertaking further work next year and it is hoped that this will tell us whether or not the Holy Ghost lies here (Historic England is also assessing the site for statutory protection under the Protection of Wrecks Act).  I think that there is a real possibility that this is the Holy Ghost, but leaving aside the identity of the site for the moment, I wanted to write something about the documentary evidence for fates of the Holy Ghost and Henry’s three other great ships.

The four great ships were clearly intended as war-winning weapons. They were hugely expensive, absorbing about one-third of total spending on the royal ships between 1413 and 1422, but three of them seem to have justified the vast amounts spent on them.   Their basic details were as follows (3):

Trinity Royal, 500-540 tons burden, built (rebuild) at Greenwich, Kent, entered service 1415

Holy Ghost, 740-760 tons burden, built (rebuild) at Southampton, entered service 1415

Jesus, 1,000 tons burden, built at Smallhythe, Kent, entered service 1417

Grace Dieu, 1,400 tons burden, built at Southampton, entered service 1420

The Trinity Royal and Holy Ghost took part in the two battles in 1416 and 1417 that broke French seapower and opened the way for Henry V’s second, much deadlier invasion of France in 1417. The Jesus very probably took part in the 1417 battle as well, though the Grace Dieu was completed too late to play a serious part in the sea war, and its one known voyage ended in fiasco (4).

The great ships were all moored in the River Hamble from the latter part of 1420. With a wooden fort called the Bulwerk at its mouth, and two heavy harbour defence chains, the Hamble provided a sheltered and well-defended anchorage for the king’s fleet (5).

Henry V died in 1422, and most of his remaining ships were sold off in the next few years. The great ships were kept, however – perhaps the royal government believed that they could form the core of a reborn royal fleet, if needed. A lot of money was spent on keeping them afloat – paying shipkeepers to live aboard as small maintenance crews, employing shipwrights and caulkers, and purchasing pitch, tar and other materials, along with extra pumps.   Because they were mostly  organic objects, Henry’s warships were wasting assets, subject to decay and sudden leaks. The leakiest of the lot seems to have been the Holy Ghost, which in 1423 received the attentions of a dyver named Davy Owyn, who worked under the hull to stop up cracks. This may be the earliest record of a diver being used for ship maintenance work (6).

HMS Victory - shores in dockThough Nelson’s HMS Victory lies in a Georgian stone dock, it is supported at the sides by shores, just as the Holy Ghost was 

However, by the spring of 1426 the damage caused by natural decay, bad repair and storms left the Holy Ghost in a very poor condition. The authorities must have feared that it was close to sinking. The mast, rigging and much other gear and stores were removed, and taken to the king’s storehouse at Southampton for safekeeping.   Meanwhile, a dock was dug for the ship. This was no mere hole in the riverbank, but a construction project that occupied 96 labourers for much of May and June 1426. Timber for the work was bought on land owned by Titchfield Abbey, and trundled to the site by cart.   The timber consisted of a dozen large pieces of wood to go underneath the hull as stocks or keel blocks, and 100 shores to support the ship at the sides.   The time, money, resources and care used in making the dock strongly suggests that at the time the aim was to preserve the ship for future repair or rebuilding.

As much water and sand as possible was emptied out of the ship before it was docked on 21 June 1426.   The operation involved 80 sailors, as well as an unknown number of craftsmen, and they were kept fed and watered with supplies of bread, fish and local Hamble cider. Jordan Brownyng, the man who served as the ship’s only master from 1415 to 1422, went to live aboard as shipkeeper. He had already worked as shipkeeper on the Holy Ghost when it was afloat, but that was with a team of four other men.  This time, he was alone, and according to the records of the king’s ships he spent the next 1,622 days, sometimes working day and night, pumping out water and baling out mud.   This backbreaking and ultimately futile job finished about the end of November 1430. Brownyng left the ship, and this must mark the point at which the government gave up all hope of ever repairing the Holy Ghost, and left it to rot (7).

But where was the dock? The account for docking the ship is very detailed, but ironically is very vague as to location – ‘near Southampton’, is all it says, which is not much help.   Though the government had given up on the Holy Ghost as a ship, it was still used intermittently over the next twenty years or so as a source of materials, and documents from this period tell us where the ship lay.   The accounts for the king’s ships between 1439 and 1442 are explicit about the Holy Ghost’s location. When 254 boards were salvaged from the ship’s cabins, the accounts say that the boards came out of ‘the king’s ship Holigoste, being at Bruselden’ (Bursledon). This is backed up by the previous set of accounts, which records payments to workmen taking iron chains, probably shroud chains, out of (in this order) the Holy Ghost and Trinity Royal. The men took the ironwork in a boat to Southampton, the account noting that the boat went from ‘Brisselden (Bursledon) and Hamble where the said decayed ships in this way are…’. To my mind, the evidence of the accounts is incontrovertible: the Holy Ghost and its dock were at Bursledon.   The last set of royal accounts to mention the ship, from 1447-52, describe it as ‘sunk in the sea (sic) and in this way broken’.   As the Holy Ghost never went anywhere after 1426, this phrase most likely means that the ship and its supports had collapsed into the dock, and by 1452 the vessel was mostly underwater (8).

Bursledon was also the last resting-place of the biggest of the great ships, the Grace Dieu.  The ship stayed afloat at least 14 years, moored in the Hamble from 1420 to 1434. Part of the ship’s giant mainmast was removed in 1432, probably to lighten the vessel, but it was finally laid up in a dock on the mud at Bursledon on 1 August 1434. The dock for the Grace Dieu does not seem to have been anywhere near as deep or elaborate as that for the Holy Ghost – there is no record of stocks or shores, for example – though it was surrounded with a security hedge (probably thorn bushes, natural barbed wire) and an enclosure designed to deflect the water current from the hull. Tellingly, no shipkeeper was left aboard.   Just under five years later, on the night of 7 January 1439, the ship was hit by lightning. It caught fire and probably burned to the waterline.   Large amounts of ironwork and timber were salvaged from the wreck, but then the derelict was left alone, to re-emerge in public consciousness in the 19th century (9).

The end for the other two great ships was less dramatic.   At first, the Trinity Royal was moored at Bursledon. At some point between 1 September 1429 and 31 August 1430 (8 Henry VI), its single great mast, shroud, top and various other items of gear were removed. Taking out the mast was a difficult job, and a man was sent from Southampton to Sandwich to recruit a team of 15 ‘discreet and wise’ foreign shipmasters, led by a man named Peter Johnson. These men carried out the work, assisted by a number of other mariners. The ship was then towed from Bursledon to Hamble. It was emptied of mud and ballast, and laid up in a ‘digging’ (fossura) in the mud (le Wose – ‘ooze’), because of its decay. It is probable that by ‘Hamble’, Hamble-le-Rice (modern Hamble) was meant rather than Hamble Hook on the other side, which was normally called either ‘Hook’ or ‘Hamble Hook’ (10).

The mention of a ‘digging’ rather than a dock, and the lack of any expenditure on wooden stocks and shores to support the hull, may mean that its deterioration was too far advanced to make it worth preservation. It looks as if the Trinity Royal was simply dumped.

The reference that it was towed from Bursledon to Hamble in order to be laid up is pretty conclusive evidence that the Trinity Royal was at Hamble.  However, additional confirmation is offered by the 1437-39 payment (mentioned above) for taking iron chains out of this ship and the Holy Ghost.   Likewise, a payment account for removing cabin boards from the Trinity Royal between 1439 and 1442, says that the ship was at Hamble (11).

The planned fate of the fourth great ship, the Jesus, was at first similar to that of the Holy Ghost.   Like the Trinity Royal, the Jesus was initially moored at Bursledon. Its mast, shroud, top, yard, bowsprit and various other pieces of gear were taken out there in August 1432, and transported to the king’s storehouse in Southampton.   The ship was subsequently towed by stages to Southampton, where it was docked. The dock was built between 1 September 1432 and 31 August 1433 by a group of labourers, and the ship was put on the stokkes within it for ‘remaking, repairing and renewing’. The intention of the king’s Council at the time was for the ship to be ‘made and repaired’ at some future date, which explains the care and no doubt expense lavished on the dock. However, there is no record of any refurbishment work being carried out on the Jesus, though it does not seem to have been mined for timber, boards and nails in the ways that the other great ships were (12).

On 3 December 1446 ‘one feeble and perished ship called the Jesus… lying at Southampton’ was granted to Christopher Barton and Richard Greneacres, servants of Cardinal Beaufort.  The subsequent fate of the ship is unknown. The remains of a large ancient vessel were uncovered off American Wharf at Southampton in 1848, and it was suggested in 1971 that this might have been the hull of the Jesus, though some doubt has been cast on this identification (13).

Whether the ship-shape that I spotted on the aerial photograph in 1982 proves to be the remains of the Holy Ghost or not, it does not alter the fact that the official records of the king’s fleet show that the great ship was docked at Bursledon.   Anyone travelling along the Hamble in the years between the summer of 1434 and early January 1439 would have been confronted by the spectacle of three enormous derelicts, the Trinity Royal at Hamble and the Holy Ghost and Grace Dieu at Bursledon. Even in their decay, the great ships must still have made most contemporary shipping look like minnows.

© Ian Friel 2015

(1) Historic England, 12 October 2015: http://historicengland.org.uk/news-and-features/news/historic-wreck-identified.

(2) H. Steyne 2003. An integrated investigation into Henry V’s warships the Holigost and Trinity Royal, and the Bursledon II wreck site in the River Hamble, Hampshire, University of Southampton: unpublished dissertation

(3) I. Friel, Henry V’s Navy – The Sea-Road to Agincourt and Conquest 1413-1422, The History Press Stroud, 2015, pp. 99-157 (passim) and 164-66.

(4) S Rose, ‘Henry V’s Grace Dieu and mutiny at sea: some new evidence’, Mariner’s Mirror Vol 63, 1977, pp. 3-6.

(5) Friel 2015, pp. 138-41.

(6) S. Rose (ed.), The Navy of the Lancastrian Kings. Accounts and Inventories of William Soper, Keeper of the King’s Ships 1422-1427, Navy Records Society Vol. 123, London 1982, pp. 122-24.

(7) 1426 docking: Rose 198, pp. 122-24; Titchfield Abbey was on the same side of the river Hamble as the ‘ship-shape’ site at Burseldon; Jordan Brownyng’s job to 1430: The National Archives, Kew (TNA) E364/69, S m 2r.

(8) 1439-42: TNA E364/76, C m 1r; 1437-39: TNA E364/73, N m1r; TNA E364/86, G m 1r.

(9) I. Friel, ‘Henry V’s Grace Dieu and the wreck in the R Hamble near Bursledon, Hampshire’, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 1993, Vol 22, pp. 10-11.

(10) TNA E364/69, S m 2r.

(11) TNA E364/73, N m 1r; TNA E364/76, C m 1r; E101/53/7; E364/81, G mm 1r-2r.

(12) TNA E364/69, S m 2r; E364/81, G mm 1r; 30 iron chains from the Jesus, were sold off in December 1443, but these had probably been removed back in 1432 and taken to the storehouse.

(13) TNA E364/81, G m 2r; Rose 1982, pp. 55 and 247 and notes. 195 and 345; F.T. O’Brien, ‘Was this the Jesus?’, Mariner’s Mirror, Vol. 57, 1971, p. 325; reply by R.C. Anderson, Mariner’s Mirror, Vol. 59, 1973, p.48.

Fireships and terror weapons (part 1)

 

07A_2

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

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.

 

 

 

 

 

For those in peril…

St Winnow bench-end ship - Version 2

 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.