Where’s the hero now?


Still a hero?  A reconstruction of Drake’s Golden Hind, London 2013.

People have all sorts of heroes and heroines – actors, musicians, sports stars, even politicians.  The late Tony Benn, who sadly died a couple of days ago, was a hero to many people, because of his dedication to his beliefs.  And an anti-hero to others, for the same reason (1).

The word ‘hero’ used to be mainly associated with people engaged in war or politics, but the definition of heroism has changed a lot over time.  The association with conflict is still there, but the notion of ‘who can be considered heroic’ has widened.  It now includes people who fight indomitably against ill-health or adverse social conditions, or achieve something else of importance against great odds.

However, the more you know about heroes in history, the more problematic they can become.    For example, the Victorian historian J A Froude acknowledged that there was something of the pirate about Francis Drake and John Hawkins, the great 16th-century English seafarers, but also wrote that ‘the instinct of their countrymen gave them a place among the fighting heroes of England, from which I do not think they will be deposed by the eventual verdict of history’ (2).

Froude saw liberty and Protestantism as interlinked, and in his opinion Drake and his colleagues saved England from the tyranny of 16th-century Catholic Spain. Nowadays, though, we tend to take a much more relativistic view of the past than did Froude.  We have far less faith in ‘the eventual verdict of history’ and recognise that historical ideas tend to change as society itself changes.   Does this make people like Drake any less heroic?  Undeniably, he led the second-ever circumnavigation of the globe, fought the Spanish Empire and played a big part in the defeat of the Spanish Armada.  Equally undeniably, Drake also operated as a pirate, took part in the transatlantic slave trade with Hawkins, helped to ramp-up the tension between England and Spain, and deserted his post at a critical point in the Armada campaign to go after a prize ship.   Where’s the hero now?

The answer is that Drake was all of these things – one of the first English national heroes to come from humble origins and a defender of his country, but also a pirate and sometime slave-trader.   The great heroes of history were probably all flawed, in one way or another, because they were human beings.  This doesn’t mean that you cannot admire the good and brave things they did, just that uncritical hero-worship needs to be avoided (3).  In the wrong hands, the legend of a national hero from the past can end up being used to justify bludgeoning people in the present.

Do I have a hero from history?  Sort of.  It’s unlikely that you will have heard of him.   He was an English master shipwright named Henry Hellewarde, who lived in the late 13th and early 14th centuries.   His only known major achievement was the successful construction of a large war galley for King Edward I, one of a number of such vessels built between 1294 and 1296 (4).  Short of building a castle or a cathedral, constructing a big galley was one of the most daunting engineering projects of the time.  The galley had about 80 oars and was built at York, a big city, but a long way from the sea and not a good place to build a large warship, even then.

The building account for the galley allows us to work out a few things about Hellewarde: as a master shipwright, he knew how to design and make a complex oared fighting ship; he was an able man, managing a large team and overseeing a major project that consumed a great deal of valuable raw materials;  he was a canny operator, emerging from the project as one its highest earners (the other high earners were all officials or merchants); he was a successful craftsman, able to complete the galley and get it into service at sea.

Little else is known about Hellewarde.  On another occasion he was accused of taking part in theft of goods from a ship, but there is no way of knowing if the accusation was true.  What is true is that he was able to create one of the most challenging vessels of his day and make it work.  For those things, I admire him.   I don’t know what he thought about the poor or the position of women, what he was like to his kids (though three of them seem to have worked for him), or much else that belongs to conventional biography.  Perhaps that’s just as well.

Blog © Ian Friel 2014, photo © Ian Friel 2013

(1)      I know that using the word ‘heroine’ (the person) is becoming less and less common, partly because it sounds like ‘heroin’  (the drug), but also for reasons of feminism, though compromising on the male form of a name as the current usage does not strike me as a particularly feminist thing to do.

(2)      J A Froude, English Seamen in the Sixteenth Century, London 1909, p 140.

(3)      John Cummins’ biography, Francis Drake.  The Lives of a Hero (London 1995), is particularly good on the question of the reality of Drake’s life and the subsequent myth-making.

(4)      The original document is in The National Archives (TNA),  E101/5/8.  You can find out more about Hellewarde, the York vessel and the other 1295 vessels in my 2013 Gresham College Lecture, ‘1295: the Year of the Galleys’: the transcript and a video are available at http://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/1295-the-year-of-the-galleys; the video can also be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rp3R46dAmj0.




The site of the Grace Dieu, during fieldwork in the 1980s.  The ship was huge, in medieval terms: the archaeologist in the red wetsuit is standing on the end of the keel at the stern – the other end of the ship is slightly off-camera to the right.

Next year sees the 600th anniversary of Henry V’s defeat of the French at the battle of Agincourt in 1415, during the Hundred Years War.  The battle was the first major triumph in a series of campaigns that led to the short-lived English conquest of Normandy.

Agincourt is remembered in ways that the other battles of the Hundred Years War are not.  This is undoubtedly due to Shakespeare’s Henry V, with its account of a victory won against desperate odds.   However, what often seems to get forgotten is that in order to fight in France the English armies needed ships to get them there.  Shakespeare asks his audience to imagine Henry’s ‘brave fleet’ setting sail and crossing the Channel (Act 3, Sc 1), but this is really only a piece of scene-setting and is not at the heart of the drama.

Henry’s two major invasions of France, in 1415 and 1417, relied for transportation on conscripted English merchant ships and hired vessels from the Low Countries.  The royal fleet, ‘the king’s ships’, was far too small for this purpose by itself, even though Henry had expanded it rapidly: there were eight royal ships in 1413, but by the summer of 1417 the figure had risen to thirty-three.   His ‘royal navy’ was the largest of its kind for decades, and would not be surpassed in size for a century. Medieval royal ships were used for a variety of tasks – even trading voyages – but there can be little doubt that in this case the fleet was built for war. Henry clearly realised that in order to secure the passage of his troops across the Channel, he needed to be able to defeat the ships of the French and their Genoese and Spanish allies.

The English broke French naval power in two battles, off Harfleur (1416) and in the Bay of the Seine (1417) (1).   They also managed to capture eight Genoese carracks in these and other seafights.   At a time when most English seafarers would probably have thought a ship of 150 tons was ‘big’, the carracks were massive, ranging between 400 and 600 tons.

Ship size and crew size were critical factors in medieval naval warfare: to put it crudely, ‘bigger was better’, and it is likely that some of these captures were due to the presence of English-built ‘great ships’ in Henry’s fleet.  Ranging from around 500 to 1400 tons burden (theoretical cargo capacity), they were among the biggest ships ever constructed in medieval northern Europe. They were clinker-built, a technique used in north Europe since the early Middle Ages, unlike the Genoese carracks, which had Mediterranean carvel hulls, a technology not adopted in the north until the mid-1400s (2).  Three of the four great ships took part in the 1416-17 operations, the Trinity Royal, the Holy Ghost and the 1,000-ton Jesus.  The biggest of the four, the Grace Dieu, was not ready for sea until 1420, by which time the naval war was more or less over.

The royal fleet was based in a defended anchorage in the river Hamble, off Southampton water. A wooden tower, ‘the Bulwark’, was built at the mouth of the river, with a garrison of soldiers.  Two giant chains were also installed there, to be used to block the river entrance if enemy ships appeared.  In November 1417 there were three great ships, six captured carracks and two other royal ships anchored in the Hamble, more than 5,600 tons of shipping, an incredible concentration of naval might for the period (3).

Henry V died in 1422, and with conflict at sea virtually over (the English then controlled the coast of Normandy), the royal fleet was mostly sold off.   The Trinity Royal, Holy Ghost and Grace Dieu were all taken to the Hamble and eventually laid up there. The Grace Dieu, Henry’s greatest ship, was struck by lightning in January 1439 and mostly burned out, but the fate of the others in less clear (4).

The remains of the Grace Dieu were identified in the early 1930s, and it is now protected under the 1973 Protection of Wrecks Act.    Subsequent surveys, including an investigation using a Chirp sub-bottom profiler, have backed up historical accounts of the size of the ship.   The Chirp survey found substantial hull remains in the mud, suggesting that the original ship was perhaps over 60 m in length and around 16 m wide (5).

It is possible that the remains of the Holy Ghost and Trinity Royal still lie in the Hamble, but there might also be two other vessels from Henry’s fleet there.  Two of the captured Genoese carracks, named the Marie Hampton and the Andrew by the English, sank at anchor in 1420, apparently within the Hamble.   The English did not know how to repair carvel-built hulls, and this probably helps to explain their loss (6).

The great ships and the carracks represented the two major shipbuilding traditions of medieval Europe at their apogee.  The Grace Dieu itself is a wreck site of great significance, but if remains of the other great ships and the carracks also survive, it would make the Hamble one of the most important areas for maritime archaeology in Europe.

Blog © Ian Friel 2014; photo © Ian Friel 1984

I am a member of the English Heritage Historic Wrecks Panel, but the opinions expressed here are purely personal ones, and do not represent the opinions of the Panel, its other members or of English Heritage.

(1) N A M Rodger, The Safeguard of the Sea.  A Naval History of Britain.  Volume One 660-1649, London 1997, pp 143-46.

(2) 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 1982, pp 247-8; I Friel, ‘Henry V’s Grace Dieu and the wreck in the R Hamble near Bursledon, Hampshire’, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, Vol 22, 1993, pp 3-19.

(3) Rose 1982, p 39; The National Archives (TNA) E364/59, H, m 1; Calendar of Patent Rolls 1416-22, p 1417.

(4) The Jesus was taken to Southampton: its remains may have been discovered (and destroyed) in the 19th century; https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/discover/maritime/map/grace-dieu/; see also the excellent English Heritage Guide Ships & Boats: Prehistory to 1840 (p 7 refers to the Grace Dieu).

(5)  http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/iha-ships-boats/R M K Plets et al, ‘The use of a high-resolution 3D Chirp sub-bottom profiler for the reconstruction of the shallow water archaeological site of the Grace Dieu (1439), River Hamble, UK’, Journal of Archaeological Science 26, 2009, 408-18 (this paper is downloadable).

(6) I Friel, The Good Ship. Ships, Shipbuilding and Technology in England 1200-1520, London 1995, pp 173-74.

The Lost Lands


Modern-day Climping Beach – once part of the village of Atherington

From tales of Atlantis to the Arthurian romance of Lyonesse, there is no shortage of legends about land that has sunk beneath the waves, but inundations of this kind are not just fantasy.  Towns and villages really have been lost to the sea in the past; the current bad weather and fears about the climate have brought coastal change into the headlines as perhaps never before.  In England, the most famous ‘sunken’ town is Dunwich (the subject of a fascinating research project), but the West Sussex coast also has its lost places, one of which is the village of Atherington, near Littlehampton (1).

Strictly speaking, though, Atherington is not ‘lost’ at all.  You can still find it, a place with a few cottages lining the road leading south from the pretty village of Climping to the beach.  However, a detailed map of 1606 shows that Atherington was larger 400 years ago, with sixteen buildings and a  small crossroads in the centre.  The map is credible, partly because it was drawn by the surveyor John Norden (c 1547-1625 – one of the greatest cartographers of his day), but also because some features can still be traced on the ground, such as the line of the road from Climping (2).  Nowadays, about half of the 1606 area of Atherington is still on land, covered by the open fields of the modern car park.  The other half is now a beach, quite a bit lower than the land behind, suggesting that this part of old Atherington was largely rubbed out by the English Channel (3).

Atherington was not the only place in the vicinity to be attacked by the sea.   There was another settlement nearby called Cudlow, which really is lost.   Cudlow was a small port in the Middle Ages, and even contributed a couple of ships to a royal fleet in 1343, but eventually it succumbed to the waves.  The last record of someone living at Cudlow comes from 1620 (4).

Records suggest that the decline of these places was not due to sudden cataclysms, but to the relentless chipping-away of the land by coastal erosion.  Fascinating though it is, the story of these two villages is also a disturbing reminder of Nature’s ability to erase our works from the face of the Earth.

Blog and photo © Ian Friel 2014

 (1) http://www.dunwich.org.uk.

(2) The Victoria County History contains a succinct and interesting history of Climping and Atherington: T P Hudson (ed), A History of the County of Sussex: Volume 5 Part 1: Arundel Rape: south-western part, including Arundel, London 1997 pp 126-47; the text can be accessed online for free at http://www.british-history.ac.uk.  Norden’s map is in the West Sussex Record Office, Add. MSS 2031: a discussion of it, together with a two tracings, can be found in P M Johnston, ‘Notes on an early map of Atherington Manor’, Sussex Archaeological Collections, Vol. 44, 1901, pp 147-66.

(3) The coast here may also have sunk some 40 cm (about 16 ins) since 1606, part of the long-term, post-glacial sinking of southern England, reckoned to be 1 mm per year on average: see www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/POST-PN-363.pdf

(4) For Cudlow, see the VCH entry;  1343 fleet: N A M Rodger, The Safeguard of the Sea.  A Naval History of Britain, Volume 1: 660-1649, London 1997, p 495.

Saving something from the wreckage

Hoche Shipwreck

The remains of the steamship Hoche, 2012

I was nine years old, on holiday in Devon.  We were staying in a cottage on the rocky north Devon coast, just south of Hartland Point, and went for a walk along the coast on the first evening, though ‘scramble’ might be a more appropriate term.   The foreshore there is covered in millennia of tumbled boulders, interspersed with stone outcrops and rockpools.

In amongst the rocks lay the rusted remains of a sizeable metal ship – a pair of pistons lying side-by-side, an anchor, a rudder and part of the hull.  This was the first actual shipwreck I had ever seen.  It helped to kindle an interest in ships and has stayed in my memory.  A belated return visit many years later, in 2012, showed that much of the wreck is still there.

Thanks to the fascinating shipwreck museum at Hartland Quay (1), I learned that the ship was the SS Hoche, a French steamship that went aground in 1882. Additional research via the internet filled in some details.   The Hoche was owned by a Rouen company, and was en route from France to Cardiff in ballast (i.e. without cargo) when it ran into thick fog near Hartland Point on Saturday, 2 July 1882.   The ship ran aground at about 3 pm, and then seems to have drifted further in on the flood tide.

One of the crew clambered up the cliff and went to nearby Blegberry Farm.  He was looking for the closest telegraph office, with the aim of  getting rescue tugs from Cardiff.   According to a local man, R Pearse Chope, when the French sailor learned that the ship had gone aground near Hartland, he said that ‘he had been wrecked there before’ (2).

Unfortunately, the tide at Cardiff was too low for the tugs to set sail, and in any case they would probably have been too late.  The Hoche settled on the shore as the tide fell and by 8 pm it had been holed by the rocks.   The vessel became a total loss, although luckily all of the 23 crew escaped alive.  The wreck was put up for auction at Hartland less than two weeks later, the sale notice revealing that the ship was actually British-built, launched at Hartlepool in 1871 as the Dursley (3).

You might think that all this information would detract from the romance of my childhood memories.   Perhaps it does, but this is not necessarily a bad thing.   The shattered remnants of a shipwreck on the coast or the seabed can look very romantic, but often these were also the scenes of human tragedy.   According to a contemporary article in the New York Daily Tribune, the Hoche was just one of 284 steamship losses across the world in 1882.  No-one died in the Hoche, but over 2,000 people did perish in other steamer wrecks (4).

The strange allure of shipwrecks may derive in part from the fact that ships and the sea are outside most people’s everyday experience.   To look at it another way, many have witnessed road accidents or their aftermath and no-one would speak about the ‘romance’ of car crashes.

Does this mean that there is something ghoulish about studying the history or archaeology of shipwrecks?  I don’t believe so.  The excavation of a vessel’s remains or the unravelling of its story from written sources are ways in which something can be learned from an event that otherwise brought little but disaster.  You always have to be mindful of the human cost  of ship losses, but research into them is one way of saving something from the wreckage.

PS It’s fascinating to visit the Hoche, but it’s best done in good weather, with footwear suitable for climbing over rocks; do also make sure that there is no danger of being caught by the tide.  See: http://explorethecoast.org/pageresources/Hartland.pdf

(1)    http://www.hartlandquayhotel.co.uk/shipwreck-museum

(2)    Western Mail, 4 July 1882; R Pearse Chope, ‘Farthest from the railways: an unknown corner of Devon’, in The Devonian Yearbook, London 1916, p 58

(3)    Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 13 July 1882

(4)    New York Daily Tribune, 8 January 1883

Blog and photo © Ian Friel 2014