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.



The seasick historian

017A_2STS  Sir Winston Churchill, somewhere in the English Channel, December 1978.   OK, I’ve enhanced the photo: it wasn’t this green.  I was, though.

December, 1978. The Sail Training Schooner Sir Winston Churchill sets out from Cherbourg on a grey morning into Force 8 winds…

No, this is not a tale of shipwreck or nautical derring-do. It’s about being seasick, amongst other things.   If this upsets your stomach, abandon blog now and make for the calmer waters where people blog about what they had for breakfast (though breakfast may come up in this blog).

The crew of the Sir Winston Churchill mostly comprised men aged 20-60. There was a small professional crew, but the majority of us were amateurs, some yachtsmen, others just along for the experience. I belonged to the latter category.  In those days, the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich gave staff the opportunity to get some seafaring experience in the Sail Training Association’s schooners. My girlfriend had already been to sea in their other schooner, the Malcolm Miller.  That was in the May sunshine, and she had a great time.

The English Channel was a bit different in December.   A small group of us from the NMM travelled down to Southampton, and joined the ship in the docks.  The journey over to Cherbourg was trouble-free, and we arrived there in brilliant sunshine. On the way we tried to learn the ropes – literally – and got to know some of our shipmates.

The following morning, we put back out to sea. At first it wasn’t too bad, but as the weather worsened we were told to don safety harnesses.  By that stage, the seasickness was beginning to get to me.

Apart from a slight queasiness felt on a North Sea ferry journey, I had never experienced seasickness before. I knew the old saying about it, though: ‘The worst things about seasickness are that for the first half of the time that you’re ill, you’re afraid that you will die; for the second half, you’re afraid that you won’t’.

Sickness I was prepared for, after a fashion, but what I hadn’t expected was the disorientation.   My brain whizzed round my head, a kaleidoscope of images and thoughts making concentration impossible. I remember sprawling on the foredeck, utterly at a loss as to how to fasten the safety harness. This simple operation was beyond me, and eventually a kind crew member finally did the thing up.

I think I was ill for almost 24 hours, as we sailed up the Channel and round into the Thames. Although the schooner had her mainsails rigged, the diesel engine was running for most of the time, and the fumes didn’t help.  Nor was I the only one to succumb to mal-de-mer. We later worked out that, out of a crew of about 45, fewer than ten had escaped it. Even the cook, an ex-Navy man, was incapacitated, so it must have been bad…

Things got better once we rounded the North Foreland. We sailed up the Thames, eventually passing into the West India Dock, where we helped to put the schooner’s gear into store for the winter.

Though I’m not a recreational sailor, I have sailed a bit since that time, and have been seasick off the east, south and west coasts of Britain.  This prompts a thought:  if I’m not a sailor, do I have any right to pen a single word about maritime history?

There is a long and honourable tradition of professional sailors writing about ships and the sea. However, I don’t believe that only people who have experienced a particular line of work or way of life are entitled to write about it.  Every area of human history should be open for people to study, whether they have a personal link to it or not.

This doesn’t mean that I did not learn anything from my week ‘before the mast’. It taught me some valuable lessons:

–       Seasickness does have the potential to kill you: not the throwing-up, but the way in which it makes it difficult to concentrate on even simple tasks.   This must have affected many sailors down the ages.

–       Sailors rely on their shipmates: quite literally, they are all in the same boat.

–       Conversely, the close confinement of shipboard life can provoke acute personal tensions: at the end of the voyage, I heard one person remark that, had there been a second week, one particularly annoying individual (not me!) would have gone overboard with an anchor stuffed in his mouth.

–       Amidst all the sickness, the disorientation and so-on, there is still something remarkable about a group of people being able to cross from one side of a stretch of volatile, stormy water to the other and get there safely. This kind of achievement is one of the things that makes maritime history worth studying.

My most abiding memory of the week?   Not what you might expect.  What I remember most is the sound of the Sir Winston Churchill’s bow crashing into the waves, as she made her way through the dark Channel night.

Blog © Ian Friel 2014; photo © Ian Friel 1978

Scratched records


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.

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.