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.