The Age of the Hell Burners: fireships and terror weapons (part 2)

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The fireship attack by the English fleet on the Spanish Armada off Calais on the night of 7th/8th August 1588 was the turning-point of the Armada campaign. The attack temporarily dispersed the Armada, drove it into the North Sea and opened the fleet up to the devastating close-range gunfire of the English ships.   After this, with the wind pushing it further north, the Armada lost all real hope of achieving its objective – to invade England and dethrone the Protestant Queen, Elizabeth I (1).

The commander of the Armada, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, had ordered his fleet to disperse because he thought that the eight English fireships might be floating bombs.  Why did these weapons engender such fear among professional soldiers and sailors?

The answer to this question has been explored by many historians, but usually only in terms of the history of the late 16th century.  I want to look at its wider implications, and the disconcerting links that it has with our own times.

Gunpowder was utilised as a propellant in guns from the 1300s, but by the 15th century it was also known that powder could be used en masse as a bomb, buried in a mine under the fortifications of a besieged castle or town. The results could be incredibly destructive – and decisive. For example, in 1503 a Spanish engineer set off a gunpowder mine under the rocky fortress of Uovo near Naples, then occupied by French troops.   The explosion not only demolished part of the rock, it also blew up the castle’s chapel and the senior French officers who were meeting inside (2).

Accounts of the 1588 fireship attack rightly ascribe the Spanish fear of floating bombs to the ‘Hell-Burners’ at Antwerp.   In 1585, Antwerp was held by the Protestant Dutch, but they were encircled by the Spanish Army of Flanders. The siege was one of many in the so-called Eighty Years War, in which the Dutch struggled to assert their independence from the Spanish Crown.   The Spanish siegeworks at Antwerp included a great wooden bridge laid across the River Scheldt, which cut the Dutch off from seaborne resupply and reinforcement.

In order to try to break the siege, the Dutch employed a disaffected Italian engineer named Giambelli to build some fireships and floating bombs for them. These were sent down the river towards the bridge. Most failed to do any damage, but one did go off. Its huge charge (nearly four tons of explosive, packed along with much shrapnel) blew a hole in the bridge and killed at least 800 Spanish soldiers. The explosion must have been the loudest man-made noise ever heard up to that time. The physical and psychological shockwaves caused by the Hell-Burner were enormous, for it was the first weapon to cause instantaneous death and destruction on a large scale (3).

The Hell-Burner incident was not the only Dutch assault with a floating bomb, however. There was another Dutch waterborne attack of this kind in early April 1588, this time on what might be termed a largely ‘civilian’ target.   An account of it reached Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham, a few days later. According to the report, a Dutch merchantman had entered Spanish-held Dunkirk harbour one night.  Ostensibly, it carried a cargo of beer and cheese, but there was evidently a large bomb concealed under the victuals.  After the ship had tied up, the crew made off in a boat, claiming that they had to retrieve an anchor left at the harbour mouth ‘… And within a short space after the ship with beer and cheese blew up a Breton ship with salt, 2 ships laden with munition of the king [of Spain], as [well as] victuals, cables and ordnance, with other great spoil among the ships and houses alongst near the quay sore spoiled, and a tower which standeth near the quay, the great stones on the top thereof were blown amongst the houses, which sudden blast did so terrify the Spaniards that they went whirling about the streets crying like cats…’   The writer of the report noted that if the bomb had gone off at low tide, all of the ships there would have been burned (4).

It is not known if a report of this attack reached the Armada before it sailed, but it underlines the sheer terror created by gunpowder bombs. They took the potential dangers of fireships to a new level, and this explains why Medina Sidonia issued his order for the Armada to get out of the Calais anchorage in the middle of the night.

The gunpowder bomb was here to stay, and made its appearance as a political weapon, as well as a military one. In England, its most famous manifestation was of course the Catholic Gunpowder Plot to blow up King James I and Parliament in 1605. Like the Armada, it became part of English Protestant legend, the defeat of both being commemorated and celebrated annually in the 17th century (5).

The 1605 attempt was not the only ‘gunpowder plot’ in England. After the city of Chichester in West Sussex fell to a Parliamentarian siege in 1642, the victorious commander, Sir William Waller, established himself in a house in what is now Priory Park.   That evening, in his own words, ‘I discovered a train laid to some barrels of gunpowder not far from my lodging…’   The assassination attempt failed, but Waller was not able to find out who was responsible (6).

Fifteen years later, a Colonel Edward Sexby and a group of republicans, angry at Cromwell for taking quasi-regal powers, planned to blow up the Lord Protector as his coach passed along a narrow section of road in Hammersmith. The plot collapsed, and some of the plotters were apprehended, but Sexby went on to justify the attempt as tyrannicide, in a pamphlet entitled Killing Noe Murder (7).

The presence of sulphur as an ingredient of gunpowder had always meant that the explosive carried a whiff of the demonic. The playwright Ben Jonson referred to Bertold Schwarz, the mythical medieval inventor of gunpowder, ‘who from the Devil’s-Arse did guns beget’, and in Paradise Lost Milton also portrayed the invention of gunpowder and guns as the work of the Devil (9). As well they might.

The fireships of Calais and the Gunpowder Plot have become part of a cosy national legend.   Even if the Armada is no longer remembered with revelry, we still burn Guy Fawkes in effigy every November 5th, and admire the whooshing rockets at firework displays, quite forgetting that the event marks an attempt to change the government by force.  If the plot had succeeded, it would probably have sparked off a war of religion in Britain.

It’s inevitable that the danger, fear, pain and horror associated with such things should fade over time – after all, there’s more than enough of them in the daily news.  However, this also obscures the fact that the gunpowder bomb marked a profound shift in the ability of human beings to do large-scale and indiscriminate violence to others with little or no warning.   One way or another, we are still living in the age of the Hell-Burners and the ships of fire.

The Duke of Medina Sidonia and his men had very good reason to be afraid of the eight flickering lights as they bore down on the Armada that August night.

Blog © Ian Friel 2014

(1) See my preceding blog, ‘Fireships and the first terror weapons (part 1)’.

(2) C Duffy, Siege Warfare. The Fortress in the Early Modern World 1494-1660, London 1979, p 11.

(3) Colin Martin and Geoffrey Parker, The Spanish Armada (various editions, London 1988 on), pp 74-76; National Maritime Museum, Armada 1588-1988, London 1988 , p 120; J Kelly, Gunpowder.   A History of the Explosive that Changed the World, London 2004, pp 131-32.

(4) The National Archives (TNA), Kew, SP78/18, 51: David Cabreth to Walsingham (spelling and punctuation modernised); see also Calendar of State Papers Foreign Elizabeth I 1586-1588, p 567, which discusses the report writer’s error with the date, and National Maritime Museum, Armada 1588-1988, London 1988 , p 120.

(5) Kelly 2004, pp 126-29; National Maritime Museum 1988, pp 283-84.

(6) P Gill, ‘The Siege of Chichester, December 1642’ in W Hussey (ed), Chichester 900, Chichester 1975, p 18.

(7) Alan Marshall, entry for ‘Sexby, Edward (1616–1658)’ in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, www.oxforddnb.com; British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk: ‘A brief Relation of the late Dangerous Plot for the Destruction of his Highness’s person’, Diary of Thomas Burton esq, volume 2: April 1657 – February 1658 (1828), pp. 483-488.

(8) Kelly 2004, p 81.

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Fireships and terror weapons (part 1)

 

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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

Spanish Armada in time travel shock

DSCF7065Monument to Edmund Norton, gentleman, who received a pension for ‘his good service by seae in Anno Domini 1588’ (St Bartholemew’s Church, Hyde, Winchester, Hants).  

Edmund died on 10th July 1600.  And on 20th July (see below).

BREAKING NEWS!!!

426 years ago today, 29th July 1588, the Spanish Armada appeared off the coast of Cornwall. It also appeared in the same place, on the same day, on 19th July 1588.

So, as well as having surprise, ruthless efficiency, a fanatical devotion to the Pope and nice uniforms on its side (to paraphrase Monty Python), could the Armada actually break the time barrier? Or was this just an idea from a discarded Dr Who script?

Ah, no.

I don’t normally write blog posts in a hurry, but a series of  ‘anniversaries’ posted on Twitter has got rather annoying, and I think it’s worth pointing out a problem. The problem relates most immediately to the commemorations of the Spanish Armada campaign, which fall this July and August, but it affects some other anniversaries as well.

The day on which I am posting this is 29th July 2014, the 426th anniversary of the Spanish Armada arriving off the Cornish coast.   The Armada, a force of over 130 ships packed with sailors, soldiers and weapons, was sent by the Catholic King Philip II of Spain to invade England and topple the Protestant Queen Elizabeth (1). The Spanish plan failed, due in no small part to the English fleet.

To the Spanish, they sighted the Cornish coast on 29th July. To the English, it was 19th July.   The reason for this apparently bizarre difference was of course that the two sides were using different calendars.   Until 1582, all of Europe used the Julian Calendar, established in Roman times.   The flaw with the Calendar was that the Julian year was estimated at 365¼ days, which was slightly too long. Over time the Julian year became increasingly out of sync with the solar year. By the 16th century the difference between the two was as much as ten days.

The problem was dealt with by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, who decreed that ten calendar days would be cut out of one month in that year, with 4th October being followed by 15th October (the dates followed as normal thereafter, and subsequent Octobers were all their original length). This brought the calendar back in line with the rotation of the Earth. The difficulty here was that the Gregorian Calendar only applied to Catholic Europe: England and the rest of Protestant Europe did not adopt it until the 18th century, with Russia and Orthodox Christian Europe following in the 20th century (2).

Educated people in Elizabethan England were well aware of the new dating system, which they called ‘New Style’ or novo stilo. They sometimes used it, but most written documents in England were dated according to the Julian Calendar for the next 170 years. This is why the Armada seemingly arrived ten days before it actually did, in what would have been one of the greatest surprise attacks of all time. If it had happened.

There’s absolutely no problem in using the Julian Calendar for dates in England before 1752, but if your subject touches on international events, you can’t avoid using the Gregorian Calendar as well, because most of England’s foreign neighbours did. Some of the people who post the ‘anniversaries’ don’t appear to have picked up on the difference, or they are basing what they say on sources that either use the Julian Calendar without qualification or aren’t clear enough about the ten-day gap between the calendars.

At this point, I should declare an interest. I was part of the team that researched and staged the 1988 blockbuster Armada Exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. We stuck firmly to the Gregorian Calendar when it came to the course of the campaign.

Getting the dates mixed up is not just confined to people today, nor perhaps just to individuals.  The National Trust set off its national Fire Over England beacons on 19th July 1988, which was 400 years to the day since… the Armada was sitting in the port of La Coruña, awaiting a favourable wind. The reason given for this was that it was ‘only right’ to base the programme on the calendar used in England in 1588. This may have been so, but it does make me wonder (3).  The great pity about not using the Gregorian Calendar for all of the 1988 commemorations was that the days and the dates in that year and 1588 were the same. It could have given more of a sense of immediacy to the events.

This all might be dismissed as academic nitpicking, but I think if you’re going to declare this or that day as an anniversary, it’s better to be accurate than to be out by over a week.

Any way, I must go now. Some sails have just appeared on the horizon…

Blog and photo © Ian Friel 2014

(1) There are umpteen books on the Spanish Armada, but people interested in knowing more could read Colin Martin and Geoffrey Parker, The Spanish Armada, London (various editions 1988 on) or Armada 1588-1988 (Penguin 1988), the catalogue of the 1988 National Maritime Museum exhibition

(2) C R Cheney, Handbook of Dates for Students of History, London 1981, pp 10-11.

(3) ‘All at sea over when we duffed up the Dons’, The Guardian, 1988 (sadly my press-cutting doesn’t have an exact date!).

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

Scratched records

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog © Ian Friel 2014 and photo © Ian Friel 2013

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

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

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

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

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