A son of England

Louis Raemakers - Burial of Private Walker 1915The Burial of Private Walker, by Louis Raemakers, 1916

In the wake of the terrible events in Paris on 13th November, and with all the other tragedies in the modern world, it may seem self-indulgent, to say to least, to write about another terrible event from a century ago.   In this case, however, I think there may be a wider point to be made about war, loss and memory.

At around 12.30 pm on Wednesday, 17th November, HM Hospital Ship Anglia was sunk by a mine off Folkestone in Kent. The ship was carrying 385 wounded servicemen, besides medical and nursing staff and the crew. At least one hundred and thirty-four people died, many of them wounded from the battlefields in France and Belgium, but also including one of the nurses.

The Anglia was one of 13 British hospital ships lost in the First World War. It was a former Holyhead ferry that had been taken into government service and converted to serve as a hospital ship.   The mine that the Anglia hit had been laid shortly before by a German submarine, UC-5.

In a War full of horrors, there is something especially awful at the thought of a shipload of wounded men being sunk.   The details of the sinking, the courage shown by the nurses who struggled to get the wounded men into lifebelts, the bravery of the rescuers – one of the rescue ships was itself sunk by a mine – have been retold by others elsewhere, and do not need to be repeated here (1). However, what really brought the tragedy of the Anglia home to me was the story of one of its victims, Joseph Walker.

Joe Walker was a few weeks short of his 25th birthday when he died. He was the youngest of four brothers, and was born at Pirton in North Hertfordshire in 1890. Joe enlisted in the army in early September 1914, a few weeks after the outbreak of war. He joined the 8th Battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment, but did not go overseas for almost a year (2).

In the autumn of 1915 his unit was pitched into a great battle at Loos in Belgium, but Joe caught trench foot. Trench foot is a hideous condition caused by the prolonged exposure of the feet to damp or wet conditions. Left untreated, it can lead to gangrene. This obviously happened to Joe, as both his legs had to be amputated at a military hospital in France.   This is why he was aboard the Anglia, on his way home to England.

One of the nurses must have got a lifebelt on Joe as the ship sank. Sadly, it did not save his life, but it ensured that his body stayed afloat for nearly two months. On 11 January 1916 his remains were washed up on the shore at West Kapelle in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands was neutral during the War, and the discovery of his body attracted some attention in the press. He was interred in the churchyard at West Kapelle shortly afterwards, and the Amsterdam newspaper De Telegraaf gave the following account of the burial (English translation):

THE BURIAL OF PRIVATE WALKER

 ON September 9, 1914, Joseph Walker enlisted for the duration of the war; on January 11, 1916, the sea bore his dead body to the dyke at West Kapelle. This afternoon, at 1 p. m., while the northwest wind whistled over Walcheren, the English soldier was buried in the churchyard of West Kapelle.

First the vice-consul, in the name of England, spread the British flag over him who for England had sacrificed his young life. Four men of West Kapelle carried the coffin outside and placed it at the foot of the tower, that old gray giant, which has witnessed so much world’s woe, here opposite the sea. It was a simple, but touching ceremony.

“Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live. . . . He cometh forth like a flower and is cut down.” Thus spoke the voice of the minister and the wind carried his words, and the wind played with the flag of England, the flag that flies over all seas, in Flanders, in France, in the Balkans, in Egypt, as the symbol of threatened freedom the flag whose folds here covered a fallen warrior.

And in the roaring storm we went our way. There was he carried, the soldier come to rest, and the flag fluttered in the wind and wrapped itself round that son of England. Then the coffin sank into the ground and the hearts of us, the departing witnesses, were sore. Earth fell on it, and the preacher said: “Earth to earth, dust to dust.”

As the newspaper piece suggests, there was sympathy for the Allied cause in Holland.   One of those present at West Kapelle church was the internationally-famous Dutch cartoonist Louis Raemakers.   Appalled by effects of the German invasion of Belgium, Raemakers became fervently anti-German, producing hundred of cartoons that scathingly satirised German militarism and the nature of the war itself. He drew a sketch of the scene as Joe Walker was buried (above).

Joseph Walker was my great-uncle. He died decades before I was born, but what makes his death so poignant to me is that his three brothers, including my grandfather, all lived into the 1960s. I knew them as a child. My grandfather had also been a soldier on the Western Front.  He would never talk about the Great War, and this was probably one reason why Joe was seldom mentioned at home.

I learned the basic details of Joe’s death and the loss of the Anglia many years ago, but it was not until 2008 that I read some detailed research on the events surrounding the wreck and the sufferings of those on board.  The fact that I could connect Joe with people I had known, made his terrible death much more personal. It left me shaken to think that a close relative had endured such agonies. The long lives of my grandfather and his other brothers are also measures of just how much this young man lost on 17th November 1915.

The loss of lives in war, particularly young lives, can cast a long shadow.  What shadows will stretch into the future from Syria, Paris and all the other atrocities of modern times?

Je suis Paris

(1)      S McGreal, The War on Hospital Ships 1914-1918, Barnsley 2008.

(2)      I owe the details of Joe’s service and the recovery of his body to the researches and kindness of Mr Steve Fuller and his colleagues, who have built up the remarkable website www.bedfordregiment.org.uk, devoted to the story of the regiment’s soldiers during the First World War.

(3)      Raemakers’ Cartoons, Vol. 2, London 1916, pp. 212-13.

Notes: Joe was later reburied in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Vlissingen, in the Netherlands.

The UK Ministry of Defence is currently being lobbied to list the wreck of the Anglia as a war grave under the Protection of Military Remains Act. The remains of the ship were revealed by a sidescan sonar survey in 2014: details can be seen at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-kent-29690020

There is also a piece about the Anglia on Historic England’s Wreck of the Week site:

https://thewreckoftheweek.wordpress.com/2015/11/17/no-94-hmhs-anglia/

Text (C) Ian Friel 2015

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The graveyard of the great ships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Ian Friel 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Ship of Snargate

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Agincourt-on-Sea

Slide33

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.

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