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.

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.