Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot
After visiting the House of Lords on the exceptionally appropriate date of 5th November, my thoughts naturally turned to our wrecks laden with gunpowder, of which we have 24 known records. There are likely to be others whose cargo is masked by description in contemporary sources as ‘warlike stores’ or some such other description; warships and privateers will have carried gunpowder anyway; while many cargo vessels, armed for self-defence, will have carried gunpowder as part of the ship’s stores, which therefore does not qualify for recording as cargo.
Many of these wrecks were lost in the ordinary way and the cargo they carried did not make any difference as to the outcome, which was fortunate in the case of the Charming Molly dockyard tender in 1779 which, ‘lying near Gosport, was carelessly set on fire and burnt to the water’s edge. The powder, except half a barrel which blew up, was got out; the guns and swivels were loaded with ball, which went off, but did no mischief.’ Whether they crew managed to unload the vessel before the cannon went off is not known but if they had to dodge random cannonballs popping all over the place then it was fortunate indeed that ‘no mischief’ was done!
More dramatically, in 1802, the Newham brig caught fire on her arrival at Falmouth on her maiden voyage. ‘Apprehensive of the fire quickly communicating itself to the gunpowder with which the vessel was partly laden, the crew left her immediately . . . The inhabitants of the town were greatly alarmed . . . at 7 o’clock she blew up at her moorings with a tremendous and awful explosion: her masts, yards, etc. and a great part of her cargo were scattered in different directions through the air, her sides were blown out and the shattered hull immersed in the water.’ Despite the worst fears of local residents, this explosion resulted only in a number of windows being shattered.
Oh, I’ve only given you gunpowder – I shall have to truffle out some treason and plot for a later edition!
As a result of last week’s request for ‘information challenges’ I was given a few, which I shall answer over the coming weeks. The first one which came in was to see if we had any wrecks made out of hides. I am delighted to be able to rise to that particular challenge in not one but two different ways!
In 1844 it was reported that ‘two or three coracles or canoes, similar to those now in use among the fishermen on the Wye and Severn, framed of slight ribs of wood, covered with hydes’ had been found in Marton Mere, near Blackpool, together with other archaeology. The context in which they were found suggests abandonment at best, or sinking, not fit for purpose, at worst! The similarity to contemporary examples may suggest either a continuity of form or that these coracles, although old, were not of any great antiquity, since the context and stratigraphy of the finds is not discussed in the reporting source.
Turning now to Anglo-Saxon times, there were two principal efforts at building a national fleet, the first under Alfred the Great, popularly regarded as the ‘Father of the English Navy’ with some justification, for the warships he commissioned to a new design. Less well-known, perhaps, is the fleet that was commissioned by Aethelred ‘the Unready’ in 1008. Both fleets were intended to counter the Danish threat. Both met with disaster shortly after entering service.
In 1008 Aethelred ordered one ship to be built for every three hundred (or 310) hides across the nation, a hide being an Anglo-Saxon unit of land sufficient for a family and its dependants. In 1009 his new fleet was stationed off Sandwich when the greater part of it was destroyed, not by the Danes, but by an internal feud. The ambitious Brihtric accused Wulfnoth of the South Saxons to the king; Wulfnoth responded by enticing away 20 ships’ crews to follow him, ‘ravaging everywhere along the south coast.’ Brihtric took 80 ships in pursuit, only to be cast ashore in a storm somewhere in South Saxon territory, where Wulfnoth fired what remained of those 80 ships and the rest of the fleet simply sailed back to London. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle despairingly noted ‘the labours of all the people thus came to naught’.