Trinity House, the General Lighthouse Authority for England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar, will celebrate its 500th anniversary on Tuesday 20th May, commemorating the granting of a Royal Charter by Henry VIII on 20th May 1514.
We look today at the first mention of Trinity House in the wreck records of English Heritage. Since its earliest days, Trinity House has been concerned with the safety of mariners in all respects, including responsibility for licensing ship pilots as guides into harbour.
In the 16th century pilots with intimate knowledge of the Thames Estuary were required to assist ships to pick their way between the parallel diagonal sandbanks that bar the way to the Thames: the Maplin, the Barrow, the Sunk, the Long Sand, and the Kentish Knock. (Between them they have accounted for nearly 600 recorded wrecks.) Over the centuries many a ship has gone aground in navigating a previously safe channel between these banks.
The details of an incident in 1527 – when a pilot clearly failed in his mission – are preserved in a letter from Charles V of Spain to Henry VIII, concerning a ship inbound for London from Cadiz, whose master, one Arnaton de Gamon, accused her pilots of deliberately running her ashore ‘vpon a banke of Thamyse’. (1)
Reading between the lines, Arnaton was also accusing local boatmen of discrimination, treating him less favourably than their countrymen aboard his ship whose cargo was salvaged and restored to them. The same boats broke up his ship in situ. Arnaton was furious, valuing his loss at 1,100 ducats and asking for a further 900 in compensation, and urging Charles to send out a ‘letter of mark and reprisal against the English’.
Though an international incident was averted when Charles mildly refused this course of action, but instead ‘entreated Henry to see that justice may be done to the said Arnaton’, the story nevertheless represents a turning point. Arnaton’s complaint was a throwback to the Middle Ages, for which the majority of wreck records survive in the form of such grievances brought to a royal authority. The 16th century marks a shift towards wreck records via other reporting mechanisms, such as the records of Trinity House: shipwreck sources become much more diverse.
To help celebrate the Quincentenary, another article on English Heritage’s Heritage Calling blog looks at lighthouse heritage . . . and for a link to Trinity House’s own history blog, please click here.
(1) Letters and Papers Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, 1627-30, reproduced in more detail in The Trinity House of Deptford 1514-1660, G G Harris, London, 1969