A mysterious cargo

With this week (31 October 2017) seeing the commemoration of #Reformation500 I decided to have a look at records of German vessels wrecked in England around the time that Martin Luther published his 95 Theses that led to the Protestant Reformation, a legacy which still resonates today.

Black and white print of man with dark hair and dressed in black, facing left and holding a hat in one hand. A badge is in the background beside his head to the right, text to the left, stating his age in Latin, and further text below the image.
Martin Luther, after Lucas Cranach the Elder, etching (1525). NPG D47378. © National Portrait Gallery, London. Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND

Records for this period tend to be rather vague. We don’t actually have any wrecks we can firmly date to 1517 itself, although there is a series of records for wrecks 1516-18 in Cornwall, based on eyewitness evidence given to officials, mostly by very old men, which conjures up a wonderful picture and says a great deal about their powers of recollection.

There are many gaps in the record, which is nothing to do with the seas being safer or the weather being calmer in those years, and everything to do with the lack of record survival. The Reformation unleashed by Martin Luther had much to do with that from the English point of view, as records were destroyed in the Dissolution of the Monasteries which characterised the English Reformation – while the passage of time is another factor.

However, we do have a German vessel wrecked on these shores in 1524, so not too long after the 95 Theses that shook Europe. It’s a single standalone reference, lacking the ‘before’ and ‘after’, the background and the ‘what happened next?’, and key details of the ship and her voyage: all of which is completely typical of wreck records until well into the early modern period. It is actually a letter of complaint from Hamburg officials on behalf of certain merchants of that city to Henry VIII himself.

‘The Burgomasters of Hamburg to Henry VIII.

Ask for the restitution of a ship laden with resin, “oszemundt”, wax, ale etc., belonging to Fred. Ostra, Peter Rode, John Hesterberch, Conrad Meyricke, Hen. Statius and Joachim Schernewkouw, citizens of Hamburg, which went on shore on the coast of Norfolk, on the way to London. Hamburg, 16 May 1524.’ (1)

We don’t know the name of the ship, but we can tell that she must have been wrecked some time before 16 May 1524, allowing time at least for the news to reach Hamburg and for the letter to go out again. Communications at the time were, of course, ship-borne, with none of the media or information technology at our fingertips today, nor had newspapers yet been invented.

The vessel came ashore on the North Sea coast short of her destination of London, so it is reasonable to suppose that her voyage was from the eastward, which appears to be corroborated by the involvement of Hamburg merchants.

Ale is a fairly standard product which could originate anywhere. Wax was also widely imported into England, but the cargoes and voyage details of wrecked vessels tend to mirror the ebb and flow of trade routes pretty well. In the Elizabethan period the Baltic was a key source of wax for English buyers, while another wreck of 1582 laden with deals, wax, and copper, also suggests a common Baltic origin for all three cargoes, since deals and copper were characteristic Swedish exports. This suggests that the Baltic may well also have been the origin of the wax aboard the 1524 wreck. (2) Resin may similarly refer to Baltic amber.

This suggests that Baltic goods are in question, either transhipped via Hamburg as an entrepôt, or originating directly from the Baltic, almost certainly from Sweden. It is in this context that we must set the mysterious oszemundt which is not otherwise attested in the wreck record in England, and which the original editor of the Letters and Papers Foreign and Domestic had not explained in a footnote (presumably he was unable to do so!) We find references to this under various spellings in documents from mercantile contexts: one of 1494 (in Swedish) and another of 1532 (in German), suggesting that it was possible, for example, to settle payment of debt for an inbound cargo with osemund as an exchange or return cargo. (3)

A number of sources suggested that it was some form of iron, specifically ‘Swedish iron’, which is certainly consistent with known Swedish exports at that time and with the wrecks in our database laden with Swedish iron. (4) But what form did that iron take? Was it ore, bar, cast or wrought, or pyrites? I finally tracked down a reference explaining that osemund referred to iron cast in balls or spheres, for which Scotland was apparently the principal export market in the Elizabethan period: it was a relatively unusual import for England. (5) No wonder, therefore, it was very difficult to find out what it actually was!

Lump of grey iron on a stand in a museum display, against a brown wooden background.
Lump of osemund, Burg Altena museum. Photographed by Frank Vincentz. Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 3.0

This one mysterious word has illuminated a rare cargo from the past. It also illustrates the reach of the shipping networks of the North Sea, including the Hanseatic League, which at this time traded across the Baltic and North Sea with King’s Lynn and London, and which had a key port at Hamburg. (To this day Hamburg is Freie und Hansestadt Hamburg.) I suspect, therefore, that it is very likely the complainants in the letter were Hanse merchants. So this wreck record is the rarest of the rare: surviving documentation for medieval wrecks in England is sparse, and of these there are only a dozen records with clearly demonstrable links to the Hanse over the period 1377-1546. (6)

Bust-length portrait of a bearded man dressed in black, with white collar and cuffs, facing left, with his hands crossed in the lower register of the image. He is set against a dark green background.
Portrait of a Hanseatic Merchant, Hans Holbein, 1538. Yale University Art Gallery. The German artist Holbein, who spent two extended periods in England, was commissioned to paint portraits of Hanseatic merchants at their London Steelyard guildhall (and indeed also painted the iconic portraits of Henry VIII, with whom the English Reformation is indelibly associated). The artist and subject together suggest the rich cultural and economic connections at this time between England and Germany, a milieu receptive to the exchange of new religious ideas.

It is also a reminder that ideas and texts, as well as cargo and people, were circulated by ship.

One of the most far-reaching changes of the Reformation was the idea that any Christian should be able to access the Bible in their own language, rather than filtered through the traditional language of Latin, which had been the common language of the Christian Roman Empire but had long been accessible only to the educated elite. Vernacular translations were not a new idea, but previous examples, such as the late 14th century Wycliffite Bible, were suppressed and banned. It was in that same year as our wreck from Germany, 1524, that the latest scholar to espouse an English translation, William Tyndale, was forced to set sail for Germany, and produced a translation of the New Testament within the orbit of Martin Luther. Copies of Tyndale’s translation were smuggled into England on board ship, in casks of wine and bales of wool. (7) 

These clandestine consignments must have added the fear of discovery to the constant dread of shipwreck. Did any ever miscarry on their way to England, I wonder? There’s a contemporary parallel for this: it is traditionally held that the rarity of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible is partly owing to many copies perishing in a shipwreck while en route to Pope Leo X in Italy in 1521. (8) So a single wreck in England can be set against the backdrop of an entire cultural, economic, and religious milieu, and its record enhanced, and all because I was intrigued by an unidentified cargo.

I would like to thank my colleagues at Historic England for their help with this article: Angela Middleton, Conservator, and Tanja Watson, Knowledge Organisation Specialist.

Painted image of seated man in black against a dark background. His name, in Latin, is painted in gold to the right of his arm, which holds a Bible. His left hand points to the Bible above a white text. Below the portrait is an inscription in gold lettering, also in Latin..
Called William Tyndale, by unknown artist, late 17th or early 18th century. NPG 1592. © National Portrait Gallery, London Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0

(1) Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 4, 1524-1530, ed. J S Brewer (London, 1875), pp. 139, No.339. British History Online [accessed 1 November 2017].

(2)  Zins, H (translated Stevens, H). 1972 England and the Baltic in the Elizabethan Era. Manchester: University Press

(3) Swedish: Styffe, C. 1875 Bidrag till Skandinaviens Historia ur utländska arkiver. Stockholm: P A Norstedt & Söner. German: Ebel, W (ed.) 1968 Lübecker Ratsurteile, Band III, 1526-1550. Göttingen: Musterschmid Verlag

(4) Heß, C, Link, C, and Sarnowsky, J, 2008. Schüldbücher und Rechnungen der Großschäffer und Lieger des Deutschen Ordens in Preussen. Köln: Böhlau Verlag. For the wrecks in the database: National Record of the Historic Environment, Historic England, as accessed on 1 November 2017.

(5) Zins, H. 1967 “Znaczenie Strefy Bałtyckiej dla angielskiego budownictwa okrętowego w drugiej połowie XVI wieku“, Rocznik Lubelski 10, 125-137; Zins, H. (trans Stevens H) 1972 England and the Baltic in the Elizabethan Era. Manchester: University Press

(6) Source: National Record of the Historic Environment, Historic England, as accessed on 1 November 2017.

(7) There were other, partial, English translations earlier than Wycliffe, including the 10th century Old English interlinear gloss in the Latin of the Lindisfarne Gospels, but its purpose was to assist the reader in their understanding of the Latin text, not act as a substitute for it. For more on Tyndale and his smuggled Bibles: “Melvyn Bragg on William Tyndale: his genius matched that of Shakespeare”, Daily Telegraph, 6 June 2013

(8) García Pinilla, I. n.d. “Reconsidering the relationship between the Complutensian Polyglot Bible and Erasmus’ Novum Testamentum” in Basel 1516: Erasmus’ Edition of the New Testament

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