600 years of the Grace Dieu

Henry V’s Grace Dieu – medieval England’s biggest ship

View of blue river towards tree-lined bank on the far side, against a bright blue sky.
General view of the River Hamble looking north-west towards the site of the Grace Dieu, Bursledon, Hampshire

You might say that the opposite of ‘wreck’ is ‘launch’ and today, 16 July 2018, marks 600 years since the first date we can tie to the Grace Dieu in the whole of her long history, the majority of which has been spent as a wreck site in the River Hamble. In 1974 she was one of the earliest designations under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973, which came into force 45 years ago this week, so a double ‘birthday’ so to speak!

Today’s guest blogger is Dr Ian Friel FSA, an independent historian, museum consultant and writer. He worked for 30 years in museums, including the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich and the Mary Rose Trust, and was involved in NMM fieldwork on the Grace Dieu and (potential) Holy Ghost wreck sites in the early 1980s.  He is the author of three books on maritime history, including Henry V’s Navy (The History Press, 2015) and is currently working on a fourth.

Dr Friel writes:

Six hundred years ago, on 16 July 1418, William Barrowe, the Bishop of Bangor, received his travelling expenses for a trip from London to Southampton and back.  What does this less-than riveting piece of information have to do with the theme of Wreck of the Week?   The answer is that Barrowe’s mission was ‘to consecrate a certain King’s ship, there newly built, called the Gracedieu’.

The Grace Dieu was the last and biggest of four ‘great ships’ constructed for King Henry V of England between 1413 and 1420.  ‘Great ship’ was a contemporary type name and these vessels played an important role in Henry’s plans to conquer France, because eliminating French sea power was one of the keys to a successful invasion.

Big naval battles were fairly rare in the Middle Ages, but they usually ended in a series of bloody boarding actions in which big ships with large crews had the advantage.  This was clearly the chief raison d’etre of the great ships, though they also had propaganda value as symbols of English might.

The great ships were part of one of the most powerful royal war fleets ever seen in medieval England.  Major operations relied on the participation of large numbers of conscripted English vessels and hired foreign shipping, but the ‘king’s ships’ were the spearhead of the English naval war effort.   The first three great ships, the Trinity Royal (500 tons), Holy Ghost (740 tons) and the Jesus (1000 tons), were completed between 1415 and 1417.  The Trinity Royal and Holy Ghost certainly went into battle, and it’s likely that the Jesus did, as well.  The Grace Dieu’s naval career was shorter and much less eventful.

Construction of the ship began at Southampton in 1416, in a specially-dug dock.  The work was overseen by an official named Robert Berd, but it’s unlikely he was anything more than a manager and bean-counter.  There is little doubt that the Grace Dieu was designed by the project’s master shipwright, John Hoggekyn.

We know very little about the dedicated, workaholic Hoggekyn – he was eventually pensioned off after wearing himself out in royal service – but he deserves to be remembered as one of medieval England’s greatest engineers.  His achievement was on a par with that of Brunel in building the huge steamship Great Britain in the 19th century.

The Grace Dieu was clinker-built, and each overlapping strake (line of planking) was composed of three layers of boards – presumably to prevent the huge structure from collapsing under its own weight.  The ship was reckoned to be of 1400 tons burden (theoretical carrying capacity), making it the biggest vessel seen in England before Henry VIII’s time, a century later.  Measurements of the Grace Dieu made in 1430 suggest that it was 50 m to 60 m in length and about 15 m in breadth (164-197 ft x 50 ft).  It was not much smaller than Nelson’s HMS Victory of 1805, though the Grace Dieu and the other great ships will have looked very different.  They probably resembled carracks – the carrack was a large medieval ship type of Mediterranean origin, used for both trade and war.

Wood carving of a medieval ship seen broadside on, on a wavy sea, with a tall mast and sunrays to top right.
Dated to c 1419, this bench-end was originally in St. Nicholas’ Chapel, King’s Lynn, Norfolk. It depicts a two-masted carrack with two-stage fighting castles fore and aft, which show that the vessel was a warship. It dates from the years when Henry V’s royal fleet had both ‘great ships’ and carracks, though there is no evidence to link this image directly with the king’s ships. That said, it’s likely that Henry’s great ships looked something like this. Victoria and Albert Museum W.16-1921 © Victoria and Albert Museum

 

The Grace Dieu was built with a retinue of two oared fighting ships and four boats, and at least 3,906 trees were felled for the project.  Most were New Forest oaks, though beech, ash and elm were also used, along many other timbers and boards.  The ship had a huge mainmast, possibly over 50 m in height and carried two, or possibly three masts in total.  Multi-masted ships were very new in England at the time – the purpose of the additional sails was doubtless to help propel and manoeuvre big ships.  The Grace Dieu itself came with an eye-watering price-tag, costing an estimated £3,800, perhaps equal to £1,647,000,000 nowadays.

The blessing of the Grace Dieu by the Bishop of Bangor in 1418 may have marked the day on which the hull was floated out of its building dock.  Though described as ‘newly built’ at that point, it was not ready for sea until 1420.

In the spring of that year it became the flagship of a powerful patrol group assembled at Southampton.  The force included the three other great ships – it was the only occasion on which they sailed together.  By this time, however, the naval war was virtually over.  The English had broken French sea power back in 1417, allowing Henry to invade France for a second time.  There were still fears in 1420 that France’s Spanish allies might attack England, but this threat never materialised.

Most English ships of the time were of less than 100 tons, so the Grace Dieu and the other great ships must made a deep impression on contemporaries.  One of Henry’s brothers, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, wrote to the king: ‘… your great ship the Grace Dieu is ever as ready and is the fairest that ever men saw…’

However, all was not well.  England was short of sailors, and the three earlier great ships were seriously undermanned, with between 50 and 70 per cent of their original complements of 200 mariners apiece.  Even the Grace Dieu carried only 199 sailors, surely too few to properly manage such a big vessel.

Aside from the manpower problems, there was serious discontent in the fleet.  Men were refusing to be mustered – to have their names taken for pay records – and it took a real effort to get the force to sea.  The Grace Dieu finally sailed out into the Solent, but the voyage was cut short by a mutiny, led by some Devon men.  They forced the ship to put in at St Helen’s, on the western end of the Isle of Wight, and that was the end of the Grace Dieu’s war service.  Medieval England’s biggest and most expensive war machine sailed only slightly further than a modern Solent ferry.

The four great ships were taken back to the River Hamble, on the eastern side of Southampton Water, where there was a protected anchorage for the royal fleet.  The government made serious efforts to keep them afloat, for they were still emblems of English royal power, even if there was no sea war to fight.   The Grace Dieu was certainly used to impress at least one visiting Italian galley commander.  Luca di Maso degli Albizzi was wined and dined aboard the ship in 1430, and later wrote in his diary that he had never seen ‘so large and splendid a construction’.

Despite the maintenance work, the great ships all began to leak more and more. The three older vessels were laid up between 1426 and 1430, and the Grace Dieu followed a few years after.  In order to lighten the ship, much of its heavy gear was removed in 1432 and the top part of the great mainmast was cut off.  Two years later, the Grace Dieu was towed upriver to Bursledon, and placed in a mud dock cut into the riverbank.

The great ship was abandoned, but it did not moulder for long.  It was struck by lightning on the night of 7/8 January 1439, caught fire, and burned to the waterline.  Nails and other ironwork were salvaged from the wreck, along with the charred stump of the mainmast, and royal officials continued to chronicle the storage or disposal of this junk (archeology to us) for years.  However, in 1452 the record of the Grace Dieu came to a full stop.

Four hundred years later, a small stream on the bank of the Hamble changed course, and washed away some mud to reveal a big shipwreck.  First mentioned in an 1859 local guidebook, it was identified as the remains of a Danish warship destroyed by King Alfred’s forces in the 9th century.  The ‘Viking Ship’ became quite well known – and also suffered from the attentions of souvenir-hunters, who hacked bits off it.

Ironically, the worst vandal was a man who tried to record the wreck, Francis Crawshay (c 1811-78).  He was a wealthy landowner who kept a yacht on the Hamble and evidently fancied himself as an archaeologist.  Sadly, his principal excavation tool was gunpowder!  In the end, the wreck was saved by Customs and Excise – not for any archaeological reason, but because Crawshay had failed to declare his finds to the Receiver of Wreck.

The ‘Viking Ship’ was finally identified as the Grace Dieu in 1933, by the historian R C Anderson.  Anderson visited the site with a small team, at the instigation of a local man, Mr F C P Naish.  They made the first modern survey of the site, conducted a limited excavation and revealed the wreck’s unprecedented triple-skin clinker planking.

There was other work on the wreck in later decades, including a series of investigations by the National Maritime Museum’s former Archaeological Research Centre in the early 1980s.  The full shape and extent of the hull remains were revealed by sonar survey made in 2005 by the University of Southampton and the National Oceanography Centre.  This showed that only the bottom 2 m of the Grace Dieu survives, but even this remnant is massive, measuring some 32.5 m by 12.2 m.

The wreck of the Grace Dieu was bought in 1970 by the University, and in 1974 it was designated as a Protected Wreck under the 1973 Protection of Wrecks Act.  You can only visit the site of the Grace Dieu with special statutory permission, but at very low tides it is possible to see some of its timbers from the opposite riverbank in Upper Hamble Country Park – the wreck site is marked with a yellow PWA buoy.

The Grace Dieu is of international importance, one of a small number of known medieval wrecks in the UK, and one of the few in Europe of this period that can be named.  The ship owed its existence to the warlike ambitions of one of England’s most famous kings, and shows medieval maritime technology operating at its limits.  The wreck is also a monument to one of England’s most accomplished, but least known shipbuilders – John Hoggekyn.

© Ian Friel 2018

Further reading:

Carpenter Turner, W.J., ‘The building of the Gracedieu, Valentine and Falconer at Southampton, 1416–20’, Mariner’s Mirror 40 (1954), pp.55–72

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

I Friel, The Good Ship.  Ships, Shipbuilding and Technology in England 1200-1520, British Museum press, London, 1995

I Friel, Henry V’s Navy, The History Press, Stroud, 2015

Plets, R.M.K., J.K. Dix, J.R. Adams, J.M. Bull, T.J. Henstock, M. Gutowski and A.I. Best, ‘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, 36 (2009), pp.408–18

S Rose, ‘Henry V’s Grace Dieu and Mutiny at Sea: Some New Evidence’, Mariner’s Mirror 63 (1977), pp.3–6

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.

Crawshay obituary: Hampshire Advertiser, 9 November 1878, p 5 (via britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)

 

 

 

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A Detective Story

The Flying-P liners

Over the summer there will be a few wreck features with a German theme, inspired by my recent holidays on Germany’s northern seaboard with its strong maritime heritage – a shared history across the North Sea.

Not long ago a colleague in the Historic England Archives showed me a set of recently-acquired negatives, depicting a wrecked sailing vessel against some white cliffs with a very tiny lighthouse visible in the far distance. Those details, and a possible date of circa 1900 on technical grounds, were all we had to go on. No proper location, no real date, no identity for the vessel, no name for the photographer – and white cliffs aren’t unique to Dover.

Off I went to inspect the negatives on a lightbox, prepared for a patient elimination of white cliff and lighthouse combinations to identify the location, before then narrowing it down to a specific ship – but the ship herself proved to be extremely obliging and we struck lucky virtually at once.

At first glance the words ‘possible Flying-P liner’ came to mind, as she was clearly a very large vessel of steel-hulled construction – not unique to the ‘Flying-Ps’, which were, however, among the most celebrated sailing vessels of their day, the ‘windjammers’.

These windjammers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries made use of contemporary iron and steel technology to develop large cargo-carrying sailing ships which were predominantly or wholly square-rigged to take full advantage of the wind. Hence not only the collective name ‘windjammer’, but also the ‘Flying’ Reederei F Laeisz fleet, whose ships all began with ‘P’. The windjammers arguably extended the sailing vessel era until well into the 20th century, although, even as they were being developed from the 1880s onwards, steam had already overtaken sail as the principal means of propulsion.

Then I counted the masts in the negatives – five – and with that the ship yielded her secrets.  Those white cliffs were indeed at Dover and the ship was indeed a ‘Flying-P’, the Preussen, the only five-masted full-rigged ship ever built. (1) She broke tow following a collision and stranded in Fan Bay, Dover, on 6 November 1910, en route from Hamburg on a typical windjammer run to Valparaiso, Chile, with a cargo which included pianos.

B&W photo of shipwreck against cliffs, seen from seaward, sea filling the lower third of the image.
Wreck of the Preussen, Fan Bay, Dover, c. 1910. From this angle the masts seem to tower above the cliffs, while the vessel is awash amidships – a dramatic shot that suggests a photographer with an eye for composition.

So who was the photographer? Someone with the skills to take a photograph at sea from a moving object, namely another vessel. The image, sea conditions, the wreck itself, and the cliffs are all clearly defined, demonstrating continuing interest in the deteriorating condition of the vessel after the wreck event.

Compare this view of the same shipwreck immediately after she struck, by local resident and female photographer, Annette Evelyn Darwall, which was already in the Historic England collection. This, too, is a skilled photograph, including a section of cliff at left foreground for a sense of place and sense of scale which makes us realise that the viewpoint is everything.

B&W photograph of shipwreck of five-masted vessel seen from cliffs above, the tide receding away from the dark rocky shore to left.
The Preussen aground at low tide, seen from the cliffs above, photographed shortly after the wreck event in November 1910.

Returning to our ‘unknown’ collection, a further extraordinary photograph demonstrates the technical competence of our mystery photographer, in turn showing how photography advanced the recording of shipwrecks.

Traditional shipwreck paintings were largely creations after the event. During the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century Willem van de Velde the Elder would sketch ships lost in action from his position aboard a galliot embedded in the Dutch fleet, but these scenes would later be formally worked up onto canvas. Paintings of tragic wreck events such as the Raft of the Medusa (Théodore Géricault, 1819, Louvre, Paris) or Disaster at Sea (Turner, c.1835, Tate, London) are highly-emotive reconstructions based on survivors’ accounts. In all of these paintings we are looking towards the shipwreck, though some artists concentrated on scenes of pathos within as passengers awaited their fate (Wreck of the Halsewell, Thomas Stothard, 1786, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich) but again these were retrospective ‘artists’ impressions’ based on first-hand accounts.

Photographers such as Frank Meadow Sutcliffe at Whitby or Gibsons of Scilly exploited the dramatic possibilities of artistic composition, placing the shipwreck firmly in its context as an alteration to the natural landscape, often broadside on, with the power of the waves captured naturalistically in real time.

Photographers soon began to record other aspects of shipwrecks such as daytrippers’ visits (in one Gibson photo of 1895 we’re looking at sightseers in Cornwall looking at a wreck from much the same sort of clifftop viewpoint that attracted Annette Evelyn Darwall to photograph the Preussen near Dover). It then became possible to record rescue in real time. Yet these photographs still frame shipwrecks in a landscape context, albeit as temporary alterations to the local environment (and all the more attractive as a subject for that reason).

The early years of the 20th century changed all that. It became possible to record shipwrecks from new perspectives as they were actually happening, which would come to the fore just before and during the First World War – from other vessels in company (HMHS Anglia post, 1915), or aerial photographs from the then new-fangled aircraft, or from within the wreck itself (Ballarat post, 1915).

As our mystery photographer demonstrates, it was also possible for an intrepid visitor to climb aboard a wreck and illustrate the wrecking process from within.

B&W photo of shipwreck showing amidships structure and masts to left, deck awash with water from the sea to the right, cliffs in background.
View looking astern on board the Preussen, awash amidships, c.1910. Note the sharpness and technical competence of the image aboard an unstable platform being pounded by the sea.

There seems to have been quite a trade in postcards of the event, not surprising at a time when wreck sites could become temporary seaside attractions. A quick Google gave me three possible photographers’ names so once more I prepared to research them, and once more the first hit seems to have been the correct one. A postcard from amidships in the opposite direction looking south towards the bows suggested the same photographer, named on the front as ‘Russell Jewry, Photo. Deal.’

I felt sure then that we had our man – the same modus operandi, and as a commercial photographer he would have had access to up-to-date professional equipment to stabilise his camera on board the wreck, and as a local man someone with the contacts to obtain access.

It’s likely that he was able to board her in conjunction with a survey or assessment visit, such as one noted in Lloyd’s List from 9 November, with a German lighter due in to begin offloading the cargo that afternoon.  Further reports showed that the vessel continued to deteriorate following winter gales in December, finally breaking in two in January, while the salvagers themselves ran the risk of wreck. It looks as if the photographs were taken in winter conditions, probably in early December – so Russell Jewry took significant risks to obtain a commercial scoop. (2)

If only all archive mysteries were as easy as this! What a pleasure though to go from a completely unidentified image to one with a location, a subject, a photographer, and a date in one go!

To this day tall ships remain tourist attractions, and even at the time the windjammers were something of an anachronism. As we’ve shown in the War Diary, sailing ship numbers were drastically reduced during the First World War, and by the 1930s, even at the height of the long-distance grain races on which they remained commercially viable, they were positively old-fashioned and somewhat under-resourced – even before this time books had been written on the ‘last of the windjammers’! Aboard the Winterhude in 1934, an English sailor recorded that his ship was circled in mid-Atlantic by an American liner which diverted out of her course to allow her passengers to take in the sight, something of a novelty in its turn for the captain of the Winterhude! (3)

The Preussen‘s fellow Flying-P, Pamir, passed through many adventures, including two World Wars and changes of ownership. Before the Second World War she was owned by Finn Gustav Erikson of Mariehamn, who bought up many of these old sailing barques. In Wellington, New Zealand, in 1941, however, she was seized by the New Zealand government as a prize of war, and sailed under their flag for the duration.

Post-war she was something of a celebrity as one of the very last of the commercial sailing vessels. Her return to London in 1947 excited considerable interest, sailing back to New Zealand in 1948, when she was formally rendered back to Erikson. Later the same year she left once more for Australia to pick up grain in what was billed as the last grain race from Australia to England, together with her ‘sister’, Passat. Their final landfall in England in 1949 again made headline news. (4) Sadly, Pamir would founder at sea in mid-Atlantic in 1957. Following the loss of Pamir, Passat was taken out of service, but survives today as a museum ship at Travemünde, Germany.

B&W photo of a dockside receding to show dockside cranes. To left a tall ship whose masts reach above the dock cranes.
Pamir in 1947-8 at Royal Victoria Dock, London. The neighbouring cranes give a sense of scale. Photographer: S W Rawlings

Whether as shipwrecks in 1910, a sight worth a diversion in mid-Atlantic in the 1930s, or as museum ships today, these grandes dames of the sea have always commanded attention, and never more so than in 1910 for a Deal photographer prepared to take risks for an outstanding shot.

Modern colour photograph of four-masted museum ship with four bare masts and a crane beyond at left, against a grey sky.
Passat as a museum ship at Priwall, Germany, June 2018, seen from the Travemuende bank. By coincidence, this tourist photograph echoes the crane in the Pamir shot (1947) and the slightly deceptive sense of scale of the Preussen against Dover’s White Cliffs in 1910! Photograph courtesy of Andrew Wyngaard.

 

(1) Other five-masted vessels and above were available, so to speak, but they were never as common as three- and four-masted vessels, and seem to have been particularly in vogue around the early years of the 20th century. Wreck of the Week has previously covered the unique 7-masted Thomas W Lawson (1902-1907), lost off the Isles of Scilly. One of Preussen’s ‘Flying-P’ precursors was the five-masted barque Potosi (1894-1925). TheFrance II (1911-1922), and R C Rickmers (1906-1917) were also five-masted barques built with auxiliary engines, while there were a number of American five-masted schooners such as the wooden-hulled Paul Palmer (1902-1913) and Prescott Palmer (1911-1914). The SS Great Britain steamer (1843), is now displayed as originally fitted out, with six masts, one square-rigged, the others rigged fore-and-aft, but she was the reverse of the France II and R C Rickmers, with sail auxiliary to steam.

(2) Lloyd’s List 9 November 1910, No.22,815, p9, and 19 December 1910, No.22,849, p9; Dundee Evening Telegraph, 12 January 1911, No.10,593, p1, and Dover Express, 13 January 1911, No.2,741, p5

(3) Geoffrey Sykes Robertshaw, Before the Mast: in the Grain Races of the 1930s, Blue Elvan Books, Truro, 2008. For further reading on the windjammers: Basil Lubbock, The Last of the Windjammers, Brown, Son & Ferguson, Glasgow, 2 vols., 1927-1929; Eric Newby, Learning the Ropes, John Murray, London, 1999

(4) See, for example, the eager reporting of Pamir’s arrival in London in time for Christmas, December 1947, Western Morning News, 22 December 1947, No.27,430,  footage of the then Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh visiting the Pamir in London in March 1948, and on the vessels’ return in 1949, Hull Daily Mail, 1 October 1949, No.19,926, p3; North Devon Journal, 6 October 1949, No.6,705, p7.