No.59 Struck by lightning

A Shipwreck, after Vernet: Apsley House © English Heritage Photo Library
A Shipwreck, after Vernet: Apsley House
© English Heritage Photo Library

The dramatic lightning lighting up our skies last week (see gallery), inspires this week’s piece on the Grace Dieu struck by lightning one winter’s night in January 1439, and now a designated wreck site.

The Grace Dieu was not struck at sea, but instead while laid up in the River Hamble, where she still remains after catching fire and being partially broken up in situ: an inglorious end to her uncertain career with only one known voyage in Henry V’s service. Even though laid up, she seems to have at least one mast standing, for ‘half of one great mast, totally burned in the upper part’ was recorded, the lower half being salvaged and sold for 40 shillings. An analysis of Shipwreck by Lightning published in the 1850s shows that, as we would expect, lightning struck the mainmast in two-thirds of cases (p27).

Although lightning strikes seem to have been reasonably common, they more often caused damage rather than destruction. This is borne out by our shipwreck record in which we know of only 8 vessels struck by lightning, including the Grace Dieu: in her case, the lightning triggered a deliberate breaking-up process rather than consuming her totally. Total loss was often helped along by a combustible cargo (a deck cargo of timber, Matthew and Thomas, 1783; cotton, Robert Shaw, 1847; spirits, Luna Nueva, 1880). The Matthew and Thomas was wrecked in port, while Shipwreck by Lightning (pp1-27) uncovers several examples of 18th and 19th century warships damaged by lightning while laid up on the south coast – just like the Grace Dieu. Some of these were also lost in the winter months, rather than the summer, when, of course, lightning is more common.

The other known wrecks associated with lightning are from a much later age with more surviving records, from the late 18th century onwards: there may be more simply recorded as ‘burnt’. Of course ships were lost in storms, but I was surprised at how few records actually mentioned lightning as part of a storm context.

Contemporary shipwreck paintings regularly show bolts of lightning illuminating the scene, but we should not forget artistic licence: it was a shorthand for ‘storm weather’ and a means of highlighting the wreckage against darkened clouds and heavy grey seas, not necessarily an indicator of cause of loss, as in this painting belonging to EH, above.