19. Pêcheur d’Islande (An Icelandic Fisherman)

To commemorate the centenary of the wreck of the Tadorne and the loss of the Bastiaise in 1940, both in north-eastern waters, the French frigate Primauguet recently called at Newcastle.

The Tadorne (which means “shelduck”) was a French trawler en route to the Icelandic fishing grounds which became embroiled in a storm off the Northumberland coast on March 29th, 1913 and eventually struck Howick Rocks to become a total loss. The local lifeboat succeeded in rescuing 25 out of the 30 crew.

The scene was one of steaming mugs of tea doled out amid scenes of mutual incomprehension between French fishermen and Northumbrian farmers. Eventually a French servant at nearby Howick Hall was sent for to act as an interpreter, through whom the master was able to convey his profuse thanks.

The five drowned men are commemorated at St. Michael’s, Longhoughton, a corner of an English field that is forever France:

According to the memorial, the Tadorne was lost below the Boat House at Howick, which can be identified on historic Ordnance Survey mapping, but is no longer extant. One of the names on the memorial is Pierre Archenoux of Cancale: though he is long dead, his story lives on through his trunk. It was washed up, and sent back with a personal note of condolence to his widow by Lady Grey at Howick Hall, thereafter passing down his family. It inspired a French children’s novel with beautiful silhouette illustrations telling the story of the wreck and pictures of life aboard a typical French trawler of that period.

There are bits and pieces of wreckage attributed to the Tadorne around Howick Haven, absolutely in the correct position below the Boat House, where a gap in the rocks forms something of a natural beaching area; presumably the reason for the siting of the Boat House itself, whence boats could be easily launched. I have just recorded this wreckage in a separate site record linked to the casualty record: though in all likelihood, this machinery and framing do indeed belong to the Tadorne, there’s a century’s worth of time elapsed between the event and the wreckage, so if anyone knows this wreck and can fill in the gaps, confirm the identification, and enable us to merge the two records, please let me know.

As an aside, Breton trawlers like the Tadorne, of Nantes, dominated the Icelandic cod fishery in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. A contemporary edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1911, vol.XXIV, p293) refers to the existence of a French-Icelandic pidgin; the even more specialised Breton-Icelandic pidgin has also been recorded, a minority language if ever there was one. The story of French trawling off Iceland is also told in the novel Pêcheur d’Islande by Pierre Loti, 1891 (one of my set books in those far-off days when you were expected to be able to write critical essays in French at A-level . . . )

18. The Ship of the Desert

As camels are so often poetically named the “ship of the desert” it seems apt that a real ship might rejoice in the name of a camel. Or does it?

This week I have been channelling my inner Errol Flynn by buckling the swash through the Battle of the Gabbard, 1653, among others. I don’t want to spike my guns by revealing too much at this stage, but I do want to whet your appetite for the Battlefields project!

The ship in question is sometimes referred to as the Kameel in both primary and secondary sources, commanded by Joost Bulter, and is one of the six ships sunk in the battle. Only two have the potential to have been lost in English waters, since both were lost before nightfall on the first day – after which the Dutch bore up for the Flemish coast. One of these was the Kameel.

Earlier in the Anglo-Dutch wars Bulter was recorded as in command of a ship known as the Stadt en Land (Town and Country), but this wasn’t the right name either as the Stadt en Land seems not to have otherwise been recorded. It is suggested by one authority that Willem van de Velde the Elder, who drew many ship portraits (as did his son, the Younger – many of you will be familiar with the Younger’s drawing of the London) may have been to blame for the first misapprehension, by recording this ship with a camel carved on her counter-stern, and annotating it as ‘Kameel’. Perhaps this was her first name, if she was a hired ship. (Camel is certainly attested as the name of an English ship in the same period, one of the English fireships expended in the Second Anglo-Dutch War: the name seems to have gone out of fashion until we see a rash of CAMELS wrecked 1875-1896!)

At the same time another ship named the Stadt Groningen en Ommelanden is recorded, and it has been proposed by some that this was Joost Bulter’s ship. It would not be unusual for crews to shorten or otherwise alter the name of their ship: we know, for example, at a later date that the crew of the Bellerophon called her the Billy Ruffian, so that explanation sounds very plausible.

The Gabbard is not particularly well illustrated in Dutch marine paintings, possibly because they were, well, trounced, on this occasion. There is a atmospheric, albeit fairly general, scene by the minor artist Heerman Witmont in the National Maritime Museum, whose central feature is sails with prominent holes over clouds of smoke – no better way to convey the heat of battle! The technique is grisaille – pen and ink drawing on panel – not common, but characteristic of some Dutch marine artists and used by Willem van de Velde the Elder.

Resolution on the right duels Brederode on the left by the mutual firing of broadsides: Resolution flies the ensign of the Commonwealth. In the foreground is the detritus of war – wreckage floating in the foreground on a symbolically choppy sea. This foreground wreckage is very much a convention of marine paintings, particularly of battle scenes, and no wonder, with masts being constantly shot away and the like, but possibly it also subtly alludes to the Dutch losses in this encounter.

17. It was a Bad Thing, and the Wrong Answer

Today’s wreck concerns the death of Hugo de Boves, “a man full of vice and cruelty”, off Great Yarmouth in 1215 with his mercenaries and settlers from Flanders, whom contemporary chroniclers said were responding to a grant of the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk in return for their aid to King John during the Barons’ War. “By the Grace of God,” Roger of Wendover wrote, their purpose was frustrated by shipwreck; when the news reached King John he was beside himself with rage. “Alas, alas”, another chronicler wrote, “how many people perished through that evil man.” It is quite a novelty to see a shipwreck event directly ascribed to a king who was not even present on the lost ships, but ultimately, perhaps, it was true. Or perhaps it was a case of blaming “bad King John” for everything?

There are a number of strange aspects to this particular story. Hugo and his soldiers and settlers, including women and children, some of whom were English exiles as well as the Flemings, and horses, set sail from Calais for Dover, which seems strange when they had been granted land in East Anglia. Perhaps Dover was their first calling point on the journey: at least this is a credible and well-established route, and the route seems consistent also with the pattern of fighting in Flanders in 1214.

The initial exaggerations, which only got bigger in the retelling, (a jump from 40,000 people, which seems a suspicious number, to 60,000 in one source) were trumped by the eyewitness evidence of a monk journeying from Binham Priory to Norwich. This somewhat credulous chap gave one bit of apparently reliable evidence by attesting to the power of the same storm in the right region, albeit inland, on the same night, but then his credibility was contaminated by a whiff of sulphur as he also saw a mysterious “party of horsemen with sulphurous torches” who kept company with him some of the way. It’s not actually explicitly stated, but it seems that he might have been trying to make out they were the ghosts of Hugo’s cavalry?

Hugo is specifically stated to have been washed up off Gernemouth or Jernemeve (Great Yarmouth, a securely recorded form of the name in other medieval documents), so he at least was recognised, whether by a heraldic device or some other identifying feature of his accoutrements still on him, or by his features still present, so he cannot have been in the water too long. So many bodies, recognisable as women and children, washed up “in various ports in that part of the sea” that the “air was infected with putrefaction on the sands” which suggests that the wreck took place off East Anglia, as Hugo and his followers journeyed north from Dover.

The number of bodies washed up in turn suggests less a simple foundering event which is likely to have entombed many people in the ships as they went down, than an offshore stranding event in which the ships broke up as they were pounded on the hazard, before finally sinking. So it is possible to suggest that one of the sandbanks off Great Yarmouth was responsible for the loss of so many ships, particularly in a storm event such as this, which would plausibly account for so many ships being lost in a single event. This kind of pattern of multiple wrecks on the sandbanks of Great Yarmouth has been reliably attested at other periods during similar storm events, particularly those relating to fleets of colliers from Newcastle, and their counterparts running north in ballast from London, from the 17th to the 19th centuries.

We had only had one previous account for wrecks in the period 1210-1220, in 1214 off Sandwich,  so even the vague record for Hugo de Boves’ wreck represents a gain of 100%!

This particular wreck is a ‘by-catch’ of the work for the Naval Battlefields Project, in which I looked at documentary evidence of both the written and visual kinds to aid our understanding of wrecks and the circumstances in which they took place. I found it when searching for a copy of an illumination depicting the Battle of Sandwich in 1217, by Matthew Paris in the Parker Manuscript of the Chronica Majora.

Matthew Paris’ illuminations were effectively a ‘shorthand’ encapsulating key details of his narrative. It is suggested that the Battle of Sandwich resulted in an unknown number of French ships said to have been rammed and sunk by the English, permitting a further representative record for these losses to be made, although this outcome is disputed by some authorities. In total this strand of research has augmented records of the wreck potential by 200% for that ten-year period, plus one naval battle, but it does serve to illustrate how difficult it is to retrieve wreck information for the early modern period.

We first meet Hugh de Boves in the top illumination on this webpage, representing the Battle of Bouvines: unfortunately we can’t put a face to his name! The second illumination shows the shipwreck in 1215, with the adjoining words in a careful scribal hand, complete with the normal abbreviations of that period: Eade[m] nocte q[ua] periit Hugo de Boves f[a]cta [est] te[m]pestas. . . ‘On the same night that Hugh de Boves perished, a tempest arose . . .’

As you can see from the link, there is a melee of horses and soldiers amongst capsizing and half-submerged ships. What I also find interesting is that land appears to be represented at extreme left: all the details Matthew Paris illustrates are the important ones, and he wouldn’t have included a representation of a land feature without a reason. Either it represents a rock, indicating a conventional representation of an undersea hazard, or it represents a bit of coastline, suggesting the wreck took place fairly close inshore.

The Battle of Sandwich is depicted in the fifth illumination on the same page, depicting the slaughter of Eustace the Monk, a renegade to his vows and to his king. Definitely a Bad Thing (and a possible occasion of wrecks).

* with apologies to Sellar and Yeatman, of 1066 and All That (Chapter 18: John; An Awful King). For more serious (and more recent) reading matter on the Battle of Sandwich, the struggle for the English throne after the death of King John in October 2016, and the wider Magna Carta context, see:

Asbridge, Thomas, The Greatest Knight: the remarkable life of William Marshal, the power behind five English thrones (Simon & Schuster UK Ltd., 2015)

Breay, Clare, and Harrison, Julian (eds.) Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy (British Library, 2015)

Brooks, Richard, The Knight Who Saved England: William Marshal and the French Invasion, 1217 (Osprey Publishing, 2014)

Carpenter, David, Magna Carta (Penguin Classics, 2015)

McGlynn, Sean, Blood Cries Afar: The Forgotten Invasion of England 1216 (History Press, 2011)

McGlynn, Sean, “The Devil’s Monk”, in BBC History, September 2017