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



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