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.

No.58 Caen Stone

The Building Blocks of Wreck Knowledge 

Inspired by my recent trip to Caen, I decided this week to have a look at wrecks laden with Caen stone.

Four of our wrecks are known to have been carrying stone specifically described as sourced from Caen. This form of limestone became a popular building material in England for post-Conquest abbeys, cathedrals, and castles: a demonstration of Norman might in Norman stone.

To see maquettes from the Bayeux Tapestry Museum depicting Norman ships unloading stone at the Tower of London, click here (two images on the right-hand side).

Despite all this medieval building activity, we currently know only of post-medieval Caen stone wrecks in English waters. As we would expect, all came ashore on the Channel coast, within a 50-mile stretch of coastline bounded by Dungeness to the east and Hastings to the west. The first, an unknown vessel (we don’t even know if she was English or French), was driven ashore in 1616 somewhere between Lydd and Rye, from which an anchor and cable were taken in assertion of right to wreck.

In early October 1852 the Honoria was driven ashore near the Black Rocks, Brighton, while bound to London. Her sails were torn to shreds in mid-Channel by an ‘equinoctial’ force 11 gale, so that her master was forced to let her drive before the wind. The ‘sufferers’, who were much exhausted by their efforts, were saved and lodged in ‘comfortable quarters’, a somewhat unexpected description for accommodation in the local workhouse!

In much the same fashion John and Mary, also bound to London, was driven ashore near Rye by another ‘equinoctial’ gale in late September 1856. This, however, ended less happily, as the master, who did make it ashore, was left to mourn his wife and four children, who perished.

In 1870 the Thomas Hubbuck, again London-bound with Caen stone, struck near Dungeness like her 1616 counterpart. On this occasion all were happily saved. The lifeboat went out to the scene, but was not required: it was then beached at Dungeness, rather than battling back in the prevailing weather conditions. The men and horses sent to fetch the boat back overland were nearly ‘smothered’ in an unexpected quicksand from which they were extricated only with difficulty.

What contemporary projects in England required the import of Caen stone for new buildings, repairs, or sculptures? Occasionally we can tie the loss of stone cargoes to specific works, for example Portland stone for the New Bridge at Blackfriars, or Dundee stone for the Import Dock at Wapping.

Any suggestions, therefore, for the use of Caen stone in 1616 or in Victorian London in 1852, 1856 and 1870?


Traduction en français: 

Après avoir passé un bon séjour à Caen, cette semaine j’écris un peu concernant les épaves chargées de pierre de Caen.

Quatre naufrages chargés de pierres extraites des carrières caennaises sont coulés autour des côtes anglaises. La pierre de Caen, d’origine calcaire, est devenue la pierre de choix pour les constructions anglo-normands après l’arrivée de Guillaume le Conquérant dès 1066: abbatiales, cathédrales, et châteaux sont tous également construits en pierre de Caen, exprimant la conquête normande de l’Angleterre en pierre aussi normande.

Veuillez cliquer ici pour voir des maquettes du Musée de la Tapisserie, Bayeux, où se trouvent des navires normandes qui débarquent pierre de Caen aux bords de la Tamise où la Tour de Londres est en train de construction (à droite).

Malgré tous ces bâtiments outre-manche du Moyen Age, nous n’en connaissons pas de naufrages médiévales chargés de la pierre de Caen: les quatre naufrages dont nous avons la connaissance se sont coulés à partir du XVIIe siècle, tous aux côtes de la Manche, entre Hastings et Dungeness. La première est échouée en 1616 entre Lydd et Rye, dont nous savons peu de détails: nous ne savons même pas si c’était un bateau anglais ou un bateau français. Les autorités anglaises en ont pris une ancre et une chaîne comme “right of wreck” (“droit d’épave”), ancien droit qui accordait aux grandes domaines de propriétaires terrines ou ecclésiastiques le droit de prendre quelque partie du navire échoué et de son cargaison, si c’était sauvée, lui aussi.

En octobre 1852 le navire Honoria est échoué près des Black Rocks (Rochers Noires), Brighton, en route pour Londres. Ses gréements sont rompus par un vent qui hurlait de force 11, mais les marins naufragés bien épuisés en sont tous sauvés. Quatre ans plus tard, le navire John and Mary est de même façon échoué près de Rye: quoique le capitaine se soit échappé avec toute l’équipe du navire, sa femme et ses quatre enfants se sont malheureusement noyés.

En 1870 le Thomas Hubbuck, en voyageant aussi vers Londres chargé de pierre caennaise, est, tout comme le bateau de 1616, aussi échoué près de Dungeness. Heureusement, toute l’équipe est sauvée dans leur propre bateau; le canot de sauvetage est parti en mer, mais on n’en avait pas besoin, parce que les marins se sont sauvés. Le canot est donc placé sur terre à Dungeness, les sauveteurs épuisés ne voulant pas le retour en mer en pleine tempête. Les hommes et les chevaux commandés de le récupérer par voie de terre sont presque péris aux sables mouvants inattendus, desquels ils ne sont pas extraits qu’avec des plus grands périls.

On peut quelquefois lier les épaves chargées de pierres particulières avec leurs ouvrages destinataires, pierre de Portland (Dorset) pour le Pont Nouveau de Blackfriars (Londres) par exemple, ou pierre de Dundee (Ecosse) pour le Quai des Imports, Wapping (Londres).

Quels sont donc les projets contemporains en Angleterre en 1616 et au troisième quart du XIXe siècle auxquels la pierre de Caen était destinée – nouveaux constructions, réparations des bâtiments anciens, ou œuvres sculptés?