As we commemorate the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 I thought I’d cast an eye over the few 11th century wrecks for which we have some evidence.
As far as I know there is no record of any of the Conqueror’s ships being wrecked on the crossing or attacked on arrival, although perhaps the course of history might have been altered if this had happened . . . I have come across references to a possible wreck among the invasion forces in a secondary source, but have so far not located a contemporary or near-contemporary reference for it, so if anyone knows, please do get in touch!
More securely, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which at least is a contemporary, albeit partial, source, offers tantalising clues that some of Harald Hardrada’s shipborne force may have been destroyed following the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066, so we do have details of some virtually contemporary wrecks. (1). It is unclear where, exactly, his ships were berthed or where they were ultimately lost, but it was a significant force of some 300 vessels. It seems, according to the D manuscript of the Chronicle, that the enemy was pusued by the victorious English ‘until they got to their ships’, and they were ‘allowed to depart in 24 ships’.
What happened to the remainder? The Chronicle tells that some at least of the ships were fired – a plausible act of retribution, perhaps, and one easily achievable in haste, as Harold’s weary Saxons turned south to join battle on a second front.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle continued to record notable events in the Old English language even after the Norman Conquest, and in 1091 tells us that the Conquerer’s son, William Rufus, suffered the loss of ‘nearly all’ his fleet in late summer or early autumn gales ‘before they could reach Scotland’ on a punitive expedition against Malcolm III. (2) This suggests that they almost reached their goal, but not quite . . . being dashed to pieces on a rocky shore somewhere north of the Humber is, at best, an educated guess.
Much earlier in the century the Chronicle informs us that Aethelred the Unready was also extremely unlucky with his newly-built fleet of 1008, which appears to have been largely lost in an act of civil strife in 1009. One Brihtric accused one Wulfnoth of the South Saxons before Aethelred and took 80 of Aethelred’s ships stationed at Sandwich against Wulfnoth’s 20, but a storm arose and cast the fleet ashore, whereupon Wulfnoth fired the disabled fleet.(3) A location somewhere on the Sussex coast seems plausible if conjectural, not too far from Sandwich and within South Saxon territory, with its characteristic sloping beaches allowing easy access for firing the stranded vessels.
These accounts from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle allow us a rare glimpse into the world of 11th century shipwrecks and give us a hint of the potential archaeology. In fact the Chronicle is our principal documentary source for wreck events from the 8th century onwards, although occasionally we may discern details of real-life events through other surviving works such as the Life of St. Wilfrid – who definitively existed and is no mythical figure, with an interesting associated wreck event which has a logical rather than supernatural explanation. (4)
The Chronicle was intended to act as a record of major events of socio-political impact so the wrecks it recounts all have several things in common: the most important factor is that all survive because of their connection with significant events and/or people (a common thread in all the Chronicle‘s shipwreck narratives and indeed as far as St. Wilfrid is concerned)..
This significance is also reflected in the fact that all involve ships of war (which, historically, have always been the best-documented of all vessels for obvious reasons). Additionally, the numbers involved in each case were also very large if somewhat vague, adding to the striking nature of each incident, even if they sometimes sound somewhat ’rounded up’ (another characteristic of the Chronicle‘s wreck accounts).
Mercantile and fishing vessels there are none. Later in the Middle Ages we begin to see records for losses of trading ships, and occasionally towards the latter end of the medieval period, we might come across the odd fishing vessel here and there, but these would always be under-represented in the record until well into the post-medieval period.
There is, therefore, an enormous disjunct between documentary sources and archaeology, for 11th century vessels have occasionally been found in a number of contexts, for example at Billingsgate and Southwark, London (5) or at Warrington, none of which have corresponding documentary records (or at least, none have survived that we know of). Although wreck accounts become increasingly plentiful (and increasingly detailed) during the Middle Ages, it is not until the mid 15th century that we are able to tie a wreck site with surviving documentary details.
You may like to read an earlier post, on the legacy of the Normans – shipwrecks laden with Caen stone from Normandy which became a feature of Norman (and later) architecture in England.
(1) Whitelock, D (ed.). 1961. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, pp142-4
(2) Whitelock 1961: 169
(3) Whitelock 1961:88-9
(4) Cant, S. 2013. England’s Shipwreck Heritage: from logboats to U-boats. Swindon: Historic England Publishing, pp202-6
(5) Marsden, P. 1994. Ships of the Port of London: first to eleventh centuries AD. Swindon: English Heritage, pp153-162