Henry V’s Grace Dieu – medieval England’s biggest ship
You might say that the opposite of ‘wreck’ is ‘launch’ and today, 16 July 2018, marks 600 years since the first date we can tie to the Grace Dieu in the whole of her long history, the majority of which has been spent as a wreck site in the River Hamble. In 1974 she was one of the earliest designations under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973, which came into force 45 years ago this week, so a double ‘birthday’ so to speak!
Today’s guest blogger is Dr Ian Friel FSA, an independent historian, museum consultant and writer. He worked for 30 years in museums, including the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich and the Mary Rose Trust, and was involved in NMM fieldwork on the Grace Dieu and (potential) Holy Ghost wreck sites in the early 1980s. He is the author of three books on maritime history, including Henry V’s Navy (The History Press, 2015) and is currently working on a fourth.
Dr Friel writes:
Six hundred years ago, on 16 July 1418, William Barrowe, the Bishop of Bangor, received his travelling expenses for a trip from London to Southampton and back. What does this less-than riveting piece of information have to do with the theme of Wreck of the Week? The answer is that Barrowe’s mission was ‘to consecrate a certain King’s ship, there newly built, called the Gracedieu’.
The Grace Dieu was the last and biggest of four ‘great ships’ constructed for King Henry V of England between 1413 and 1420. ‘Great ship’ was a contemporary type name and these vessels played an important role in Henry’s plans to conquer France, because eliminating French sea power was one of the keys to a successful invasion.
Big naval battles were fairly rare in the Middle Ages, but they usually ended in a series of bloody boarding actions in which big ships with large crews had the advantage. This was clearly the chief raison d’etre of the great ships, though they also had propaganda value as symbols of English might.
The great ships were part of one of the most powerful royal war fleets ever seen in medieval England. Major operations relied on the participation of large numbers of conscripted English vessels and hired foreign shipping, but the ‘king’s ships’ were the spearhead of the English naval war effort. The first three great ships, the Trinity Royal (500 tons), Holy Ghost (740 tons) and the Jesus (1000 tons), were completed between 1415 and 1417. The Trinity Royal and Holy Ghost certainly went into battle, and it’s likely that the Jesus did, as well. The Grace Dieu’s naval career was shorter and much less eventful.
Construction of the ship began at Southampton in 1416, in a specially-dug dock. The work was overseen by an official named Robert Berd, but it’s unlikely he was anything more than a manager and bean-counter. There is little doubt that the Grace Dieu was designed by the project’s master shipwright, John Hoggekyn.
We know very little about the dedicated, workaholic Hoggekyn – he was eventually pensioned off after wearing himself out in royal service – but he deserves to be remembered as one of medieval England’s greatest engineers. His achievement was on a par with that of Brunel in building the huge steamship Great Britain in the 19th century.
The Grace Dieu was clinker-built, and each overlapping strake (line of planking) was composed of three layers of boards – presumably to prevent the huge structure from collapsing under its own weight. The ship was reckoned to be of 1400 tons burden (theoretical carrying capacity), making it the biggest vessel seen in England before Henry VIII’s time, a century later. Measurements of the Grace Dieu made in 1430 suggest that it was 50 m to 60 m in length and about 15 m in breadth (164-197 ft x 50 ft). It was not much smaller than Nelson’s HMS Victory of 1805, though the Grace Dieu and the other great ships will have looked very different. They probably resembled carracks – the carrack was a large medieval ship type of Mediterranean origin, used for both trade and war.
The Grace Dieu was built with a retinue of two oared fighting ships and four boats, and at least 3,906 trees were felled for the project. Most were New Forest oaks, though beech, ash and elm were also used, along many other timbers and boards. The ship had a huge mainmast, possibly over 50 m in height and carried two, or possibly three masts in total. Multi-masted ships were very new in England at the time – the purpose of the additional sails was doubtless to help propel and manoeuvre big ships. The Grace Dieu itself came with an eye-watering price-tag, costing an estimated £3,800, perhaps equal to £1,647,000,000 nowadays.
The blessing of the Grace Dieu by the Bishop of Bangor in 1418 may have marked the day on which the hull was floated out of its building dock. Though described as ‘newly built’ at that point, it was not ready for sea until 1420.
In the spring of that year it became the flagship of a powerful patrol group assembled at Southampton. The force included the three other great ships – it was the only occasion on which they sailed together. By this time, however, the naval war was virtually over. The English had broken French sea power back in 1417, allowing Henry to invade France for a second time. There were still fears in 1420 that France’s Spanish allies might attack England, but this threat never materialised.
Most English ships of the time were of less than 100 tons, so the Grace Dieu and the other great ships must made a deep impression on contemporaries. One of Henry’s brothers, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, wrote to the king: ‘… your great ship the Grace Dieu is ever as ready and is the fairest that ever men saw…’
However, all was not well. England was short of sailors, and the three earlier great ships were seriously undermanned, with between 50 and 70 per cent of their original complements of 200 mariners apiece. Even the Grace Dieu carried only 199 sailors, surely too few to properly manage such a big vessel.
Aside from the manpower problems, there was serious discontent in the fleet. Men were refusing to be mustered – to have their names taken for pay records – and it took a real effort to get the force to sea. The Grace Dieu finally sailed out into the Solent, but the voyage was cut short by a mutiny, led by some Devon men. They forced the ship to put in at St Helen’s, on the western end of the Isle of Wight, and that was the end of the Grace Dieu’s war service. Medieval England’s biggest and most expensive war machine sailed only slightly further than a modern Solent ferry.
The four great ships were taken back to the River Hamble, on the eastern side of Southampton Water, where there was a protected anchorage for the royal fleet. The government made serious efforts to keep them afloat, for they were still emblems of English royal power, even if there was no sea war to fight. The Grace Dieu was certainly used to impress at least one visiting Italian galley commander. Luca di Maso degli Albizzi was wined and dined aboard the ship in 1430, and later wrote in his diary that he had never seen ‘so large and splendid a construction’.
Despite the maintenance work, the great ships all began to leak more and more. The three older vessels were laid up between 1426 and 1430, and the Grace Dieu followed a few years after. In order to lighten the ship, much of its heavy gear was removed in 1432 and the top part of the great mainmast was cut off. Two years later, the Grace Dieu was towed upriver to Bursledon, and placed in a mud dock cut into the riverbank.
The great ship was abandoned, but it did not moulder for long. It was struck by lightning on the night of 7/8 January 1439, caught fire, and burned to the waterline. Nails and other ironwork were salvaged from the wreck, along with the charred stump of the mainmast, and royal officials continued to chronicle the storage or disposal of this junk (archeology to us) for years. However, in 1452 the record of the Grace Dieu came to a full stop.
Four hundred years later, a small stream on the bank of the Hamble changed course, and washed away some mud to reveal a big shipwreck. First mentioned in an 1859 local guidebook, it was identified as the remains of a Danish warship destroyed by King Alfred’s forces in the 9th century. The ‘Viking Ship’ became quite well known – and also suffered from the attentions of souvenir-hunters, who hacked bits off it.
Ironically, the worst vandal was a man who tried to record the wreck, Francis Crawshay (c 1811-78). He was a wealthy landowner who kept a yacht on the Hamble and evidently fancied himself as an archaeologist. Sadly, his principal excavation tool was gunpowder! In the end, the wreck was saved by Customs and Excise – not for any archaeological reason, but because Crawshay had failed to declare his finds to the Receiver of Wreck.
The ‘Viking Ship’ was finally identified as the Grace Dieu in 1933, by the historian R C Anderson. Anderson visited the site with a small team, at the instigation of a local man, Mr F C P Naish. They made the first modern survey of the site, conducted a limited excavation and revealed the wreck’s unprecedented triple-skin clinker planking.
There was other work on the wreck in later decades, including a series of investigations by the National Maritime Museum’s former Archaeological Research Centre in the early 1980s. The full shape and extent of the hull remains were revealed by sonar survey made in 2005 by the University of Southampton and the National Oceanography Centre. This showed that only the bottom 2 m of the Grace Dieu survives, but even this remnant is massive, measuring some 32.5 m by 12.2 m.
The wreck of the Grace Dieu was bought in 1970 by the University, and in 1974 it was designated as a Protected Wreck under the 1973 Protection of Wrecks Act. You can only visit the site of the Grace Dieu with special statutory permission, but at very low tides it is possible to see some of its timbers from the opposite riverbank in Upper Hamble Country Park – the wreck site is marked with a yellow PWA buoy.
The Grace Dieu is of international importance, one of a small number of known medieval wrecks in the UK, and one of the few in Europe of this period that can be named. The ship owed its existence to the warlike ambitions of one of England’s most famous kings, and shows medieval maritime technology operating at its limits. The wreck is also a monument to one of England’s most accomplished, but least known shipbuilders – John Hoggekyn.
© Ian Friel 2018
Carpenter Turner, W.J., ‘The building of the Gracedieu, Valentine and Falconer at Southampton, 1416–20’, Mariner’s Mirror 40 (1954), pp.55–72
I Friel, ‘Henry V’s Grace Dieu and the wreck in the R. Hamble near Bursledon, Hampshire’, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, Vol 22, 1993, pp 3-19
I Friel, The Good Ship. Ships, Shipbuilding and Technology in England 1200-1520, British Museum press, London, 1995
I Friel, Henry V’s Navy, The History Press, Stroud, 2015
Plets, R.M.K., J.K. Dix, J.R. Adams, J.M. Bull, T.J. Henstock, M. Gutowski and A.I. Best, ‘The Use of a High-resolution 3D Chirp Sub-bottom Profiler for the Reconstruction of the Shallow Water Archaeological Site of the Grace Dieu (1439), River Hamble, UK’, Journal of Archaeological Science, 36 (2009), pp.408–18
S Rose, ‘Henry V’s Grace Dieu and Mutiny at Sea: Some New Evidence’, Mariner’s Mirror 63 (1977), pp.3–6
S Rose (ed), The Navy of the Lancastrian Kings: Accounts and Inventories of William Soper, Keeper of the King’s Ships, 1422-1427, Navy Records Society Vol 123, London, 1982.
Crawshay obituary: Hampshire Advertiser, 9 November 1878, p 5 (via britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)