No.48: The Cieszyn

Dziękuję ci Kapitanie!

Following a trip to Poland last week, I thought I’d talk about Polish shipwrecks in English waters.

We have at least 69 wrecks of Polish origin, but a number may have been masked by historic former nationalities such as “Prussian”. Without a home port being named, it is difficult to identify just to which modern state incorporated within the former extent of Prussia a vessel belongs. Our earliest reference is in 1389 to the Cristofre of Danzig, while a reference to “Dansk in Prucia” from 1391 is clear enough, at the period when Gdansk was one of the major cities of the Hanseatic League, a trade association which dominated the Baltic and North Sea and became a power in its own right. Richard II and his queen, Anne of Bohemia, surrendered their rights in the wreck and restored the wrecked goods to the merchants involved.

Inevitably language isn’t always much of a clue, since most Prussian names were recorded in German rather than Polish, although occasionally other languages crop up. There is even a Marquis Wellington belonging to Gdansk, wrecked off Lincolnshire in 1824, when memories of the Anglo-Prussian alliance against Napoleon were still fresh. The ports of Gdansk and Szszecin continued to be referred to as Prussian Danzig and Stettin until well into the 20th century.

During World War II a number of Polish ships were lost in English waters including today’s featured wreck, the Cieszyn, which was bombed and sunk by two Dorniers off Lowland Point, near Falmouth, 73 years ago yesterday on 20th March 1941.

It was said that the boat carrying the escaping crew also came under attack, as did the lifeboatmen who put out from Coverack to rescue them in the Three Sisters lifeboat. When the Coverack cox’n, Archie Rowe, was featured on This Is Your Life in the days before it became dominated by celebrities, the team tracked down Captain Mikosza of the Cieszyn to express his gratitude.

Her bell was recovered in 1997, leading to the identification of the wreck, which had previously been thought to be a different wreck site, now believed to be the 1942 wreck of the British armed trawler Lord Snowden, lost in collision in the same general area. In turn the last resting place of the Lord Snowden has been reattributed from elsewhere, when the 1940 wreck of another WWII armed trawler, the Comet, was positively identified by her bell, having previously been believed to be Lord Snowden.

The Cieszyn also lives on in literature. As the fictional Bielsk, the Polish novelist Arkady Fiedler, who spent the war years in London, paid tribute to the Cieszyn and other wartime Polish ships in his book Dziękuję ci Kapitanie (Thank you, Captain!) For a picture of her, please see:

The Polish wrecks in English waters are thus tangible reminders of the shifting alliances in Europe in times of war and peace.

See also a recent post on the Raphael of Gdansk here.

No.45 The Raphael

In this week’s instalment of our mini-series looking at wrecks and their associations with English Heritage properties, I’d like to have a look at the ‘right to wreck’.

In 1468, or perhaps a little earlier, the Raphael of ‘Dansk in Pruce’ (Gdansk in Prussia) was ‘imperilled at Bedebay [BudeBay] in the County of Cornwall, where it was perysshed upon the high sea, and out of the jurisdiction of every county’.

Wreckage washed ashore in Bude Bay near Poughill and was claimed not by a local manorial landowner, but by the servants and tenants of the Abbot of Cleeve in Somserset, citing a grant made to John, Abbot of Cleeve, of ‘wrekke de meere in all his demene londes and tenements in Poghwell and Trelasten in the Countie of Cornwall’ and to his ‘successors for evermore’.

The Abbot claimed the goods, addressing a letter to the Bishop of Bath and Wells, while John May of Bristol, merchant, launched a counter-claim. At issue was the fact that ‘Richard Herlok and Thomas Donne and other mariners of the said ship being in the same ship at the time of the perysshing thereof came to BudeBay aforesaid alive’. If anyone escaped alive from a wreck, then under medieval law it was *not* technically a wreck (regardless of the state it was in): upon such arcane arguments hung many medieval disputes over the right to wreck and salvage.

The outcome of this interesting link between two places so far apart on the Bristol Channel coast, Cleeve Abbey and Bude Bay, remains unknown – as is often the way with medieval wreck records – leaving us to imagine the sequel and to speculate whether any income from this or other wrecks helped to pay for the splendid contemporary late 15th century roof. 

Late 15th century refectory roof, Cleeve Abbey, Somerset, (c) English Heritage Photo Library
Late 15th century refectory roof, Cleeve Abbey, Somerset, (c) English Heritage Photo Library

No.33 Durham and the Farne Islands

Power and Piety

A recent visit to the Farne Islands observing diving ops, followed by a trip to Durham to see the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition, inspired me to look at the ways in which the See of Durham and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne are intertwined in terms of wrecks.

In 1320 a ship laden with wool and hides was lost near Holy Island. The Bishop of Durham, Lewis de Beaumont, claimed the cargo since the wreck lay ‘within the Bishop’s liberty of Norham’, wherein he had ‘regal rights’ – the Bishops of Durham were, after all, Prince Bishops! The wool was arrested in Newcastle on its way south, since Robert the Bruce in his turn laid claim to it, following a treaty at ‘Twedemuth’. The treaty notwithstanding, Edward II upheld the Bishop’s rights in this matter.

In 1534, Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall dealt with a ‘Scotch ship’ stranded within his bishopric. James V of Scotland complained on behalf of his subjects, who accused locals of plundering the ship – a fairly typical accusation, which, in being escalated to the highest level, has preserved a shipwreck in the official record. Tunstall, clearly with an eye to Henry VIII’s finances, felt that offering ‘full reparation against all who could be proved to have offended’ was one thing, but ‘full value, as if the goods had arrived undamaged’ was a step too far! He thereby demonstrated a shrewdness which enabled him to survive the subsequent religious upheavals under Henry and his children, before eventually meeting his match in Elizabeth I.

Nathaniel, Lord Crewe, Bishop of Durham 1674-1721, married a Bamburgh heiress, and between them they posthumously influenced the outcome of shipwrecks on the Farne Islands and Bamburgh for the better. From his wife he inherited considerable estates in Northumberland, stipulating in his own will that surpluses from these assets be charitably distributed. From at least 1776 shipwrecked mariners were succoured by Lord Crewe’s charity, noted with approbation by the newspapers of the day.

The Scotsmen from the Friendship wrecked on the Farne Islands in 1796 met with a better reception than their predecessors in 1534: being ‘liberally supplied from Bamburgh Castle, by the noble charity of the late Lord Crewe.’ I shall close with the happy ending to the ordeal suffered by the sole survivor of the John’s Adventure which struck near the Castle itself the following year:

‘[he] held by some part of the wreck till she righted, when he took his station on that part of the mast, which remained above water. As soon as he was discovered, every exertion was made by the steward of the castle for his relief, and a boat was just putting off when they discovered his deliverers making toward him from off Waren Bar. When brought to land he was much swelled, and had nearly lost the use of his speech, sight, and limbs, but by the care of the Dispensers of Lord Crewe’s noble charity, he is happily restored.’

Have a great weekend!

Wreck of the Week No.30: The Staff of Life

Our Daily Bread

Recently a colleague challenged me to name wrecks with an obscure cargo, thinking that bread would be too difficult to find. Off the top of my head – as we were in a respectable hostelry at the time! – I mentioned a number of local ships I knew of, laden with provisions to take to market, some of which must surely have involved bakery goods as well as groceries and livestock. However, back in the office, I thought I’d better do some digging.

One good example is a wreck that has come down to us only as “Owner Owen’s Trow“, belonging to Gloucester, which sank after colliding with a larger vessel in the Severn in 1751, “which greatly damaged her cargo” of “grocery”. Local papers at this time seem generally to refer to Severn trows by owner rather than by any name the vessel may or may not have had.  For an image of what a trow looked like, have a look at the signboard of the Llandoger Trow pub in Bristol.

I suggested also the raw material of wheat, for example the wreck of the Caledonia in 1842, again inbound to Gloucester with wheat from the ‘bread basket of Russia’ at Odessa. Keeping with the pub theme, to this day there is an Odessa Inn at Tewkesbury, which is on the Severn and must refer to this trade.

Well, as they say, an army marches on its stomach. Virtually every time I found a mention of bread or provisions, it was in relation to victualling a campaign or a fleet. We have a number of such records from the Middle Ages, the earliest being in 1296 at Lytham, “with goods and victuals for the castles in North Wales”. This one was followed in 1302 by another victualler feeding Edward I’s army, lost off Hartlepool, while in 1305 another ship was lost off Cumbria, laden with corn and other provisions for “the maintenance of the king’s subjects in the war” in Scotland.

We only have three specific mentions of bread. One was the Rebecca, exporting bread from Stockton-on-Tees for Barbados, lost at Boulmer, Northumberland, in 1691. The Charming Sally was outward-bound to victual the English army at Quiberon Bay in 1760, when she was lost in the Cattewater, just as she was leaving Plymouth. This shows the support for one of the most famous British campaigns of the 18th century, one of those that shaped modern Canadian history.

Likewise the Swift victualler was lost in convoy off Portland, similarly bound for Canada, in 1776, laden with what every sailor needed: rum and bread. “Oh! dreadful sight!” wrote a witness, as she was consumed by fire.

The long distances involved in all three cases shows us that in all likelihood we are probably looking at the famous hard tack or ship’s biscuit. Have a look at one here.

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



9. Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers

I discussed the wreck Seynt Cristofre from 1386 with the local HER (Historic Environment Record) officer last week. He kindly supplied me with further information from the Calendar of Inquisitions Miscellaneous, which has enabled me to enhance the record further. It was the final outstanding reference, so it is a very good example of harnessing the work of HER officers.

It is an exceptionally detailed record for a wreck from the Middle Ages, both in terms of containing information from several different sources – as we saw with the ‘tin ship wreck’ a couple of weeks back, three references were exceptional even several centuries later – and in the level of detail concerning the ship and circumstances of loss. The ship’s name, date of loss, manner and location of loss, master, owners, cargo and voyage details are all present. A hit rate of perhaps three of these details would be considered good going for documentary evidence of a medieval wreck, from my point of view. Unusually, the paper trail starts with the wreck event – quite often, the first record commissioning an enquiry or “inquisition” is missing from the surviving documentary evidence, and we pick up the trail some time later, so the name, for example, which might have been present in that first mention, isn’t recoverable.

We do not always get to find out what happened subsequently, since the trail often runs cold due to the lack of extant documents before the matter was concluded. You could say that medieval wrecks are often lost twice over – once in the wrecking process, and again through the haphazard survival (at best) of contemporary records.

Here we have a very specific date of loss – on the eve of All Saints; moreover, since the cargo was carried away on that day, the wreck must have occurred sufficiently early in the day for arrangements to be made to hire the carts by the master, which then seem to have been diverted, embezzled, or what you will! The survival of the crew and quantity of goods carried away suggests a location at some fairly accessible point of the inter-tidal zone – at the least, accessible at low tide. Looking at Admiralty Easytide, high water on that day was just after noon, at 12.08pm, which would appear to lend weight to this suggestion. It would be easy to conjecture that at some time that morning the vessel was lost before the tide reached its height in order for the carts to be hired and the goods taken away before it became dark.

The question was, therefore, whether the peck of pickled peppers was picked by the Prior of Prittlewell, or by Pultere his bailiff on his behalf! Claim and counter-claim ensued as Pultere was accused of embezzling some of the goods and the carters of diverting some of the rest. Mismanagement was clearly seen all around, since the wreck was blamed on the seamen’s ‘carelessness’. This seems a little harsh, given the circumstances of a storm.

William Camden, writing in the 1600s, describes the local topography of Shobery Nesse:

Heere by reason that the bankes on both sides shrinke backe, the Tamis at a huge and wide mouth rowleth into the sea.

[William Camden, Britain, or, a Chorographicall Description of the most flourishing Kingdomes, England, Scotland, and Ireland (London: George Bishop and John Norton, 1610) Copyright 2004 by Dana F. Sutton. This text was transcribed by Professor Sutton, of the University of California, Irvine, from Philemon Holland’s 1610 translation] accessed here.

A Vision of Britain has some nice historical maps – click here for a map of Shoebury: