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