This article was originally published on my WordPress blogFebruary 2014.

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The site of the Grace Dieu, during fieldwork in the 1980s.  The ship was huge, in medieval terms: the archaeologist in the red wetsuit is standing on the end of the keel at the stern – the other end of the ship is slightly off-camera to the right.

Next year sees the 600th anniversary of Henry V’s defeat of the French at the battle of Agincourt in 1415, during the Hundred Years War.  The battle was the first major triumph in a series of campaigns that led to the short-lived English conquest of Normandy.

Agincourt is remembered in ways that the other battles of the Hundred Years War are not.  This is undoubtedly due to Shakespeare’s Henry V, with its account of a victory won against desperate odds.   However, what often seems to get forgotten is that in order to fight in France the English armies needed ships to get them there.  Shakespeare asks his audience to imagine Henry’s ‘brave fleet’ setting sail and crossing the Channel (Act 3, Sc 1), but this is really only a piece of scene-setting and is not at the heart of the drama.

Henry’s two major invasions of France, in 1415 and 1417, relied for transportation on conscripted English merchant ships and hired vessels from the Low Countries.  The royal fleet, ‘the king’s ships’, was far too small for this purpose by itself, even though Henry had expanded it rapidly: there were eight royal ships in 1413, but by the summer of 1417 the figure had risen to thirty-three.   His ‘royal navy’ was the largest of its kind for decades, and would not be surpassed in size for a century. Medieval royal ships were used for a variety of tasks – even trading voyages – but there can be little doubt that in this case the fleet was built for war. Henry clearly realised that in order to secure the passage of his troops across the Channel, he needed to be able to defeat the ships of the French and their Genoese and Spanish allies.

The English broke French naval power in two battles, off Harfleur (1416) and in the Bay of the Seine (1417) (1).   They also managed to capture eight Genoese carracks in these and other seafights.   At a time when most English seafarers would probably have thought a ship of 150 tons was ‘big’, the carracks were massive, ranging between 400 and 600 tons.

Ship size and crew size were critical factors in medieval naval warfare: to put it crudely, ‘bigger was better’, and it is likely that some of these captures were due to the presence of English-built ‘great ships’ in Henry’s fleet.  Ranging from around 500 to 1400 tons burden (theoretical cargo capacity), they were among the biggest ships ever constructed in medieval northern Europe. They were clinker-built, a technique used in north Europe since the early Middle Ages, unlike the Genoese carracks, which had Mediterranean carvel hulls, a technology not adopted in the north until the mid-1400s (2).  Three of the four great ships took part in the 1416-17 operations, the Trinity Royal, the Holy Ghost and the 1,000-ton Jesus.  The biggest of the four, the Grace Dieu, was not ready for sea until 1420, by which time the naval war was more or less over.

The royal fleet was based in a defended anchorage in the river Hamble, off Southampton water. A wooden tower, ‘the Bulwark’, was built at the mouth of the river, with a garrison of soldiers.  Two giant chains were also installed there, to be used to block the river entrance if enemy ships appeared.  In November 1417 there were three great ships, six captured carracks and two other royal ships anchored in the Hamble, more than 5,600 tons of shipping, an incredible concentration of naval might for the period (3).

Henry V died in 1422, and with conflict at sea virtually over (the English then controlled the coast of Normandy), the royal fleet was mostly sold off.   The Trinity RoyalHoly Ghost and Grace Dieu were all taken to the Hamble and eventually laid up there. The Grace Dieu, Henry’s greatest ship, was struck by lightning in January 1439 and mostly burned out, but the fate of the others in less clear (4).

The remains of the Grace Dieu were identified in the early 1930s, and it is now protected under the 1973 Protection of Wrecks Act.    Subsequent surveys, including an investigation using a Chirp sub-bottom profiler, have backed up historical accounts of the size of the ship.   The Chirp survey found substantial hull remains in the mud, suggesting that the original ship was perhaps over 60 m in length and around 16 m wide (5).

It is possible that the remains of the Holy Ghost and Trinity Royal still lie in the Hamble, but there might also be two other vessels from Henry’s fleet there.  Two of the captured Genoese carracks, named the Marie Hampton and the Andrew by the English, sank at anchor in 1420, apparently within the Hamble.   The English did not know how to repair carvel-built hulls, and this probably helps to explain their loss (6).

The great ships and the carracks represented the two major shipbuilding traditions of medieval Europe at their apogee.  The Grace Dieu itself is a wreck site of great significance, but if remains of the other great ships and the carracks also survive, it would make the Hamble one of the most important areas for maritime archaeology in Europe.

Blog © Ian Friel 2014; photo © Ian Friel 1984

I am a member of the English Heritage Historic Wrecks Panel, but the opinions expressed here are purely personal ones, and do not represent the opinions of the Panel, its other members or of English Heritage.

(1) N A M Rodger, The Safeguard of the Sea.  A Naval History of Britain.  Volume One 660-1649, London 1997, pp 143-46.

(2) S Rose, 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, pp 247-8; 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.

(3) Rose 1982, p 39; The National Archives (TNA) E364/59, H, m 1; Calendar of Patent Rolls 1416-22, p 1417.

(4) The Jesus was taken to Southampton: its remains may have been discovered (and destroyed) in the 19th century; https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/discover/maritime/map/grace-dieu/; see also the excellent English Heritage Guide Ships & Boats: Prehistory to 1840 (p 7 refers to the Grace Dieu).

(5)  http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/iha-ships-boats/R M K Plets et al, ‘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 26, 2009, 408-18 (this paper is downloadable).

(6) I Friel, The Good Ship. Ships, Shipbuilding and Technology in England 1200-1520, London 1995, pp 173-74.

Ian Friel

Author Ian Friel

Ian Friel is a historian, researcher and author with over 40 years experience and an international reputation in the field of maritime history.

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