Henry V ship ‘found’ ahead of Agincourt centenary

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There have been a number of reports over the last week about the finding of a medieval ship La Holighost, which media reports say has been found near Southampton. As we are so lucky to have maritime historian Dr. Graham Cushway as a contributor to our team we decided to take advantage and ask him a few questions about the possible find. Today is a great day to talk about naval history – it is the 210th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar….

What was the Hundred Years War?

The Hundred Years War was a conflict originally between England and France, which started in the 1330s and ended in the 1450s. As such it was more like a Hundred and Twenty Years War, but the two countries were not at war the whole time and there were peaceful periods. Although the war was originally over a disputed succession, when Edward III of England was passed over as the heir to the French throne, it later expanded to become a regional conflict drawing in many other European countries.

It is an important period in English history for many reasons. The rift with France led to English kings, and therefore the English noble classes adopting English rather than French as their first language, an important development in the history of the English language. The period therefore gave us the first great English writers such as Chaucer. The English also achieved a number of notably heroic victories which led to the beginnings of a distinct and proud English national identity. The Hundred Years War period included iconic historical moments such as The Black Death (1347) and The Peasant’ Revolt (1381).

The Battle of Sluys in 1340, showing how sea battles were fought using ships like La Holigost.

How will dendrochronology help with finding out more about the ship?

Dendrochronology is a method of dating old timbers. Basically you can tell what year a tree was cut down by the width between the rings in the trunk. The widths are determined by the amount of rain in particular years in history, so all trees alive in that year will have the same pattern of rings. After cutting through the timbers archaeologists will know what year the ship’s beams were made in by the year the trees were cut down. That will help to tell when the ship was built, and archaeologists are also likely to be able to tell where. The only problem is that shipwrights often salvaged timber from other, older ships (as we know they did for La Holighost). However you can compare that to other things found in the ship, such as coins and pottery to try to get a good idea.

What do they hope to discover?

I am not part of the project so have no idea what the aims are. However this year sees the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt and La Holighost was one of Henry Vs biggest warships, so if true it is a very exciting find. Ideally they are probably hoping that the wreck contains a wealth of artifacts like Henry VIII’s ship Mary Rose. I don’t think that is particularly likely. Mary Rose sank in The Solent with its crew on board, whereas La Holighost ended up in the River Hamble. The reasons why it sank are not entirely clear but it was probably abandoned and sank through neglect. As such most items of value would have already been removed and any people on board long since gone. Still they will learn about ship design, and maybe a little about the lives of any people on board. La Holighost apparently lies close to the wreck of another of Henry V’s big ships, La Grace Dieu. Unfortunately La Grace Dieu is accessible to walkers (waders anyway) so people have taken a lot of artifacts from the ship. La Holighost is likely to be untouched by comparison.

The site of the wreck of the Grace Dieu in the River Hamble. The archaeologist in the red is standing at one end of the ship which extends to the right of the photo. www.infrielhistorian.wordpress.com.

As it has been underwater, will it not have irreversible damage? Therefore leaving some questions unanswered?

Well actually it is in the mud, and salt mud has proven to be a very good preservative in the past, with a number of medieval and earlier ships recovered from similar contexts. Clearly it won’t have survived intact. Parts exposed to the sea will have broken away and others will have been crushed by the weight of the mud and tide over the last 600 years. Still if it is in the mud there is a strong chance that it will be a reasonably good state of preservation.

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Why was The Battle of Agincourt so important?

The Battle of Agincourt (25th October 1415) was one of the defining moments in English history. A small force of English knights and particularly archers overcame a far larger French army, killing large numbers of French knights and members of the aristocracy. It was not the first time that this had happened. The English won other astonishing victories in a similar fashion at Crecy (1346) and Poitiers (1356) but Agincourt was the most decisive. The French losses were so grave that they effectively surrendered. Henry V was made heir of the French king and his son, Henry VI was the only king ever to be king of England and France. Effectively France had been tacked onto what is now the United Kingdom. When you consider the size of France compared to England it was an incredible achievement. It didn’t last, unfortunately. Henry V died young and his son Henry VI inherited the French king’s madness, but the battle is embedded in the English psyche. It is a story of the few against the many, of never giving up and of raw courage winning the day against overwhelming odds – all very English sensibilities. Shakespeare was at his best when he described the campaign in ‘Henry V’.

A contemporary impression of the Battle of Agincourt (1415). The 600th anniversary of the battle is this Friday 25th October.

How long do they expect the excavations to take?

I don’t know the answer to that. I understand that the location of the ship has been identified by the historian Ian Friel. I expect that it needs to be confirmed by archaeology before excavations can begin. I have to stress that although the reports claim the ship has been found, from what I am reading I think this is only a theory at the moment. It needs to be confirmed by archaeology before any dig can begin. However the theory was based on aerial photographs, which are used a lot in archaeology so I am optimistic.

How important is this to understanding more about this period of history?

Potentially it could help a great deal, but that is dependent on confirming that the ship is present in the location Friel has identified. A small number of medieval ships have been recovered or partially recovered previously. However this is a large and important warship, and we don’t have any of those from the century before Mary Rose. As such it could tell us a lot about naval technology at that time, and also about how medieval warfare was waged and what life on board was like.

What is sonar and remote sensing and how will it help with finding out more about the vessel?

Sonar and remote sensing can be used to detect large objects in the mud and water, and will also give us the shapes of those objects. Archaeologists will be hoping to see something that looks like a ship’s structure. If they are found they will know where to dig. I am sure they will see plenty in the River Hamble as the area around Southampton has been a naval base for hundreds of years. It is probably going to be a case of looking for the biggest needle in a needle stack! We have a great deal of pictorial evidence of what warships from the fifteenth century looked like, so they will be looking for something along those lines. Also they can look at La Grace Dieu as a reference point, so will know what to expect.

Where will I be able to find regular updates about the excavation?

From what I have read to date the site of the ship still needs to be conclusively identified before an excavation can start. As such I don’t know right now.

An artist’s impression of La Holigost.

How can we find out more about the hundred years war?

If you want to read about The Hundred Years War in general Jonathan Sumption has written a large and definitive guide to the conflict, which I highly recommend (“The Hundred Years War”). I notice that Volume 4 is being released on Friday which is no coincidence as it the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt that day. If you want to read about Medieval Ships you can’t do better than my own “Edward III and the War at Sea: 1327-1377” published by Boydell & Brewer.

Were women on board?

I am sorry to have to disappoint you on that. The medieval navy was a man’s world. Women were not employed as mariners, did not captain medieval ships and did not fight in medieval battles. That includes in the Viking era and at all other times. The female warriors you see in films are to pander to modern sensibilities. That said, women did of course travel by sea, and could occasionally be caught up in fighting because of it. English kings did take ladies aboard ship at times for a number of reasons. Some are supposed to have been killed at the Battle of Sluys in 1340 for instance because they were looking after the king’s wardrobe. I did see one medieval document while I was researching my book that appeared to show one or two female masters (which means captain) of medieval trading ships. With hindsight I wish I had looked at it in more detail. Most likely they owned the ships rather than went to sea in them, and there were only a couple of women’s names among the thousands that I saw.

What was the food like?

Ships from this period tended to hug the coast where possible, and the circumnavigations of the world seen in the next century would have been considered impossible. As such they would not have expected to be at sea for more than a couple of months. Even so they would have eaten a lot of dried food. The English loved peas and beans, presumably dried, and they also loved herrings which they could have dried, salted or pickled and other smoked or dried fish, which they called ‘stockfish’. You have to remember that in this period the church forbade the consumption of meat on Fridays and feast days, so fish were very important.

The lists of food aboard ships which I have seen had a lot meat which can hang for a while, like bacon and salt beef and they would add to it as they went by fishing, so you get things like porpoises and eels in the list. They had biscuit, like later mariners and other foodstuff like cheeses which can keep for long periods. Large ships like La Grace Dieu and La Holighost would have livestock to slaughter on the journey but smaller vessels probably wouldn’t get through a huge amount of meat as it was comparatively expensive.

Medieval ship
Archaeologists can use contemporary pictures of ships.

Did they take children to sea?

Actually most of the larger ships took small numbers of boys to sea. Their job seems to have been to climb high up masts, which they were well suited to because they were light enough to get into areas of the rigging grown-up sailors couldn’t reach. It sounds a tough education, particularly as you wonder how anyone realised when they were getting too big for this kind of work, but these were very hard times.

What was life like on a ship like this?

Medieval life was exceptionally hash by modern standards. The ship’s master (captain) was allowed to hit the mariners amongst other punishments, and there was even a sanctuary on ships where sailors could hide if he became too angry and they feared for their lives. He was not allowed to touch them if they were in there. Life at sea was violent and incredibly dangerous. It was seen as a lawless area and ships could be attacked by pirates or ships from a different town or country at any time, the usual outcome being that any crew or passengers were massacred. The advantage of being on a ship like La Holighost was that the master was not allowed to execute the mariners as he could on a trading vessel because the nobles who commanded the ships were uncomfortable with low ranking people holding that kind of power. There was also little chance of the ship being attacked by most vessels, as it was large and powerful and would have a big, military crew. However of course the ship was a warship and would have attacked other ships often. There were lots of ways of being killed on a ship like this. Falling from the mast would do it, and falling overboard would almost always have been fatal. If the ship caught fire, like La Grace Dieu finally did, it would have been a very nasty way to go. At the best of times it would have been pretty uncomfortable. Still, it was the life that hundreds of thousands of people around England’s coasts lived.

Was this the Royal Navy that we have today?

I see that Ian Friel has been saying that the Royal Navy started with Henry V, that he started coastal patrols, had a 25-ship navy so on. That isn’t true. All of those things were already happening in the period I cover in my book, Edward III’s reign (1327-77) and I also traced most of them back into much earlier times. Richard the Lionheart (1189-99) had a fleet of Viking-type longships that worked much the same way as Henry V’s force. If I had looked I think I would have found that a small royal navy goes right back into Saxon times. However this was a small collection of ships owned by the government, which in those days meant the king so yes, this was a royal navy. There were a few differences, such as that the king’s ships were also used for trade, but yes La Holighost is part of the same tradition that led from La Christofre the century before through La Holighost to the Mary Rose, and later HMS Victory, HMS Belfast and today’s Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers. This history still lives with us, which is why La Holighost is so important.

Maritime historian Dr. Graham Cushway
Maritime historian Dr. Graham Cushway

Could similar ships be found in Brighton?

I doubt it because Brighton was not an important port in this period of history, and also because the conditions in the River Hamble are not the same as on Brighton’s shingle beaches. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t old wrecks off the beach though. I am sure there are plenty of medieval ships to be found in Sussex in general. I know of one very large warship La Jerusalem that sank in Winchelsea in 1360 for instance. I would love to see it recovered, but don’t know if it would be possible.

Edward III

Graham Cushway’s book ‘Edward III and The War at Sea: 1327-1377’ is available from Boydell & Brewer and will shortly be released as an ebook.


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