Years of pestilence
The medieval fleet
Editor Simon Denison
Joining the medieval fleet
Archaeology has transformed our ideas of how, and where, medieval ships were built. Gustav Milne reviews the new evidence
It would be hard to imagine medieval life in Europe without boats and ships - especially in a small island like Britain. Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Norman invaders all came to the British Isles by sea. Subsequently ships sailed from England to fight the Hundred Years War with France and ventured further afield on Crusades to the Holy Land.
Fish was eaten by all on Fridays - a religious provision which ensured that a strong and experienced fleet of seafarers was steadfastly maintained. English wool and cloth were exported for profit, and French wine imported for pleasure.
Despite all this, until recently little was known about medieval ships and shipbuilding. It has been a neglected subject, and archaeologists are only now beginning to make sense of where and how medieval ships and boats were built, and how the industry changed over time.
There are, of course, pictures of boats aplenty in medieval art - on the Bayeux Tapestry, for example, and in stained glass and manuscript illuminations. The Bayeux Tapestry contains a particularly telling shipbuilding scene in which trees are felled and planks selected, the shipwright checks the lines of the ship by eye and other craftsmen set to work with axes and augers.
Often, though, contemporary images of ships are hard to interpret. They can be out of scale, anachronistic, or confused by the need to tell a particular biblical story such as that of Noah's Ark. They are also biased towards the depiction of planked ships. Log boats are seldom, if ever, represented in medieval art, although finds of many medieval log boats across Europe have since proved that they were the most commonly-seen boats during the period, used mainly on rivers and waterways.
Documentary records of shipbuilding are also rare. We have some references in England to royal shipbuilding orders from the 13th century onwards; but little written evidence for the construction of the bulk of the private merchant and fishing fleet.
Archaeology is now therefore the main way we can build up an accurate picture of this most essential feature of medieval life. Important individual medieval ships excavated from around the United Kingdom include the 7th century Anglo-Saxon burial ship at Sutton Hoo, a 10th century late Anglo-Saxon vessel from Graveney in Kent, the 13th century coaster from the Magor Pill on the River Severn, a late 14th century river barge from London, and a group of late medieval merchantmen from St Peter Port in Guernsey.
But maritime archaeologists are now beginning to focus their attention beyond the ships themselves, to the wider medieval shipbuilding industry. They are looking at where and how ships and boats were built and broken up; and how the shipbuilding industry affected society as a whole. The subject is still in its infancy and little has yet been formally published.
The early results of the work, however, have produced a fascinating outline picture of medieval boat and shipbuilding which is at odds with what had traditionally been assumed.
The first medieval boatyard in Britain to be identified and excavated under modern conditions was at Poole, on the English south coast, in the late 1980s. There were no major installations found, no dry docks or slipways - just 60 timbers arranged in groups, laid out over an area that had once been the open foreshore.
The timbers dated to the early 15th century. They included keels, floor frames, futtocks and stem posts, representing parts of a clinker-built boat up to 8m long with a beam (width) of some 2.5m, which was possibly used for coastal fishing.
The boatyard at Poole, where boats were simply laid out on the shoreline just above the high tide mark, showed that the medieval foreshore was not a 'beach' in the modern sense - a place for recreation - but an active part of the medieval industrial environment. The point is underlined by documented struggles over rights to use the foreshore on the English east coast, at the great fishing port and market of Great Yarmouth in Norfolk. There, rights to sections of beach for the drying and mending of fishing nets, and for the selling of fish, were so valuable that they were granted by the Crown and were sometimes the cause of bitter local conflict.
Study of the timbers at Poole produced further revelations. Some had clearly been removed from a working vessel, while others were partially-worked new timbers in the process of being cut to shape. It appeared that the old elements were being used as templates for a new boat.
The discovery that timbers had been stripped out of an older vessel to repair and facilitate the construction of a new one showed - for the first time - that there was a close relationship between medieval vessel breaking, vessel repair, and vessel building. Today, such activities are usually conducted on different sites by different workers.
In the medieval period, when it was more normal to recycle useful building materials of all types, they all formed part of the one industrial process.
Our understanding was taken a step forward by an investigation in June 1998 by Channel 4's Time Team at the late medieval shipbuilding settlement of Smallhythe in Kent. Smallhythe is now just a small settlement some ten miles from the south coast. The River Rother, which flowed past Smallhythe 500 years ago and was wide and deep enough to carry 1,000-ton warships, has long since silted up.
However, written sources confirm that this site was once the centre of a major industry - one of the most important shipbuilding centres of medieval England. Some of the largest ships for Henry V's fleet were built here, before carrying his army across the English Channel to do battle with the French at Agincourt in 1415.
Smallhythe is in a part of Kent known as the Weald, an area of dense woodland which also contained deposits of iron ore. The basic raw materials for the mass-production of timber planks and frames and also for large quantities of iron fastenings demanded by the clinker-building technique were thus close at hand.
The project in 1998 comprised a number of surveys, study of aerial photographs and the opening of exploratory trenches. This work showed that the actual shipbuilding sites were not in enclosed docks or inlets but - just like at Poole - seem to have been aligned along the open bank of the estuary just above high tide level.
Trenches or slipways had been dug in the sloping bank at right angles to the waterway to provide a more or less level base upon which keels could be laid. Slight traces of some of these slipways were just visible as earthworks, producing a new class of monument, the Deserted Medieval Shipyard.
From the silts in the base of the relatively modest trenches that were dug to sample these slipways, a fragment of broken frame from a clinker-built vessel was recovered, as well as over 160 iron fastenings, including tacks, nails, clench-nails, roves, turned nails and spikes. Perhaps the most interesting of these were the clench-nails, as these were used to fasten the overlapping long planks of a clinker-built vessel together. Each nail was driven through the two planks, the rove (or washer) was placed over the end of the nail, and the point was knocked down over the rove to 'clench' the two planks together.
In general, the larger the nail (or the longer the gap between the head of the clench-nail and the rove), the thicker the plank and therefore the larger the parent vessel represented. Thus, from this large assemblage of nails we were able to identify a range of different sizes of vessel - from smaller boats right up much larger sea-going ships.
Some of the nails were used and broken, others were new, and some of the roves were unused. This shows that - again, as at Poole - a range of activities from vessel breaking to vessel building were taking place at Smallhythe. Large vessels were therefore treated in the same way as small; even in major royal shipbuilding yards, extensive recycling took place.
This should come as no surprise since iron was a valuable material, and in a clinker-built ship the planks were closely clenched together. A 25m-long ship therefore contained thousands of nails, and when it came to the end of its operative life, as many nails as possible were ripped out for recycling.
This new understanding of the close association between medieval ship-breaking and shipbuilding now allows archaeologists to identify medieval foreshore shipyards from the discovery of discarded remains of broken-up vessels, or from the slighter evidence of vessel fastenings, including unused roves. These features are as just as diagnostic as slipways, docks, capstans, roperies, smithies or other such structural evidence. Even so, vessel remains have in fact been found on urban waterfronts in many ports including Hedeby (Germany), Bergen (Norway), Wolin (Poland), Dublin, Newcastle and London.
Port of London
The role of London as a major medieval port is well known: there are records of taxes and tolls being collected in the 7th century, harbour regulations dating back to the 11th century, and a custom house was established here from at least the 14th century. The Anglo-Norman wine trade was centred in the Vintry, the German Hanseatic merchants in the Steelyard, Italians in Lombard Street, money lenders in Jewry.
Some of the port's street names such as the Ropery, Hay Wharf, Stockfishmongers Row or Timberhithe have now been lost, but others survive such as Garlickhithe, Fish Street Hill and Wool Quay. Waterfront archaeologists have recorded a wine wharf, a fishmongers' wharf, and the remains of warehouses. They have also found pottery from France, millstones from Germany, silk from the East, timber from the Baltic and much more besides.
Documentary records for the sites of the shipyards which built the vessels that carried that wealth are sparse and begin, in any case, at the end of the 13th century. However, there have been many recent discoveries of vessel-fragments reused in timber revetments on the City of London's mile-long waterfront. The fragments include slabs of planking, ribs, stem posts, a keel, even part of a rudder, as well as used and unused vessel fastenings.
Detailed plotting and dating of the vessel fragments has revealed that, in general, the vessel breaking, repair and building yards seemed to have moved steadily eastwards over the course of the medieval period. All the Anglo-Saxon fragments are confined to one specific area (between Queenhithe and the mouth of the Walbrook stream) at the western end of the waterfront. Significantly, no later ship fragments are found here. Fragments of the 11th and 12th century, by contrast, are concentrated a little way to the east, between London Bridge and the Tower of London. This is the same general area which is known from documentary evidence as the focus of vessel-building in the 13th century.
This suggests that the construction of the first medieval London Bridge in about AD 1000 had a profound effect on the organisation of the port as a whole. It was arguably the single most important development in the City's commercial history. The low-slung bridge acted as much as a barrier to shipping as a crossing of the river. Indeed, one of the main reasons for its construction was to prevent Viking ships from sailing unchecked upriver.
Previously, merchant shipping could either unload at Queenhithe or travel further upstream beyond London to markets at Kingston, Henley or Oxford. After 1000, larger ships which did not wish to wait for low tide to pass beneath the bridge were obliged to transship their cargoes downstream of the bridge. London's merchants reaped the benefits.
In later medieval centuries, the archaeological and documentary evidence shows that shipyards moved still further east, steadily away from the City to Ratcliffe, Shadwell, Deptford, Limehouse and Blackwall - prefiguring the great post-medieval royal shipyards downstream at Greenwich and Woolwich. The move reflects, in part, the need for long uncluttered stretches of foreshore which became less and less available near the City as London's population grew.
Ships and boats
Remarkably, however, the evidence for the humbler boatbuilding industry remains upstream, on the congested waterfront at Southwark on the south bank of the Thames opposite the Tower of London. This reflects an increasingly clear division after about 1500 between the builders of great decked ships, the warships and merchantmen, and the builders of undecked boats - fishing vessels,
barges and riverboats. Two completely separate industries were being established during this period.
Before 1500, sea-going ships were built using precisely the same techniques as plank-built river boats, and thus there was no distinction between a shipwright or a boatwright, other than the scale of the finished product. All vessels were built in the clinker style, using overlapping planks fastened together with iron nails.
Clinker shipbuilding was a genuine craft, in which the shipwright remained close to his materials. The size of the ship depended on the timber he could find in the nearby woodland. The width of the planks depended on the girth of the tree; the curvature of the ribs depended on the natural curvature of branches in the wood. Long clinker-built ships required the existence of tall, slow-grown, knot-free trees typical of 'wildwood' environments which became increasingly rare in England by the 14th century.
After 1500, boatbuilders continued to build using the clinker method, but the grander shipbuilding industry completely changed its technology. Shipbuilders moved from clinker models to the new 'carvel' technique, in which hull planking was laid edge to edge, a technique which did not require the expensive and time-consuming addition of the heavy iron fastenings.
Shipbuilders now worked from a plan. They bought their timber from timber-yards, pre-sawn, and were no longer dependent on finding the right size of tree to make the ship. Planks were pegged to the ship-frame using wooden pegs. The change of technology led to a complete social and psychological change in the industry. Numerous craft skills were no longer required - the woodmen with expertise in trees and timber, the smiths, the clench-makers and the rove-makers all disappeared. Shipwrights now required a labour force of workmen with a different set of skills who could saw to length and fit a ship together according to plan.
Images of Noah
This radical change is reflected in contemporary illustrations of Noah and the Ark. In medieval illustrations, Noah is typically depicted as a craftsman building his own boat, using his own eye and skill. God is seen emerging from a cloud, telling Noah to hurry up since the Flood is on its way. After 1500, by contrast, God is typically depicted handing Noah a plan, while Noah is seen supervising a team of workmen at their tasks. It is a dramatic conceptual shift, which can be seen in the archaeological remains.
Thus, by the 16th century shipwrights and boatwrights became two quite separate groups of craftsmen. Exactly why boatwrights continued to build in the medieval fashion remains unclear - they may partly have had a more conservative mentality, or they may have lacked access to the resources, plans and workmen needed to build in the carvel style. Either way, their craft continued, and clinker-built river barges survived on the Thames well into the age of photography when iron ships were powered by steam.
Gustav Milne is a Lecturer in Maritime Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005