Silbury Hill: the dilemma
Sutton Hoo goes to sea
Editor Mike Pitts
Fit for a king
Edwin and Joyce Gifford worked on surf beach fishing boats in India, leading to the building in small yards of 3,000 of their improved design. Back in England they wondered about the history of open ships. The only way to satisfy their curiosity, they felt, was to build their own
It was a very windy day, with great black clouds and blinding hail: a real storm. In July 2004 Sae Wylfing, our half-scale replica of the famous buried Anglo-Saxon ship, was in Suffolk for the 20th anniversary of the Sutton Hoo Society. We had to sail her with ‘two reefs in’, a reduced sail area for the rough conditions. Dinghies capsized all around us, but our ship was quite untroubled.
Who invented the myth that the Anglo-Saxons could not sail and that the great Sutton Hoo ship (c 600 AD) was a mere rowing galley? To the eyes of a sailor, that beautifully preserved hull shape was essentially for sailing, and the three frames close together in the stern were to provide the necessary strength for a sailing rudder. For us it was not a question of ‘Did she sail?’ but ‘How well did she sail?’ The oarsmen fore and aft of the middle of the ship would provide power when the wind dropped or came ahead, the conditions under which sailing barges would anchor and wait.
Two factors seemed to worry the myth makers. They thought that the hull was not strong enough to take the sailing forces and that, without a deep keel, such as the Vikings developed some 200 years later, ships could only sail with a following wind. The depth of the Sutton Hoo keel is unknown, despite attempts to find it during the post-war re-excavation. A shallow keel, however, just deep enough to give protection to the planking when aground, has a distinct advantage in our east coast waters with their rapidly changing sands and gravels, allowing her crew to beach the ship rather than having to shelter in a river mouth.
Perhaps in 1876, some years before the Viking Gokstad ship was discovered, when Sir Francis Palgrave adorned his History of the Anglo-Saxons with an imaginative sketch of a square-rigged sailing ship, we had not yet lost touch with our maritime traditions. Nowadays it is necessary to have ‘rigorous’ proof rather than use informed imagination. This can cause difficulties in nautical archaeology, as few practitioners have sufficient experience in designing, building and sailing square-rigged open vessels. Some are even unable to accept the validity of model-testing, although for over 100 years this has been used by ship designers and structural engineers to establish the speed, strength and seaworthiness of their designs.
To build a 28m ship to satisfy our own curiosity was out of the question, but half-scale models have enabled us to experiment and provide valid evidence at one-tenth the cost. We had already built and sailed such a model of the Graveney ship (c 900 AD), excavated from Kent marshland in 1970. She was a short, beamy trader, well recorded by Valerie Fenwick and Eric McKee, and in the same ship-building tradition as the Sutton Hoo ship. We learned that she would have been a first-class sea boat, fast and weatherly, certainly capable of crossing the English Channel.
Finding the pattern of the planks to be assembled into a clinker hull to give the right shape before the frames were inserted, was a matter of some difficulty, as we lacked the traditional knowledge of Saxon shipwrights. Their method of building was to set up the keel, stern and stern posts, and the mid-ships frame, and then build up the hull with planks shaped to create the desired form. Only when this was complete were the remaining frames shaped and fitted. We followed this method, now known as ‘shell-first’, for our Graveney ship. There was no doubt that the hull was strong enough to carry sail. Our 8m model was very useful for experimenting with the square sail set on different mast step arrangements, and with a variety of rudders and with different depths of keel, as it seemed probable that at some time a false keel had been fitted.
The magnificent Sutton Hoo ship is a thoroughbred fit for a powerful and demanding king whose voyages must have taken him frequently to Kent and up the coast to Northumbria, crossing shallow waters and changing sand-banks. Our trials in the Solent, and in the ship’s home waters, replicated these conditions. We found that shallow draught and a lifting rudder proved to be of the greatest value. The shape of the hull was what really mattered, and for this we followed Colin Mudie’s final drawings of the ship’s outline preserved in the sand.
For economy, our 13m Sae Wylfing was built of pine except for the two upper strakes which were of oak. The laminated frames were widely spaced to ensure that the hull strength was to scale with the original. The sailing rig is hypothetical and based on Roman practice. The size of the sail was guided by our experience with the Graveney model, Ottor; it was made of cotton, whereas Anglo-Saxons would probably have used flax.
Since launching Sae Wylfing in 1993, we have sailed and rowed her for some 500 hours in many different weather conditions and waters, with winds up to Force 6 and through steep breaking waves without taking water aboard. In our first trials we found that the mast could be safely stepped on a single standard frame. When we found she could sail in stronger winds, we fitted a stronger mast and rigging and, later, a keelson, an internal timber spanning three frames.
She is a delight to sail, being fast and manoeuvrable; she goes best when level, with the crew acting as the only ballast. We have measured speeds of 7 knots under full sail in a beam wind of 18 knots: the speed of the full-size ship in the same wind speed would be 10 knots. Although she can sail to windward, it is generally quicker to row into head winds, or through crowded anchorages. She is easy to beach and can be hauled out on tallowed skids by the crew alone.
With growing experience of Sae Wylfing there is rarely the need for shouted orders from the helmsman to our regular crew, so we can now understand Sidonius’s comment, writing to Namatius in the 5th century AD, that ‘with these Saxons every man is a captain and all give and obey orders’. Rupert Bruce-Mitford and Angela Care-Evans were fully justified when they wrote in the Sutton Hoo report that ‘the hull ... is admirably suitable for sailing’. She remains the first northern ship with such a hull.
Raedwald must have been immensely proud of his extraordinary ship. The building of a full-size replica is long overdue.
See E & J Gifford ‘The sailing performance of Anglo-Saxon ships’, Mariner’s Mirror 1993, obtainable as a booklet from the National Trust shop at Sutton Hoo, Woodbridge, Suffolk
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005