Wednesday, October 21, 2009


A multi-deck Carrack had three masts with the different sails: to the foresail: and mainmasts (by the first and by the second) - straight lines, and on the last third mizzensail to mast there was the slanting Latin sail, which facilitated maneuvering. The patrolmen or pointers were located on the mastheads with the reserve armament.

Light naval gun of 1492. Such canons were aboard the ships of the squadron of Columbus. They were fastened to the ring mounts (a). Each canon had several powder chambers with the carry-rings for the breeches (b), which were charged and stored separately in the barrel. The opening of breech-chamber shut the wad: (c), whereas the shot (d) they rolled into the barrel, into which before this they put a wad so that the shot would not roll away. Then in front of the barrel powder chamber [s] the shot was locked in firmly with the aid of the wedge (e). Two arcs on the swivel served for the elevation of the barrel of gun (f). The technology of the production of such canon was labor-consuming and complex. They forged barrels from the iron bars, they were welded and iron belts were put around them.

By Ian Friel
Unlike medieval France, with its impressive galley dockyards at Rouen and elsewhere, medieval England lacked anything like a standing navy. One or more officials of the royal household, assisted by others appointed on an ad hoc basis when the pressure of work required it, essentially undertook the management of the king’s ships. From the 1330s the clerk, later keeper, of the king’s ships, an administrator and finance officer rather than an operational commander, normally ran the ships.16 The king’s ships were far from being a navy in the modern sense of the word, although it was recognised by Crown and commoners alike that they did have some function in the defence of the kingdom and of English shipping, as well as in the prosecution of war. Although fleets of royal ships were sometimes quite large – particularly those of John and Henry V – few medieval English monarchs had the financial resources to keep a large fleet in being for very long. Royal fleets tended to be built up rapidly in times of need, and then demobilised or sold off after the crisis had passed. For instance, after Henry V died in 1422 most of his ships were quickly sold off to help settle his debts. The king’s sea and land campaigns had removed the threat of French sea-borne attack and there was no longer seen to be any need for a large royal fleet.17

The uses to which the medieval king’s ships were put were also not always ‘naval’ ones, even in time of war. Henry V, for example, revived the royal fleet in order to help pursue his ambition to take the throne of France. The fleet rose in number from seven usable vessels in July 1413, to twenty-seven by March 1417, and at its height in 1420, the king owned something like thirty-six ships. The accounts of the clerk of the king’s ships for 1413–22 show that twenty-nine of the king’s ships were used at one time or another in naval operations, such as invasion fleets or sea-keeping patrols, but that seventeen also went on merchant voyages, most of them carrying wine from Bordeaux, although a few went further afield to Prussia and Portugal.18 It is possible that the ships on the Bordeaux run went as convoy escorts, but the crew sizes on these enterprises were generally smaller than those for war operations. The main reason for sending the ships seems to have been monetary. Henry’s one-masted sailing ships were used on these voyages and on the face of it they were profitable. Between September 1413 and June 1416, twelve ships completed twenty-six trading voyages, which netted the very large sum of £2055 in freight payments from merchants. The proceeds were ploughed into the financing of the royal ships. However, if one subtracts the costs of crew wages and victuals from this figure, the profit reduces to £400 and the whole enterprise may well have been run at a loss, as £968 was spent on the upkeep of the twelve ships over this period, much of which must have been necessitated by the rigours of the voyages. The deficit was even greater than this as one 220-ton ship, the Cog John, was wrecked off Brittany during a Bordeaux voyage. Nevertheless, the fact that these voyages continued suggests that contemporaries saw them as successful.19

The king’s ships had a multiplicity of uses, but they were seldom intended to be much of a combat force by themselves. Medieval English naval expeditions, large and small, relied on using conscripted merchant ships and other vessels belonging to English owners. As far as one can make out, impressment commands were generally obeyed, although at times they caused serious interruptions to sea-borne trade. Merchant vessels were essential for moving troops, horses and stores, and with the addition of fighting castles, if they did not already have them, could be converted into warships. Although we do not know the full size of the English merchant fleet at any point in the Middle Ages, musters for royal fleets do give us some notion of the numbers of vessels used by English merchants. Edward III used the largest recorded fleets in the 1340s, with 440 ships mobilised for carrying an army to Brittany in 1342 and at least 750 vessels used in the king’s voyage to Normandy in 1346. The Black Death of 1348–50, which killed a large portion of the population of Europe, inevitably reduced the shipping resources of every kingdom, leaving fewer mariners to man ships and less demand for shipping. Despite chronicle accounts of Henry V using a fleet of 1500 ships for his 1415 invasion of France, there is little evidence to back this up, and financial records suggest that English fleets were smaller than they had been in the 1340s. Given the fact that the Black Death and later epidemics had substantially reduced the English population by the early fifteenth century, this is not very surprising.20 English rulers also intermittently hired vessels from friendly foreign powers for use as both transports and combat vessels. In 1417, for example, twenty foreign ships were hired for use in sea patrols, and over fifty more served as transports.21

The records of the customs at Bordeaux, an English possession until 1453, give a good idea of the changing sizes of English merchant ships in the late Middle Ages. The Bordeaux wine ton of 252 gallons was the principal container used in the port and the wine trade inevitably used some of the larger contemporary bulk-carriers. As an employer of shipping, the trade seems to have been at its peak in the early fourteenth century. For example, in the three months between late June and Michaelmas 1303, there were 271 wine shipments from Bordeaux. Fifty-five of these shipments were carried in ships capable of carrying between 150 and 250 tons, and in the following year one shipment even reached 303 tons. The tonnage lading figures, although variable, are a good guide to the actual as opposed to alleged carrying capacities of ships. By the 1350s, after the Black Death, English ships in the 150 ton-plus range were much rarer, a situation that persisted into the early decades of the fifteenth century. However, there was also a sharp increase in the numbers of these ships by the 1440s, and the appearance of vessels in the 200 ton-plus range. One ship calling at Bordeaux in 1444–45 was even able to load 380 tons of wine, perhaps the largest cargo of any English-built merchant ship in the Middle Ages. The ship in question was the Grace de Dieu, built on the Yorkshire coast in 1439, which later ended up as a derelict royal warship on the river Hamble in the 1480s. A muster of ships in 1450–1 for an expedition confirms that the English at this time possessed significant numbers of large merchant ships. Out of sixty-three vessels collected, eighteen were between 200 and 400 tons’ burden. Between the 1420s and the 1450s the English merchant fleet seems to have had more large vessels than it was to have for another century and a half or so. It is ironic that the English government of the time lacked the finance and other capabilities to make effective use of this shipping in the revived war with the French Crown.22

Significant numbers of non-royal ships were also private warships, used by pirates and privateers, and were of great value to the Crown in times of war. This fact served to undermine royal efforts to curb piracy. Some of the biggest pirates, like the notorious John Hawleys of Dartmouth, father and son (1370s to 1430s) were important men, powerful and honoured in their own localities, and too useful to the Crown to ever suffer much for their piratical activities. Pirates favoured speedy oared balingers and barges, and John Hawley the Younger even presented one of his vessels, the balinger Craccher, to Henry V. The masters of royal ships could be pirates. John William, who rose to be the master of the great ship Jesus, had committed at least one act of piracy when he had earlier worked for John Hawley as master of the Craccher. Some monarchs, such as Henry IV, seem to have used privateering campaigns as a means of exerting pressure on enemies without the risks of open war.23

What did technology mean in all of this? Actual shipbuilding for the English Crown in the Middle Ages concentrated on the construction of oared fighting ships, rather than sailing vessels. The former were probably much less easy to come by than the latter, and certainly few people but the king would have been able to crew and operate the sorts of big galleys constructed for Kings John and Edward I. Even in Henry V’s time, the actual construction of ships for the Crown was restricted to four ‘great ships’ (super-large, clinker-built carracks) and eight balingers or barges.24 Purchase played very little part in Henry V’s ship procurement ‘process’: at least seventeen of the twenty-eight other sailing ships acquired by the Crown in this period were prizes. Later in the century, in the time of Henry VII in the 1480s and 1490s, the four new ships built for the king were two carracks and two oared barks. Any other vessels were acquired by alternative means.

The shipbuilding industry that built these vessels was ‘civilian’ in nature. Despite some naval base or dockyard construction in the time of John and Henry V, there were no specialised warship building yards in the sense of those that existed in the eighteenth century. The Crown had to rely on the dispersed and somewhat disorganised English shipbuilding industry for what construction and maintenance work it required. The industry worked entirely in clinker construction until the mid-fifteenth century, and its gradual conversion to carvel construction from about the 1450s still lacks a complete explanation, although factors such as lower costs (less iron, more wood, fewer specialist workers required) and improved hull serviceability may well have played a part. This, however, was a general change for shipping of all types, and it is clear that not all English warships were being built carvel-fashion until the early decades of the sixteenth century.25

Changes in English ship rig may have been fostered by the royal fleet.  Certainly Henry V’s fleet changed rapidly from having no two-masters in 1415 to a situation in 1420 where it had one apparent three-master and eleven two-masters, of which four were English-built. Five of the two-masters were former Genoese carracks. Two other ships were possibly from Spain and one from Bayonne. Certainly the ‘new’ two-masted technology was available in other parts of northern Europe at about the same time, but there is clear evidence of its rapid adoption for ships of the English royal fleet, apparently to improve large sailing ships and long, low balingers.26

The four ‘great ships’ built for Henry V between 1413 and 1420 represented another major innovation. It was not unusual for an English monarch to have a single large sailing ship as a prestige piece. King John had had a ‘great ship’ called Dieulabeneie, and Richard II and Henry IV had had the 300-ton Trinity, for example. The first of Henry V’s great ships was a rebuild, at about 400 tons, of the old Trinity, renamed the Trinity Royal. The second, the Holigost, was a rebuild of a large Spanish ship, but the biggest ones, the 1000-ton Jesus and the 1400-ton Grace Dieu were constructed from scratch. As a group, the great ships appear to have been clinker-built versions of Mediterranean carracks. Certainly the Genoese carracks hired by the French at this time represented a major threat to English naval forces. The great ships were different in size and scale from earlier large royal ships, and represented a trend in English and other north European warship building that can be traced into the sixteenth century and beyond. The large war carracks were potent symbols of royal power. They carried as many people as a large village. The Jesus had a crew of 201. The tall, heavily manned ships were perceived to be of great use in the form of sea warfare that was resolved by boarding actions. It is difficult to point to the use of such carracks as being particularly decisive, but it should be noted that both the Holigost and the Trinity Royal were in the thick of the fighting in the battle of Harfleur in 1416, a battle which not only saw the capture of three large carracks, but also resulted in an English victory.27

As discussed above, guns appear to have had very little effect on the nature of naval warfare in northern Europe before the sixteenth century. However, if this was entirely the case, one does wonder why there was a sudden sharp increase in the numbers of guns carried on English warships in the latter part of the fifteenth century. There must have been a perception that larger numbers of guns made a warship more effective. Although the bulk of these were small, anti-personnel swivel guns, this does not mean that they were mere popguns. In a boarding action, the 600-ton Regent would have been able to fire fifty or more such weapons at an enemy ship alongside, and the relatively quick reloading time for a small breech-loader could have meant that the fire from the ship was able to devastate any open decks or perhaps even penetrate light superstructure. For people who believed in the reality of hell, the noise and smoke alone could have been very daunting. Although it may not merit the title of an ‘armament revolution’, the rising use of gunpowder weapons on sailing warships in the second half of the fifteenth century was a real phenomenon, one that served to make the ship a deadlier instrument of war. However, it was a phenomenon that had probably already reached its limits by 1500. Until the invention of the lidded gun port in the early sixteenth century, it was not possible to mount guns in any numbers below the castle or the weather deck. This in turn limited the size of weapons that could be used, as a large battery of heavy guns could pose major stability problems. Once the lidded gun port and the gunroom were developed, it became easier to carry heavy guns, as these could go below the weather deck, lowering the vessel’s centre of gravity. The ship-borne heavy gun eventually became a destroyer of ships, but the techniques and tactics required to make this possible were not fully developed until the seventeenth century. The rise of the ship-borne gun in the fifteenth century was in the context of existing tactics. It made ‘red war yet redder’ rather than revolutionised it.28

Changing maritime technology did transform the ways in which the English waged war at sea in the Middle Ages, but the transformations in England seem to have been matched by those in other countries. England kept up with new developments, and perhaps led the way in some, but prevailing medieval economic and technological conditions made it impossible for anyone to maintain a decisive technological margin for very long. Superiority in numbers and the ability to raise fleets when needed seem to have mattered more, giving the English a sufficient edge over their naval opponents in Wales, Scotland and France. Although French forces were able to stage many devastating raids on the English coastline during the Hundred Years War, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries French armies were never able to invade England. By contrast, the English were able to invade France on a number of occasions, culminating in Henry V’s conquest of northern France and his recognition as heir to the French throne. However, medieval England’s wars were ultimately won or lost on land. The only way in which the English could gain even partial control of the English Channel was to conquer Normandy, which was achieved, briefly, between 1419 and 1450. The English naval forces could never have won the long series of conflicts between England and her enemies in the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries but they were effective enough to make it possible for the English Crown to undertake periodic sea-borne offensives against those enemies. Without English medieval sea power, disorganised and ramshackle as it sometimes was, there would have been no Hundred Years War and all the terrors that went with it.

16 Rodger, Safeguard of the Sea, 128–30 and 158–9.
17 Susan Rose, ed., The Navy of the Lancastrian Kings and the Accounts and Inventories of William Soper, Keeper of the King’s Ships, 1422–1427 . Navy Records Society 123 (London, 1982), 52.
18 PRO E364/54, E364/59 and E364/61, passim.
19 PRO E364/54 D, m.2r – F, m.2v, passim, and E364/59 F, m.2r.
23 J. C. Appleby, ‘Devon Privateering from Early Times to 1688’, in M. Duffy et al., eds, The New Maritime History of Devon, vol. I: From Early Times to the Late Eighteenth Century (London, 1992), 91; Rose, The Navy of the Lancastrian Kings, 42, 245 and 250; C. J. Ford, ‘Piracy or Policy: The Crisis in the Channel, 1400–1403’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th series 29 (1979), 63–78.
24 Rose, The Navy of the Lancastrian Kings, 245–52.
25 Friel, The Good Ship, 39–67 and 170–80.
26 Rose, The Navy of the Lancastrian Kings, 245–52.
27 PRO E101/42/39; Carr Laughton, ‘Naval Accounts’, 74.
28 Thomas Hardy, ‘Channel Firing’.


  1. Thank you Mitch for such an informative view of medieval shipping. I am currently writing up my family history, the Arundell's who were very involved with the war at sea. I have read your post with great interest as it explains so much.

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