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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

Henry V and the Grace Dieu

In the River Hamble at Bursledon, in Hampshire, a yellow buoy marks the location of a protected wreck site. First discovered in the 19th century, it was originally thought to be the remains of a Viking ship. It has since been identified as the wreck of the Grace Dieu, the flagship of King Henry V of England, and perhaps the largest and finest of all medieval warships.

Henry was born in Monmouth Castle, Wales, on 16th September 1386. He was the son of Henry of Bolingbroke, later Henry IV of England, and Mary de Bohun. He acceded to the throne upon his father’s death in 1413 and would rule England until his own death in 1422. Despite his relatively short reign, Henry V would become one of the most renowned English monarchs, particularly remembered for his military prowess, with his outstanding successes in the Hundred Years' War against France turning England into one of the strongest military powers in Europe.

King Henry V of England.

In 1328, Henry’s great-grandfather, Edward III of England, had laid claim to the French throne, following the death, without male issue, of Charles IV of France. Edward was the son of Isabella of France, Charles’ sister, but since females were at the time forbidden from inheriting the French throne, the question arose as to whether she should be able to transmit a right to inherit that she did not herself possess. Edward’s claim was thus rejected, leading to the start of the Hundred Years' War in 1337. The brutal conflict that followed would outlast Edward and several of his successors.  

Henry V’s accession to the English throne in 1413 came during a hiatus in the fighting: In 1396, with both sides facing major domestic issues, a 28-year truce had been agreed. Yet, in the end, hostilities were renewed in August 1415, when Henry led an army across the English Channel, laying siege to Harfleur, which surrendered after five weeks. In the process, Henry’s army was depleted by disease and battle casualties, and, on 25th October, as he marched towards Calais, intending to return to England, he found his path blocked by a considerably larger French force at Agincourt.

A depiction of the Battle of Agincourt.

The battle was fought on a narrow front between two woods, which prevented large-scale manoeuvres and thus worked to Henry’s advantage. As the French knights, weighed down by their heavy armour, began a slow advance across the muddy battlefield, they were met by showers of arrows, launched by the English longbowmen, who were protected from the French cavalry by wooden stakes that had been driven into the ground. As more and more French knights made their way onto the crowded battlefield, their mobility decreased further, and Henry ordered his lightly equipped archers to rush forward with swords and axes. The unencumbered Englishmen massacred the French. While English deaths amounted to just over 400, around 6,000 Frenchmen were killed.

Subsequently, Henry captured Calais, before returning to England triumphant. Victory had served to solidify his rule back home, whilst also further legitimising his claim to the French throne. More importantly, defeat for the French led to infighting and encouraged Henry to renew the war in 1417. Through a series of sieges, he was able to gradually seize control of most of Normandy, and on 21st May 1420, the Treaty of Troyes was signed, whereby Henry was named regent and heir to the French throne. In the end, Charles VI of France, to whom he had been named heir, outlived him by two months. Henry V died on 31st August 1422, aged 35. He was succeeded by his infant son, Henry VI, during whose reign, most of the territories that had been captured by his father were lost to the French, and English military power in the region waned.

The Treaty of Troyes was signed on 21st May 1420.

Although the Battle of Agincourt was undoubtedly the most famous victory of Henry V’s short reign, it would never have been possible without his fleet, which played a major - if often unrecognised - part in his successes in the Hundred Years' War. Although in later centuries, Britain would become one of the world’s foremost naval powers, in the medieval period, this fearsome reputation had yet to be forged. England did not possess a navy in the modern sense: There was no permanent fleet specifically assigned for defensive and offensive operations. Instead, privately owned merchant vessels were requisitioned in times of war, and their crews were obliged to perform service to the crown. These vessels would serve alongside a small number of warships that were directly owned by the crown, but these were not permanently maintained, except in times of war.

Yet, from the very beginning of his reign, Henry had an appreciation of what sea power could achieve and took an unprecedented interest in naval affairs. The problem was that England’s navy had been in decline for many years. Henry made it his mission to build a fleet designed to destroy French sea power, which he knew was a prerequisite to a successful invasion. During his reign, the royal fleet was transformed from a few dilapidated craft into a powerful navy, with over 35 fighting vessels, up-to-date technology, and four of the biggest warships in Europe, which came to be known as "Great Ships".

Naval battles in the Middle Ages usually consisted of boarding actions, in which big ships with large crews had the advantage.

Since naval battles at the time usually consisted of boarding actions, in which big ships with large crews had the advantage, Henry’s warships were built with high-sided hulls which made them difficult to board and provided good platforms for missile weapons. They also served as symbols of English might, built for prestige and power. Although major operations still relied on the participation of large numbers of conscripted English vessels, as well as hired foreign shipping, Henry’s "Great Ships" were the spearhead of the English navy.

The first of these ships was the 540-ton Trinity Royal, which entered service in 1415. She was built in Greenwich, Kent. Yet, around this time, the main naval base and royal dockyard moved to Southampton, which was closer to the new French possessions and near the New Forest - a source of timber for ship construction. A particularly influential figure was William Soper, a prominent local merchant who held many important offices in the town, including Collector of Customs. He would later serve as mayor of Southampton on two separate occasions, as well as a member of parliament. A competent and skilled administrator, Soper was soon given charge of expanding Henry’s navy, as well as supervising ship maintenance and repairs.

By the early 15th century, Southampton had become an important naval base and the site of a royal dockyard.

In February 1414, Soper had been commissioned to refit the Santa Clara, a recently captured Castilian carrack. The 760-ton vessel was more than 30 metres long and had a complement of some 200 men. In addition, she could carry up to 260 soldiers and had an armament of seven cannons. Records show that Soper was paid to have her decorated with heraldic devices and arms. Renamed Holy Ghost, she joined the royal fleet in November 1415 as the second of the four "Great Ships" commissioned by Henry V.

Although the King’s ships formed the core of the fleet, when a large army needed transporting, the crown relied on its prerogative to requisition merchantmen. In readiness for Henry V’s French expedition of 1415, his fleet and army were assembled at Southampton. In the meantime, preparations were also underway to put to sea several smaller flotillas to guard the coast, and to protect the gathering transport ships. In February 1415, three flotillas were formed, each given a specific area to cover. One would protect the coast from Plymouth to the Isle of Wight; the second would patrol from the Isle of Wight to Orford; while the third would cover the area from Orford to Berwick.

On 11th August 1415, the invasion fleet slipped out of the Solent and headed towards Saint-Denis-Chef-de-Caux, carrying at least 11,248 fighting men. Henry himself sailed aboard the Trinity Royal. The task of assembling a fleet large enough to transport his army was arguably the most difficult task faced by any medieval English government. The most reliable estimates suggest a fleet of around 800 ships, the vast majority of which were transports escorted by a squadron of royal warships. After two days at sea, the fleet arrived outside Harfleur. Unloading took three days, after which the town was placed under siege. Over the next weeks, various other vessels of all shapes and sizes performed the task of transporting supplies and wounded men across the Channel.

The invasion fleet, led by Henry V onboard the Trinity Royal, departed from Southampton on 11th August 1415.

Although the Trinity Royal took part in the invasion, the Holy Ghost had not been completed in time. The royal squadron did not see any action in 1415, because the French did not put to sea to try and prevent the English from landing in Normandy. Both ships would see action the following year, however. In April 1416, while Henry was occupied with peace negotiations, French and Genoese warships blockaded Harfleur, while a French army besieged the English-garrisoned town. By May, enemy ships were also blockading Portsmouth and Southampton in an attempt to frustrate efforts to relieve the beleaguered port.

The loss of Harfleur would have caused huge damage to Henry’s military ambitions and prestige. He thus despatched his brother, John, Duke of Bedford, to relieve the town. The fleet sailed from Beachy Head in August, arriving at the mouth of the Seine on the 14th. As dawn broke the following morning, the opposing fleets closed in on each other. Although the Duke of Bedford’s armada outnumbered the enemy fleet, the Genoese carracks were formidable fighting vessels, larger than most of the English ships. The battle lasted for several hours, with both sides attempting to board each other’s vessels whilst coming under a hail of missiles, spears and stones. Eventually, the English triumphed, having captured and sunk several enemy vessels, whilst inflicting heavy losses on the French and Genoese.

John of Lancaster, Duke of Bedford.

With the blockade lifted, much-needed supplies and reinforcements flowed into Harfleur: A catastrophic defeat had been prevented. France’s Genoese allies had been driven out of the English Channel, and Henry’s fleet was firmly in control. The Trinity Royal and the Holy Ghost also took part in another battle off Saint-Denis-Chef-de-Caux in 1417, paving the way for Henry’s second invasion of France, which led to the signing of the Treaty of Troyes. By this point, they had been likely joined by the third "Great Ship", the 1,000-ton Jesus, which entered service that same year after having been built in Small Hythe, Kent. By 1420, the royal squadron had expanded to 36 vessels and was kept busy patrolling and supporting Henry’s campaigns in northern France.

By then, the last and biggest of the four "Great Ships" had finally been completed. Back in 1415, Henry had decided to commission a warship on a scale never seen before. He thus instructed William Soper to oversee the construction of a new ship, to be known as the Grace Dieu. Work began in 1416 in a dock that had been specially built for the purpose near Town Quay, Southampton. Concurrently, work also started on two smaller ships, the Valentine and the Falcon, which were intended to act as escorts for Henry V’s new flagship.

Shipwrights were skilled specialists in charge of designing and building boats and vessels.

The Grace Dieu was designed by the Master Shipwright John Hoggekyn. At 1,400 tons, she was the largest ship built in England up to that date. Indeed, no warship that rivalled her for size would be built for another 200 years. Soper’s records show that 2,735 oak, 1,145 beech, and 14 ash trees were needed for her construction, as well as 23 tons of iron. The huge mainmast was probably as much as 50 metres in height, and she carried two, or possibly three masts in total.  The Grace Dieu was designed for use in battle against the formidable Genoese carracks. To this end, she was built with high sides and a prow that rose more than fifteen metres, so that her archers could shoot from above into the much lower enemy vessels that she would run alongside.

The Grace Dieu was launched in July 1418, being blessed by the Bishop of Bangor, although she was not ready for sea until 1420, when she finally entered service. The final cost was an estimated £3,800, equal to more than £1.5 billion in today’s money! One of Henry V’s brothers, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, described her as "the fairest that ever men saw". In 1430, William Soper, who, as Clerk of the King's Ships, was by now in charge of the administration of the entire navy, dined on board the Grace Dieu with Luca di Masa degli Albizzi, the Florentine Captain of the Galleys, who remarked that he had never seen "so large and beautiful a construction".

In the end, the Grace Dieu would have a rather unremarkable career. She never saw action, as by the time of her completion, the naval war was virtually over: England had firm control over the Channel and was at peace with France following the Treaty of Troyes. In the spring of 1420, she became the flagship of a powerful patrol group assembled at Southampton which included the three other "Great Ships". Despite fears of an attack by France’s Spanish allies, this never materialised. The Grace Dieu appears to have set sail only once, when, together with her escorts, she was ordered to make a cruise down the English Channel. During the voyage, the crew mutinied, forcing the master, William Payne, to put in at St. Helen's, on the Isle of Wight. There is no evidence that she ever went to sea again after this episode.

The River Hamble.

From the latter part of 1420, the four "Great Ships" were all moored in the River Hamble, on the eastern side of Southampton Water, in a sheltered and well-defended anchorage for the royal fleet. Serious efforts were made to keep them afloat, even though there were no battles to fight, for they were still emblems of English royal power. When Henry V died two years later, his ships were treated as his private property rather than as part of the English navy, and many were sold off to pay his debts. Yet the "Great Ships" were kept, perhaps in the belief that they could form the core of a new royal fleet should one be needed.

Although a lot of money was spent on keeping them afloat, employing maintenance crews and purchasing materials and equipment for their upkeep, the "Great Ships" were wasting away, prone to decay and sudden leaks. Between 1426 and 1430, the three older vessels were laid up, and the Grace Dieu followed in 1434, when she was towed up the river to Bursledon and laid up in a dock. Sometime later, she was de-masted and had most of her gear removed. Then, on the night of 7th/8th January 1439, she was struck by lightning, which caused her to catch fire and burn to the waterline. Once she had been stripped of any salvageable materials, the keel was left to sink into the mud, where it remains to this day.

400 years later, a small stream on the bank of the Hamble changed course and washed away some mud to reveal a big shipwreck. First mentioned in an 1859 local guidebook, it was believed to be the remains of a Viking warship from the 9th century AD. In the years that followed, the wreck suffered from the attention of souvenir hunters, who hacked bits off it. It was only in 1933, after a re-investigation of the site, that the wreck was tentatively identified as that of the Grace Dieu. This conclusion was confirmed in the 1980s after archaeological studies carried out by the National Maritime Museum. By this point, the site had been designated under the 1973 Protection of Wrecks Act. More recently, a sonar survey by the University of Southampton and the National Oceanography Centre helped reveal the full shape and size of the remains.

A yellow buoy in the River Hamble at Bursledon marks the site of the wreck of the Grace Dieu.

Today, it is only possible to visit the site of the Grace Dieu with special permission, but at very low tides, it is possible to see some of her timbers from the opposite riverbank in River Hamble Country Park. The wreck of the Grace Dieu is of international importance, one of a small number of known medieval wrecks in the United Kingdom, and one of the few in Europe that can be named. It is hoped that in the years to come, the site can be further studied to shed more light on Henry V’s finest warship.

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