Henry V's Holigost ship in the River Hamble
PUBLISHED: 15:08 10 February 2016 | UPDATED: 14:29 15 February 2016
Almost 600 years since Henry V's mighty fleet sailed to France, experts think they've found the shipwreck of the Holigost, a major part of his war machine, in the River Hamble near Bursledon. Viv Micklefield digs deeper
Driving along the M27 close to junction 9, the sight of the River Hamble drifting gently below is a bucolic one. So it’s hard to imagine that long before these waters became a mecca for pleasure boats, they were home to a medieval royal dockyard poised to spearhead the attack on England’s oldest enemy. According to naval historian Dr Ian Friel, whose research has flagged-up a potential graveyard of ‘great ships’ so called because they would make most modern-day craft “look like minnows” by comparison, the rediscovery of the Holigost as the second of two historic wrecks buried beneath the mud, signals another chapter in Hampshire’s sea-faring log-book.
“Hampshire, particularly the Southampton area, was a key shipbuilding centre. The Holigost was rebuilt there from the captured Spanish ship Santa Clara,” he says, continuing, “The Hamble was the main anchorage for the royal fleet from 1417 - it was relatively sheltered, deep and well defended, and probably the best place to moor the great ships.”
Hewn from almost 4,000 trees, the Holigost would have weighed-in at up to 760 tons. And having entered the Crown’s service on 17 November 1415, just a month after the Battle of Agincourt, this ship’s record between 1416 and 1420 is the stuff of naval folklore. A floating symbol of power and prestige, she was the flagship of the Duke of Bedford (Henry V’s brother) at Harfleur and, despite suffering serious damage, later joined the thick of the fighting off the Chef de Caux - both crucial battles during the Hundred Years War that sunk the French.
The remains of the Grace Dieu, Henry’s largest warship, which were identified in the 1930s and have been protected since 1974, are sometimes visible at low tide from Manor Farm Country Park. This wreck (caught on camera in a 2005 televised Time Team excavation) and the mystery of its submerged neighbour have brought Ian back to the site many times. However it’s the latter, in his opinion, that could prove to be even more significant in telling us more about late medieval ship design and construction.
“If this is the Holigost, there is a possibility that more of the hull will have survived than is the case with the Grace Dieu, which caught fire in 1439, and 19th century interference has left behind just the bottom of the ship, big though it is. The Holigost seems to have been docked much more carefully and was not subject to catastrophic destruction, so far as we know.”
Describing the moment when he first realized he’d stumbled upon something special, Ian who is an advisor to Historic England on ancient wrecks says: “It was really exciting - first to spot the ‘ship-shape’ in the aerial photo of the Bursledon stretch of the Hamble, and then to make the connection with the documentary evidence that Henry V’s Holigost was laid up here.
“I think there is a real possibility that the site contains the remains of the Holigost, but of course we can’t be certain until further survey work is undertaken.”
Convinced there could be something in Ian’s findings, Historic England has applied to have the existing protection zone around the Grace Dieu extended. This spring they will also be instructing a team from the University of Southampton to undertake scientific research involving hi-tech sonar mapping of the site. Armed with a detailed 3D impression of the shape and extent of the remains, this will then help to pinpoint where timber samples can be taken in order to date the wreck more accurately.
“If we can prove its Spanish timber, this builds the case for it being the Holigost.” says Joe Flatman at Historic England, adding, “Compared with our European neighbours such as France, Denmark, Holland and Germany, who have a lot more ships of this period remaining, we have very few so this would be an incredible find.”
Once verified as the Holigost, experts hope it could improve our current understanding of life aboard ship, ship-handling, and naval warfare of this period. Importantly, it might provide further insight into the life and times of Henry V. There’s already evidence to suggest the ship’s decoration and flags also reflected his personal religious devotion (its name being a direct reference to the Holy Trinity) and his political ideas. Unusually, this included a French motto Une sanz pluis, ‘One and no more’ meaning the king alone should be master.
The Holigost’s significance to his war effort is emphasised by the huge recorded expenditure on maintenance. As well as local shipwrights and caulkers being employed to plug leaks and stall timber decay in 1423, a so-called dyver named Davy Owen was brought in to repair cracks below the waterline, the earliest-known instance in England.
Joe continues: “To put the Holigost’s age into context, the Mary Rose is about 100 years later. We don’t have another well preserved 15th century ship apart from the Grace Dieu, the wreck sitting alongside. If we have these two really important royal ships directly related to Henry V, then that’s completely unique.”
Interestingly, archives also show that while much of Henry’s fleet was sold off after he died, in 1426 the Holigost was dry docked at Bursledon (which took 100 men no less to dig) - the now fragile ship shored-up using timber felled on farmland owned by Titchfield Abbey with the mast, rigging and ironwork having been removed to the safety of the royal storehouse in Southampton.
So if the existing protected wreck site becomes extended, what does this mean to river users?
“On a site like this it won’t impact on most people hugely,” Joe confirms. “It will show up on maps, but if you’re a yachtsman you continue to use the site in exactly the same way as before. The Hamble estuary here is really close to many people, but there are no footpaths. It is a very atmospheric site.
“Nationally, Historic England has 49 protected wreck sites. That’s not that many compared to say listed buildings, because what we want to have is a small range of really important examples of our naval history – the real ‘crown jewels’. These include the more recent ‘war graves’ of WW1 ships, but the further back you go, you find these really interesting stories of how the sea has been used over the years.”
Hampshire’s protected wreck sites
• River Hamble: Lightening struck and irrevocably damaged the Grace Dieu in 1439
• Spithead: Henry VIII’s flagship the Mary Rose sank during conflict in 1545 - a large section raised in 1982 is displayed at Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard along with later recoveries
• East Solent: A French ship, HMS Invincible ran aground in 1758
• The Needles: The frigate HMS Assurance was wrecked in 1753, as was HMS Pomone in 1811
• Yarmouth Roads: Late 16th/early 17th century remains are thought to be the Spanish ship Santa Lucia
• Find out more at www.historicengland.org.uk
• Best things about living in the Hamble Valley - From sailing along the strawberry coast to shopping on cobbled streets, the Hamble Valley offers an idyllic lifestyle as Emma Caulton discovered on a recent visit
• The people of Hamble share what they love most about the village - Whatever the season, the thriving village of Hamble extends a warm welcome both to visitors and residents who come to soak-up the charms of its characterful centre and riverside says Viv Micklefield