Since its discovery in 2002, investigations of the Newport Medieval Ship have completely transformed historians’ understanding of fifteenth-century ship technology. The most exciting underwater recovery in recent decades, the late-medieval merchant vessel was built c. 1450 in northern Spain, and it ultimately foundered at Newport twenty years later while undergoing repairs. With plans in place to make the ship the centerpiece for a permanent exhibition in Newport, this volume interprets the vessel in detail to enable visitors, students, and researchers to understand the ship and the world from which it came. Edited by Evan T. Jones and Richard Stone, The World of the Newport Medieval Ship contains eleven chapters written by leading maritime archaeologists and historians that explore the relationship between history and archaeology, assessing how both can contribute to the interpretation of physical remains. Together, these chapters consider the vessel’s historical significance and locate it within the commercial, political, and social environment of its time.
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About the Author
Evan T. Jones is senior lecturer in the department of history at the University of Bristol. Richard Stone is a teaching fellow in the department of history at the University of Bristol.
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INTRODUCTIONEvan T. Jones
The Newport Medieval Ship is the best-preserved late medieval vessel yet discovered. Built c. 1450 in northern Spain, it was abandoned twenty years later while undergoing repairs in an inlet off the River Usk, on the southern edge of the town. Since the ship's recovery in 2002, archaeological investigations of its timbers and associated artefacts have revealed much about the shipping technology of the period. As discussed by Ian Friel in this volume, the fifteenth century saw a flourishing of 'big ships'. The Newport Medieval Ship, with an estimated cargo capacity of 161 tons burden, was such a vessel; it would have been one of the great merchantmen of its day. Ships were the largest, most complex and most expensive machines of the pre-modern world. That made them both major financial investments and symbols of power, whether owned by the Crown, great lords or wealthy merchants. When William Canynges of Bristol died in 1474, a note added to his tomb boasted of the ten great ships he had owned; when a fifteenth-century Florentine merchant wrote about a huge carrack he had bought, he bragged that 'it can load the whole of Spain'. The Newport Ship thus provides an opportunity not just to understand a technology, but to engage with one of the most symbolically laden artefacts of the pre-modern world. Great ships were important in their time and they remain emotionally charged objects to this day, as the popular reaction to the discovery of the Newport Medieval Ship itself illustrates.
Since it was found, nautical archaeologists have spent a great deal of time, effort and money excavating and preserving the ship, employing some of the most advanced recording techniques yet used. The three-dimensional contact digitising of every timber, followed by the three-dimensional printing of the individual vessel parts to scale, have made it possible not only to understand the ship as a wreck, but to piece it back together, virtually and as a physical scale model, in a way that would have been impossible even a few years ago. It is a unique vessel, which has been recorded and reconstructed in pioneering ways. Meanwhile, developments in the field of dendrochronology mean that the ship's timbers and those associated with its final phase of maintenance and deposition can be dated closely and their provenance identified. So we now know where the planks used in the initial construction came from, where the ship underwent repairs and, within a year or two, when it was abandoned. When this information is combined with artefact assemblages and environmental samples associated with the vessel's life, it is also possible to say something about how and where it was employed.
The tight dating of the Newport Ship's construction and demise makes it possible to associate the vessel with both specific historical events, such as the Wars of the Roses, and broader economic developments, such as the growth in Anglo-Iberian trade during the second half of the fifteenth century. The ship operated during a tumultuous period, both in England and abroad, which resulted in major realignments to European trade and its associated shipping markets. When I first visited the Newport Ship project in December 2012, it was clear that those investigating the vessel had developed a stunningly sophisticated understanding of it as a piece of technology. Yet, as a maritime historian specialising in the trade and shipping of the Bristol Channel, it was also clear to me that less consideration had been given to the context in which the vessel operated, or to how it might have been employed. What sort of commerce would a ship like this have been involved in? How many voyages would it have made each year? To what extent would it have sailed fully laden? Beyond such economic questions there were others, to do with Newport, its region, the international setting and the general political scene, which needed more attention. What part did the port play in the region's shipping industry during this period? What was the nature and extent of the town's commercial and urban networks? What particular risks and opportunities did those involved in shipping face during the 1450s and 1460s?
A number of people were involved in discussions about how to promote research on the ship's broader context. These included Dr Toby Jones (chief archaeologist and curator of the ship), Professor Nigel Nayling (nautical archaeologist, University of Wales Trinity Saint David), Dr Rowena Archer (medieval historian, University of Oxford) and Margaret Condon (historian of Henry VII's reign and my co-researcher on the Cabot Project in Bristol). We decided that the best way forward would be to hold a conference to bring together a group of leading experts to explore 'The World of the Newport Ship'. The immediate aim was to provide an interpretive framework for the vessel, which could assist ongoing investigations and future curation. With plans to put the ship on view in a museum setting, accompanied by interpretive displays and commentaries, the value of doing this was clear. In this case, historical archaeology would not be 'a handmaiden to history', as Noël Hume controversially proposed in the 1960s. Rather, the historians would be 'handmaidens to archaeology'. On the other hand, there was no expectation that they would be passive assistants, merely there to show off the archaeological remains to their best effect. It was anticipated that the interplay between archaeologists and historians would generate fruitful research questions and lead to new lines of inquiry. Lastly, by bringing together a group of specialists to focus on a very particular period, place and object, in what was effectively a mini research project, we hoped that the result might be more than the sum of its parts. That would be particularly likely if the scholars involved were able to benefit from each other's research both before and after the meeting.
What emerged from our deliberations was a plan for a two-day conference, which I was to convene at the University of Bristol. The idea was to table a set of papers that would start with the ship as an archaeological object and then work outwards. We would explore the vessel's local and regional context, before moving on to the broader international scene. In the process, the conference would take in major aspects of the ship's world. These included the development of maritime trade in the period and the nature of the international shipping market. It would also consider issues that affected the general environment in which ships operated, such as the risks posed by piracy and the nature of navigation on the Severn Sea / Môr Hafren – as the Bristol Channel was then known. The input of Iberian scholars was particularly important, both because the ship was built from timber that came from northern Spain and because the archaeological evidence suggested that it had traded with Portugal. To ensure that we had a coherent set of papers, the speakers were to be invited experts, chosen for their ability to bring distinct perspectives to the subject. That we were able to propose such a panel was a function of the early financial support received from Gretchen Bauta, a private Canadian benefactor. She acted as the initial underwriter through the auspices of the Cabot Project, which is investigating the Bristol voyages of discovery of the later fifteenth century. With Mrs Bauta's support secured, others came forward with additional funding. These included the Friends of the Newport Ship, Newport City Council and the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. This allowed us to be more ambitious in the speakers we invited and it ensured that we could make the conference accessible and affordable to a large academic and non-academic audience.
Once the speakers had been identified, Margaret Condon facilitated the scholarly endeavour by carrying out an intensive programme of transcription of the surviving Bristol 'particular' customs accounts of the second half of the fifteenth century. These accounts detail the day-to-day trading activity of the Bristol Channel's chief port, which lies just twelve miles across the Severn from the entrance to Newport's haven. England's 'particular' customs accounts provide the most detailed records of international trade for any country in the pre-modern era. Their value has long been recognised, with some of the Bristol records of the late fifteenth century having been published, in printed form, as early as the 1930s. The Bristol records of this period are especially suited to the study of shipping, both because they indicate where vessels were sailing and because they specify whether a vessel was a boat, a small ship or a great ship. As such, the accounts provide an outstanding source for researching the international trade and shipping of the region. Transcribing the accounts into Excel spreadsheets made it possible to conduct detailed statistical analyses of the data. In addition, the information was used to address specific qualitative questions – such as when and where individual ships sailed, what they were carrying and who employed them. The transcriptions of the customs accounts were circulated to the speakers in draft form before the conference took place and were employed in many of the contributors' papers and subsequent chapters. The accounts used in this volume, along with a number of others, are being published online through the University of Bristol's e-repository, accompanied by detailed introductions.
The conference took place on two sweltering days, from 17–18 July 2014. We had capacity for 110 delegates and 'sold out' two weeks before the meeting. Since then all the contributors have conducted further research, in many cases in collaboration with each other. The current volume is the result of this endeavour, comprising a series of chapters which had their starting point in the conference but which, in all cases, represent significant advances on the original papers.
The value of publishing conference proceedings is sometimes questioned, often rightly. Conferences are frequently disparate in nature and the scholars who give the best papers may wish to publish their results elsewhere. In this case, however, it was clear from the outset that we should produce a volume based on the papers. With the primary intent of the conference being to provide a resource for those involved in curating and interpreting the ship, it behoved us to gather the results together and make them widely available. We owed that to both the ship's present and future curators and to the many members of the public, in Newport and beyond, who have been fascinated by the vessel and who have been instrumental in driving its investigation forward. These include HRH The Prince of Wales, who has a long-standing interest in nautical archaeology. Given his interest in both Newport and the Newport Medieval Ship, he was generous enough to write the foreword to this volume. Thanks are also due to Gretchen Bauta, who followed up on her initial support for the conference with additional funding. This covered some of the later research and publication costs associated with this volume's production. Other contributors to the book's costs include the Friends of the Newport Ship and Newport City Council.
Although this volume was written with a specific primary purpose, it will be of value to a much wider audience. All the chapters contain new research, the bulk of the material has not appeared elsewhere and some of the findings and methodologies employed are highly original. Taken together, they provide one of the most intensive studies of a pre-modern maritime world ever undertaken. Of the eleven chapters in this volume, ten are based on the original conference papers; that by Dr Richard Stone was a later addition, albeit he was involved from the start as a co-convenor of the conference. Three of the speakers, Dr Rowena Archer, Margaret Condon and Dr Michael Barkham, were unable to submit their chapters due to unforeseen personal circumstances. Although their contributions are not included, all three scholars fed into the wider research project. Since their research had an impact on our interpretation of the ship and its world, their findings are discussed below.
The volume begins with a contribution from the two lead archaeologists working on the ship: Dr Toby Jones (Newport City Council) and Professor Nigel Nayling (University of Wales Trinity Saint David). Professor Nayling's specialism lies in the field of dendrochronology, which involves the study of the tree rings found in timber both to date the wood and to determine where it came from. Much of the basic archaeological research on the ship has been published elsewhere, with the main report now in preparation. Given this, no attempt has been made to reproduce the archaeologists' technical findings. Rather the function of Jones and Nayling's chapter is to highlight and explain the main results of the archaeological work carried out to date and the interpretations of the ship's life and use that have been constructed from this research. Their contribution thus provides the archaeological 'base point' for the later chapters, which seek to interpret, contextualise and explain the data found by the archaeologists. The most important findings for current purposes have been the archaeologists' ability to date the construction of the ship to within a year or two and to show that the vessel was built using timber coming from northern Spain, most likely from, or close to, the Basque Country. Beyond this, they show that some of the patch repairs conducted on the ship's hull during the late 1450s or early 1460s were carried out using wood from Britain or Ireland. The latest of the ship's timbers seem to have been associated with its final phase of repair in Newport during the late 1460s. Both the wood used for this repair and the props employed to support the vessel during the refitting came from Britain – most probably from Newport's immediate hinterland.
The final repairs carried out on the ship were extensive, involving the replacement of some of its structural timbers. The ship had most likely been taken into the slip on a high spring tide and then propped upright. This would have allowed access to most of the hull's exterior and made it easier to conduct work inside the vessel. Before the repairs commenced it seems likely that the ship would have been emptied of any cargo, stores and moveable fittings. While undergoing repairs the vessel heeled over, apparently as a result of a collapse in the support structure on its starboard side. This resulted in the ship being inundated with water and silt. Given that ships were valuable items, its owner, or owners, may have tried to right the vessel. There is some evidence that salvage was attempted, with holes being drilled into the starboard side, presumably to drain the vessel. When it was clear that the ship could not be saved, any accessible objects that remained were removed and the hull was cut down to, or close to, the muddy bottom of the inlet. This would have allowed the recovered timber to be reused for other purposes and made the waterfront accessible by others. The later construction of a stone slipway over the remains of the ship meant that the same site could have been used by later shipwrights or merchants.
Apart from the work on the timber, Jones and Nayling discuss the environmental and small-find evidence. Perhaps the most noteworthy results of this are that the ship seems to have visited southern Iberia during the autumn on one or more occasions, as evidenced from the flowering heather and prickly juniper found on board. This was most likely used as dunnage (packing material) to protect casks in transit, such as wine barrels. The main interest of the small-find evidence, such as the pottery fragments and coins found on board, is that little of this 'occupational' material is of British origin; Portuguese coins and ceramics predominate. This material mostly came from the bilges and probably represents accidental loss or discarded waste associated with the ship's daily life. Food remains found in the bilges are also suggestive of a southern European diet. All this implies that, even if the ship was British owned at the time it was being repaired in Newport, it had spent much time in southern Iberia.(Continues…)
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Table of Contents
Foreword: HRH The Prince of Wales vii
List of Contributors ix
List of Figures xiii
List of Tables xv
List of Abbreviations xvii
1 Introduction Evan T. Jones 1
2 The Newport Medieval Ship: Archaeological Analysis of a Fifteenth-Century Merchant Ship Nigel Nayling Toby Jones 19
3 The Rise and Fall of the Big Ship, 1400-1520 Ian Friel 37
4 Violence at Sea in the Late Fifteenth Century Susan Rose 57
5 Newport During the Fifteenth Century Bob Trett 75
6 Sailing the Severn Sea in the Mid-Fifteenth Century Ralph A. Griffiths 95
7 The Severn Sea: Urban Networks and Connections in the Fifteenth Century Peter Fleming 115
8 The Shipping Industry of the Severn Sea Evan T. Jones 135
9 The Trading Context of the Newport Ship: The Overseas Trade of Bristol and its Region in the Mid-Fifteenth Century Wendy R. Childs 161
10 Bristol's Overseas Trade in the Later Fifteenth Century: The Evidence of the 'Particular' Customs Accounts Richard Stone 181
11 The Iberian Economy and Commercial Exchange with North-western Europe in the Later Middle Ages Hilario Casado Alonso Flávio Miranda 205
12 Trade and Navigation Between the Atlantic and Mediterranean Worlds in the Mid-Fifteenth Century Francesco Guidi-Bruscoli 229