Shipbuilding Northern Europe

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Shipbuilding Northern Europe

A Check-List Of The Currently Known Shipbuilding Details Of The Varied Traditions Of Planked Vessel Construction Likely To Be Seen In The Channel And North Sea In The Early Medieval Period

Key features of Anglo-Saxon planked construction

  1. Vessels were built around a central back bone timber or keel, with overlapping ‘clinker’ planking erected as a shell before the framing. A form of ‘keel-type’ construction.
  2. The framing was heavy and seems to have been inserted after planking up the whole hull, using few cross beams.
  3. The keel timbers were plank-like or shallow beams.
  4. The vessels’ ends could be straight and sloping, or convexly curved.
  5. Currently we have no evidence of decoration of Anglo-Saxon ships timbers.

Two schools appear to exist within Anglo-Saxon planked boat construction and have been named after the sites where they were first found;

* The New Fresh Wharf School- where the plank laps were fastened only with treenails and the sealant (‘luting’) was tarred moss.

* The Graveney School where the laps were fastened with small iron rove nails were driven through small wooden rawl plugs. Here the luting was tarred animal fibre rolls.

Key features of ‘Danish’ (Viking) planked construction

  1. Vessels were clinker keels, but perhaps a little sharper and more lightly framed than Anglo-Saxon keels, they also used multiple cross beams called ‘bitr’, and framing was added after the lower hull was built and then on completion, rather than in one go.
  2. The laps of the craft were fastened with large iron rove nails without rawl plugs and luted with cords of tarred animal hair.
  3. Decoration in the form of mouldings was common and for very high status craft complex carvings were sometimes used.
  4. Stem timbers were convexly curved.

Key features of ‘Frisian’ ship building

  1. Larger vessels built in the Low Countries seem to have been very distinctive at this time, and currently the finds show that they had huge expanded dugout bottoms, with sides planked in a form of the clinker method. The framing was inserted later and was heavy. The term ‘hulc’ (= hollowed out) seems to have been applied to ships of this type in England and fragments of one from the low countries were found in London in 1990. They also appear to be depicted on at least one type of East Anglian coin.
  2. The laps of the overlapping side planking were sealed in a very distinctive way; tarred moss was set in the lap before fastening and then moss was also driven into a gap left at the top edge of the lap and capped with a lath held in place by small iron staples known as ‘sintels’.
  3. The lap fastenings were treenails as in the New Fresh Wharf style of Anglo- Saxon ship building.

New evidence of a very different carvel style of construction from Western France

Very recently French archaeologists have discovered the remains of a small capsized planked vessel that dates to the early medieval period but is not built with over lapping planking like the vessels built round the North Sea. The vessel from the Charente estuary (the Porte Berteau II wreck) has planking set edge to edge in some form of the ‘carvel’ style. The large iron nails used are rather like those of Romano-Celtic craft, as is the edge to edge hull planking. Whether Romano-British boat builders working in the early Saxon period continued with a related form of planked vessel construction is as yet unknown, but it seems likely. Planking laid edge to edge, usually on pre-erected framing, was not widely used until the 16th century AD in England. It is quite possible that vessels built in this style came to southern England before the Conquest, as the tree-ring dates indicate construction in 599-600, AD at roughly the same time as the larger Sutton Hoo ship.

Flat bottomed planked river vessels

A small number of shallow, flat-bottomed river craft with square ends have been found on large continental rivers or estuaries, but as yet we have no trace of such vessels in this period in Britain.

And don’t forget the real ‘folk boats’, infinitely, varied small dugout boats

It has also been possible to investigate the remains of Anglo-Saxon small boats which so far, have proved to be locally varied forms of dugout boat, generally between c. 2.5- 4.5m long. The vast majority of dugout boat finds in British museums date from the early medieval period, rather than prehistory as most might expect. These craft generally do not seem to have received as much attention as the more glamorous and larger planked vessels, but they can provide a great deal of information about how ordinary, historically unrecorded, folk used the water and developed their woodworking skills. They vary greatly from area to area and from relatively crude trough-like craft to thinly and beautifully carved, relatively light ‘expanded’ dugout boats such as those found in the Snape cemetery and recently in Lincoln Museum archives. Anywhere in NW Europe in the early medieval period, one would have expected to see locally distinctive, small dugout boats being paddled and poled around much larger plank built boats and ships.

Note (ed): see SAXON issue 39 (2003) for report on The Covehithe Log Boat


Really we have to admit that we could do with more planked vessel finds from England, particularly from the early Anglo-Saxon period, to fill out a rather scant picture. But enough material has been found to isolate the key regional styles of construction and bring us closer to understanding what was meant by the account in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle of King Alfred: “ordering the building of warships neither after the ‘Frisian’ nor ‘Danish’ pattern.”

What little we know of medieval ships and ship building comes mostly from modern day ship finds. For Scandinavia there are the Gokstad ship, the Skuldelev ships. For England the Sutton Hoo ship is the only one that comes to mind. Thus we have more material on Scandinavian ships than we do on English ships. The Sutton Hoo ship was “clinker built” as were the Scandinavians, and was not rigged for sailing. This would make the Sutton Hoo vessel “similar too” or “sharing the technology of” the famous Viking longships.

Sea worthy wooden vessels are difficult to build, especially the first one. Obtaining strength in wood great enough to keep the vessel from breaking up in rough weather places great demands upon the shipwright. Secondary matters such as making it float right side up, keeping leakage down to something the pumps (or bailers) can handle, steering arrangements, propulsion (oars and sail), are tricky and will take a long time (generations) to work out. Many vessels will be built with serious problems which only experience will correct.

All this makes the design quite distinctive and long lasting. Once the shipwrights have worked out a way of putting the ship together, they tend to stick with it cause “it looks right”. Remember the ship wrights lack mathematical methods of design; in fact, lack paper for drawings or even Arabic numerals. The vessels are built “by eye”, which means the craftsmen are told verbally what to build, and will fabricate oars, blocks, rowlocks, planks, rivets, and the hull that “looks like” the last one the made, with only minor and evolutionary improvements. This is why William’s ships on the Bayeux Tapestry look a good deal like Scandinavian ship finds from the 800’s and 900’s.

What, however, was the nature of warfare at sea in this period? Was it no more than confused scuffling at the water’s edge or in shallow bays and estuaries?

Early medieval naval encounters were, in the opinion of most commentators predominantly boarding actions. The dramatic descriptions of the encounters between the forces of Magnus of Norway and Earl Svein Ulfson in 1044 and between Harald Hardraada and Svein in 1062 from the Heimskringla bear this out to some extent. The first was clearly decided by boarding. Magnus, we are told, led his men forward ‘and rushed along the ship, shouting loudly and egging on his men and he went right forward to the bow to the hand-tohand fight’. Eventually he ‘cleared the ship (Svein’s) and so he did one ship after the other’. However, the opening phase of the battle was fought with missiles, a mixture apparently of ‘of barbed spears or gavelocks or darts’

The second battle was on a larger scale with the opposing fleets engaged in quite complex manoeuvres. Once, however battle was joined the first feature seized upon by the bard was the flights of arrows and the hurling of stones. He also makes clear that before the battle began ‘both sides roped their ships together in the midmost parts of their fleets. But because the armies were so big there was a great number of ships which went loose’. He seems to be implying here that the forces in the centre of the two fleets, of Harald on the one hand and of Svein on the other, linked themselves together so that the enemy was faced with a solid mass of ships. Round the edges of these groups were numbers of unattached or ‘loose’ ships. These ‘loose’ ships, especially those under the command of Hacon the jarl seem to have had a decisive influence on the outcome of the battle, ‘wherever he came nothing could withstand him’. In the end, however Harald and his men went ‘up on king Swein’s ship and it was so thoroughly cleared that every man fell except those who leapt into the sea’. Both these battles took place in the sheltered waters of fjords on the east coast of Denmark but are more complex encounters than might be thought. Battles in the open sea were certainly hardly a realistic possibility given the design of the vessels in use and the difficulties of finding the enemy. Many so-called naval battles at this date were really amphibious engagements, combined operations, when the role of seafarers was to transport warriors with silent speed to unexpected landfalls. If the landing was opposed, or if an opposing sea patrol lit, almost always by accident, on the incoming ships, fighting would take place. This would usually end in boarding or involve beached vessels or end with them driven onshore. Before this, however, a furious exchange of missiles might take place combined with attempts by both sides to manoeuvre their vessels into the most advantageous position. This might include an attempt to come up on the beam of an opponent breaking his oars or an attempt to drive the enemy aground. An invading force, however, was far more likely to be defeated on land than at sea.

There is very little in the history of events during the eleventh and twelfth centuries in the Channel and Western Approaches which seems to contradict this belief. Despite the ability of Saxon kings to assemble fleets by using the obligation to provide vessels for national defence which seems to have rested on territorial units sometimes called ship-sokes, the invaders from the North, the Danes and their kings Swein Forkbeard and Cnut the Great had little trouble getting their forces on shore. In Ireland the Norse trading towns were well established with their Viking rulers, on occasion hiring their fleets to Gaelic lords. French chronicles betray little interest in maritime affairs. Almost the sole exception to this general indifference to naval affairs are the events of 1066, the conquest of England by the Normans. There has been quite a considerable amount of discussion of the forces deployed by each side; the precise numbers built or otherwise obtained by William I; the exact sequence of the steps taken by Harold to guard his Southern coastline; the rationale for the course sailed by the Norman ships particularly their decision to leave Dives and sail for St Valery before making the Channel crossing. Much of this makes some valuable points concerning, among other things, the design of William’s ships or the need to consider wind and tide and the configuration of the coastline as well as the words of chroniclers. It does not, however, alter the basic fact that, given the experience of other invaders, albeit operating on a somewhat smaller scale, William had every right to hope to get ashore unopposed. The crucial battle would be on land; it was there that the issue would be settled.

The campaigns of Tostig, Harold’s brother, and Harold Hardraada bear this out. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Tostig had sailed from Flanders to the Isle of Wight in the early summer of 1066 to attack his brother’s lands. Harold then collected a fleet to oppose him and also the looming threat from William. Tostig hastily left Sandwich when he learned that his brother was under way from London and continued up the East coast, burning and looting as he went. Undoubtedly these raids were locally disturbing and in fact Edwin and Morcar, the Northern earls, managed to drive Tostig north to Scotland away from their provinces but the situation demanded the presence of Harold himself when Tostig and his ally Harold Hardraada of Norway got ashore near York. Ships had allowed the invaders the mobility they needed but did not affect the eventual outcome, Harold’s triumph at Stamford Bridge.

In the same way William’s fleet, however numerous and however assembled, fulfilled its purpose in bringing the army to the battlefield. The Carmina de Hastingae Proelio may well be the most accurate account of William’s Channel crossing, with its description of the east wind, ‘foul weather and ceaseless rain’ which trapped the fleet at Dives and William’s intense anxiety at St Valery before he was able to set sail for England. The decisive moment was, however, the victory at Hastings. In particular circumstances well-led and well-armed naval forces could be a crucial factor in a military operation, for example the siege of a coastal city or fortress but, in 1066, this was not the case.


Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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