Henry V’s Fleet

The greatest problem facing Henry V was not so much acquiring the materials of war, but transporting them. An invasion of France, of necessity, demanded the use of ships, and when Henry came to the throne in 1413 the royal fleet consisted of precisely six vessels. His great-grandfather, Edward III, upon whom Henry so often seems to have modelled himself, had been able to call on between forty and fifty royal ships throughout his long reign. Within four years of Richard II’s accession, only five remained, and by 1380 four of these had been sold off to pay Edward III’s debts. Henry IV’s fleet never exceeded six ships and was sometimes reduced to two. Both kings had been forced to rely on seizing privately owned merchant vessels to supplement their fleet when required. This had caused considerable anger and hostility, not least because, until 1380, there was no compensation paid to the ship-owners. Under pressure from the House of Commons, Richard II had then agreed that 3s 4d would be paid for every quarter-ton of carrying capacity, but the usual payment rarely exceeded a paltry 2s and was regularly the subject of bitter complaints in Parliament. Another cause of tension was that the wages of seamen were not always paid from the date of their being pressed into service but from the day they actually sailed.

Henry V’s reign marked a revolution in the fortunes of the royal fleet. The six ships he had inherited in 1413 had become twelve by 1415 and thirty-four by the time he began his second invasion of France in 1417. The architects of this transformation were a clergyman and a draper. William Catton became clerk of the king’s ships in July 1413, and, like all his predecessors in the post, was a civil servant in minor orders. William Soper, who replaced him in 1420, was a wealthy merchant and Member of Parliament from Southampton with extensive shipping interests. Within weeks of his appointment, Catton was given authority to obtain all the materials, sailors and workmen he needed to perform the task of repairing and building up the king’s navy. Soper became officially involved in February 1414, when he obtained a similar commission for the specific purpose of “the making and amending of a great ship of Spain at Southampton.”

No doubt at least in part because William Soper was based there, Southampton became in effect Henry’s royal dockyard. The port enjoyed great natural advantages: protected from the Channel by the Isle of Wight, the sheltered waters of the Hamble estuary, Southampton Water and the Solent provided a mass of natural harbours and easy access to the French coast that lay opposite. On its doorstep was a seemingly limitless supply of timber from the New Forest for the building and maintenance of the king’s ships. Soper added a new dock and storehouse at Southampton and built more storehouses and wooden defences for the ships under construction at Hamble. For the first time, the English had a naval dockyard that was beginning to rival the great fourteenth-century French shipyards at Rouen.

Rebuilding a ship on the frame of an old one was a common maritime practice in the medieval period and indeed for many centuries afterwards. It was a cost-effective exercise, allowing for the sale of all the old scrap and outdated fittings, while reducing the investment needed for timber and other materials that could be reused. Much of Henry’s new fleet was built in this way, and as a high proportion of the vessels were captured as a result of either war or letters of marque (documents issued by countries authorizing private citizens to seize goods and property of another nation), this substantially increased the savings to be gained. The cost of rebuilding Soper’s Spanish ship, the Seynt Cler de Ispan, as the Holy Ghost, and refitting a Breton ship, which had been seized as a prize, as the Gabriel, amounted to only £2027 4s 111/2d. This compared favourably to the sums in excess of £4500 (excluding gifts of almost four thousand oak trees and equipment from captured shipping) spent building Henry’s biggest new ship, the 1400-ton Gracedieu, from scratch.

Unfortunately, neither the Holy Ghost nor the Gracedieu would be ready in time for the Agincourt campaign. Despite Catton’s and Soper’s best efforts, it was not easy finding and keeping skilled and reliable shipbuilders. On at least two occasions the king ordered the arrest and imprisonment of carpenters and sailors “because they did not obey the command of our Lord the King for the making of his great ship at Southampton” and “had departed without leave after receiving their wages.”

Henry’s purpose in all this was not to build up an invasion fleet as such: the magnitude of the transport required for a relatively short time and limited purpose made that impractical. His priority was rather to have on call a number of royal ships that would be responsible for safeguarding the seas. When they were not engaged on royal business, the vessels were put to commercial use: they regularly did the Bordeaux run to bring back wine and even hauled coal from Newcastle to sell in London. So successful was Catton in hiring them out between 1413 and 1415 that he earned as much from these efforts as he received from the exchequer for his royal duties. Nevertheless, their primary purpose was to patrol the Channel and the eastern seaboard, protecting merchant shipping from the depredations of French, Breton and Scottish pirates, and acting as a deterrent to Castilian and Genoese fighting ships employed or sponsored by the French.

On 9 February 1415 Henry V ordered that crews, including not just sailors but also carpenters, were to be impressed for seven of his ships, the Thomas, Trinité, Marie, Philip, Katherine, Gabriel and Le Poul, which were all called “de la Tour,” perhaps indicating that, like the king’s armoury, they were based at the Tower of London. A month later, the privy council decreed that during the king’s forthcoming absence from the realm a squadron of twenty-four ships should patrol the sea from Orford Ness in Suffolk to Berwick in Northumberland, and the much shorter distance from Plymouth to the Isle of Wight. It was calculated that a total of two thousand men would be needed to man this fleet, just over half of them sailors, the rest of them divided equally between men-at-arms and archers.

The reason so many soldiers were required was that even at sea fighting was mainly on foot and at close quarters. The king’s biggest ship in 1416 carried only seven guns, and given their slow rate of fire and inaccuracy they served a very limited purpose. Fire-arrows and Greek fire (a lost medieval recipe for a chemical fire that was inextinguishable in water) were more effective weapons but were used sparingly because the objective of most medieval sea battles, as on land, was not to destroy but to capture. Most engagements were therefore fought by coming alongside an enemy ship with grappling irons and boarding her. Imitating land warfare still further, fighting ships, unlike purely commercial vessels, had small wooden castles at both prow and stern, which created offensive and defensive vantage points for the men-at-arms and archers in case of attack.

Even with a newly revitalised and rapidly expanding royal fleet, Henry had nothing like enough ships to transport his armies and his equipment. On 18 March 1415 he therefore commissioned Richard Clyderowe and Simon Flete to go to Holland and Zeeland with all possible speed. There they were to treat “in the best and most discreet way they can” with the owners and masters of ships, hire them for the king’s service and send them to the ports of London, Sandwich and Winchelsea. Clyderowe and Flete were presumably chosen for this task because both had shipping connections: Clyderowe had been a former victualler of Calais and Flete would be sent later in the summer to the duke of Brittany to settle disputes about piracy and breaches of the truce. Flete was perhaps unable to fulfil this earlier commission, for when it was reissued on 4 April his name was replaced by that of Reginald Curteys, another former supplier of Calais.

What is interesting about this mission is that it could not have happened without the consent of the duke of Burgundy. Holland and Zeeland were technically independent counties in the Low Countries and were ruled by William, count of Hainault, a subject of the Holy Roman Empire. The two states were adjoining, Holland lying to the north of Zeeland, which was then a conglomeration of tiny islands (now much enlarged due to drainage and land reclamation schemes) in the Schelde estuary. The little principality was dwarfed and almost entirely encircled by its neighbours. To the south lay Flanders, which was ruled directly by the duke of Burgundy, whose only son, Philippe, count of Charolais, was his resident personal representative there. To the east lay Brabant, whose duke, Antoine, was the younger brother of John the Fearless. Since William himself was married to John and Antoine’s eldest sister, Margaret of Burgundy, he was part of the family network and the region was controlled by their threefold political alliance. The duke of Burgundy was unquestionably the dominant partner, summoning William, Antoine and other petty rulers of the Low Countries to assemblies over which he himself presided. Had John the Fearless forbidden William to allow English envoys to recruit ships in his territories, there is no doubt that he would have obeyed. That he therefore gave at least tacit approval must be inferred, and, if he did so, it suggests that the French were correct in assuming that secret alliances had been signed the previous autumn between the English and the duke of Burgundy.

The available records indicate that Clyderowe and Curteys spent almost £5050 (over $3 million in modern money) hiring ships in Holland and Zeeland. Although this is probably not the complete sum, it allows us to make an educated guess about the number of ships they were able to hire. If they paid the customary rates of 2s per quarter-ton, they must have secured some 12,625 tonnage of shipping; if all the vessels were the smallest considered worth hiring (twenty tons), then this suggests that, by 8 June, they had acquired around 631 ships for the king’s expedition. This exercise, and its resultant figure, is only of value in that it bears out a report of the same day that seven hundred ships were on their way to England from Holland. In view of the fact that medieval estimates of numbers are usually considered to be wildly exaggerated—and, indeed, often are—this provides a salutary reminder that they can also sometimes be correct.

This was still not enough to fulfil the king’s requirements. On 11 April he ordered that all English and foreign vessels of twenty tons or more currently in English ports between the river Thames and Newcastle-upon-Tyne were to be seized into the king’s hands, together with any others that arrived before 1 May. The news caused consternation abroad. “We know that our four merchant ships have not yet arrived . . .” the Venetian Antonio Morosini wrote in July, “and there can be no doubt that they are in danger of falling into the king’s hands, which is greatly to be dreaded. May it please the eternal God that it may not happen!” Successive intelligence reports received in Venice that month indicated that Henry’s fleet was first three hundred strong, then six hundred and finally fourteen hundred “and more.” English ships that were seized were sent to Southampton and foreign ones to Winchelsea, London or Sandwich. There, over the next three months, they were converted from carriers of merchandise into fighting ships and transports for the thousands of men, horses and pieces of equipment that would have to be carried across the Channel to France.


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