In a year which Southampton mourns the tragic loss of the Titanic, it seems fitting to look at the city’s grand legacy of great ships. As you would expect with a Hollywood blockbuster in its name, 95% of residents surveyed are aware of the Titanic’s significance to the city, but very few are aware of one of the city’s greatest ships, the Grace Dieu.
In 1413, the ambitious new King Henry V, wished to pursue the age-old claim of English Kings to the French throne and by 1415 he needed a ship equal to these aims. In the wake of this, Henry commissioned his greatest ship to be built on the mud banks of the River Hamble, near Southampton, where it still rests today. However, in spite of Southampton’s rich maritime history and the tradition of acknowledging naval endeavour, it is a shame that so few are aware of its existence. With the ship’s six hundredth anniversary approaching, there’s no better time to tell the fascinating tale of Southampton’s forgotten ship.
The Grace Dieu, (Grace of God) was a technological masterpiece. It was built at a great cost, with an elaborate triple boarding technique to a scale never before seen, a staggering 40 metres long by 15 metres wide, with the crows’ nest extending to see 9 nautical miles away. A ship of this grandeur would not be seen again for another two centuries. The sheer size is shown through the surviving records of the King’s ship keeper, William Soper, which list the use of over 3,700 trees and 23 tons of iron.
However, when the ship was completed in 1420, The Treaty of Troyes had confirmed Henry’s appointment as regent and Heir of France and the need for this warship ceased. It was reduced to a floating warning to Henry’s enemies. Its first and only voyage, a sea keeping mission patrolling the Channel, proved a comical failure. Initially tensions were rife with the Quartermaster refusing to muster the men and this discontent grew into mutiny. Devonshire crewmen forced the ship to stop at St Helen’s on the Isle of Wight. After a dishonourable return to Southampton, the ship was never called to sea again and mysteriously in 1439 was burned to the waterline, supposedly, by a lightning bolt.
The ship was all but forgotten with its wreckage dismissed as a Viking Longboat, until 1934 when R.C Anderson ruled it to be the Grace Dieu. Since then it has been placed under the protection of wrecks act, and is now owned by the University of Southampton.
It is a shame that so few are aware of this great ship and that it rests by humble standards compared to the Mary Rose’s new £35 million museum. Similarly, the Titanic’s centenary dwarfed anything she will receive on her 600th anniversary. It seems unlikely the Grace Dieu’s remembrance will rival these two ships, but it is high time for her to be brought out of the shadows and take her place in Southampton’s maritime history.