Shipwrecks are among the most atmospheric of our monuments, partly because they have an air of mystery and partly because they are often inaccessible.
The wreck event itself is often the first phase of loss: they are lost to sight, lost to living memory, and lost to history, with written evidence lost or destroyed.
Although shipwrecks involve huge loss of life and destruction of ships and cargo, they also preserve archaeology that would otherwise be lost to us through the ages; the normal fate of a ship at the end of its useful life has always been scrapping.
Our shipwreck heritage is also unusual in that it is through destruction, rather than through building, that shipwrecks become monuments. Many wrecks have connections with historic events and trade routes, and there are many more to be discovered.
Here we take a look at what 6 shipwrecks can tell us about our maritime heritage:
1. Salcombe Cannon site
The unique Salcombe wreck preserves not one but two different wreck events, neither of which has been identified. The first is a mid 17th century wreck with cannon, carrying a cargo from North Africa, unusual enough in itself, and perhaps evidence of the ‘Barbary corsairs’ which sailed as far north as Iceland at the time.
Further investigation revealed even more unusual remains: a Bronze Age assemblage whose artefacts originated in France. It is likely to be a shipwreck cargo lost with the vessel, which has long since completely disappeared: a tantalising glimpse into trade activity around 1200-1000 BC.
2. Grace Dieu
Even with more records available during the Middle Ages, it remains a significant achievement to identify a medieval vessel. The size, location, and style of construction of a ‘very old’ wreck reported at Bursledon, Hampshire, in 1859 were important clues to its identity.
Surviving records pointed to the Grace Dieu, a ‘great ship’ built for Henry V in 1418, moored in the River Hamble, and struck by lightning in 1439, then broken up. Who knows, perhaps there were sightings between then and 1859?
3. Mary Rose
Built for Henry VIII, the Mary Rose has the advantage of being well documented, not least when capsizing in front of the King as he watched his fleet sail out to engage the French in the Battle of the Solent, 1545.
Some evidence for the wreck was nearly lost for good. Sir Anthony Browne, master of the King’s horses, commissioned some wall paintings shortly afterwards for Cowdray House, Sussex, one of which showed the wreck among the battle.
Unfortunately the house and its contents were lost in a fire in 1793. Happily, a copy survives in the 1770s engraving by the Society of Antiquaries of London, the nearest thing we have to a contemporary illustration.
4. Great Storm of 1703
November 1703 saw the greatest storm ever recorded in English history, resulting in great loss of life at sea. From a storm that affected the entire country, three shipwrecks identified through their naval connections – Northumberland, Restoration, and Stirling Castle – lie among the Goodwin Sands off Kent. It is rare for groups of associated wrecks to be found, and rarer still for a group associated with a nationwide weather event to be identified in such a small area.
We don’t know how many ships were lost in the storm, because smaller craft such as fishing vessels were less ‘newsworthy’ than warships. However, a few of these were included in a book on the storm published in 1704 by Daniel Defoe, who would go on to write the most famous shipwreck novel of all time, Robinson Crusoe.
Even so, there is much archaeological potential still to be discovered on the seabed from this and other events.
5. Minehead wreck, late 18th-early 19th century
It is still not always possible to establish the identity of wrecks in the inter-tidal zone, which may appear and disappear regularly or be discovered following a storm eroding sand from a beach. Members of the public often report such discoveries to Historic England, among them the Minehead wreck, uncovered in 2014.
The identities of these wrecks disappear out of living memory even as they are covered over by the sand. A shipwreck of 1736 was a potential candidate for identifying the remains, but investigation revealed that the vessel was built too late for that. However, given the numbers of vessels afloat (and wrecked!) in the 18th and 19th centuries, the numbers of wrecks found are very small. Like this one, those which are found preserve evidence of long-forgotten ship types and trade routes otherwise unknown in the archaeological record.
6. U8, 1915 (image below of U-118)
Even wrecks from relatively recent periods such as the First World War can be difficult to identify. For cargo vessels, so many ships of the same type were lost to the same war causes in the same areas on the same routes, carrying the same cargo, that it can be very difficult to distinguish between them.
When divers first discovered the German submarine U8 they found it was older than the majority of First World War U-boats sunk around the Straits of Dover. It was possible to narrow it down to one of the pre-war U5 class, of which only four were built. It is not only rare, it was the first known U-boat lost in English waters, in 1915, captured without loss life before being sunk.
Explore the wreck in Historic England’s new dive trail, created by MSDS Marine.
Written by Serena Cant, Marine Information Officer at Historic England