Isle of Wight Shipwrecks: Medieval Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Isle of Wight Shipwrecks: Medieval

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Isle of Wight Shipwrecks
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After the Norman Conquest1 the waters of the Island became even busier, with the growth of Southampton as a port, as well as smaller, local ports such as Newport, Newtown, Brading, Wootton and Yarmouth. The Island, too, was in the front line in the wars with France that were to last for the next 800 years.

Many ships were sunk in Island waters during these wars. In 1205 King John gathered a fleet at Southampton, and in 1206 a fleet was gathered in Portsmouth. The king stayed in Yarmouth on the Island before he and his fleet sailed for La Rochelle in France. In 1208 King John ordered that the strongest men of Portsmouth, Southampton and surrounding areas must gather in Portsmouth to man the King's Galleys due to the threat of a French invasion. In 1213 a fleet of 500 ships sailed out from Portsmouth, following the Island's shoreline, then on to Damme in Belgium, where they destroyed a French invasion fleet.

To Islanders, shipwrecks were a much-needed source of income, with survivors from shipwrecks often being killed so that their cargoes could be seized with no questions asked. It is also likely, as Island legend states, that professional wreckers existed who would light fires to attract ships onto the rocks.

  • In 1224 - the earliest written record we have of this - the Bishop of Winchester ordered the clergy of the Island to preach three times a year against those who 'prevented the shipwrecked from saving their own lives'.

  • In 1231 King Henry III was petitioned by Osbert Percehays to enquire into the fate of one of his ships which had beached itself near Freshwater during a storm. Although the ship was not wrecked, a crowd of locals came to the ship and stole its cargo of lampreys2. Piracy was also common in this period.

  • In 1236 the baron Sir Philip d'Albini demanded satisfaction be given to the merchants of Hainault and Flanders for ships plundered off the coast of the Isle of Wight.

  • In 1242 King Henry III assembled a fleet in Portsmouth Harbour to carry reinforcements for his French campaign, yet a French fleet attempted to blockade them. The English fleet managed to escape, only to be caught in a violent storm in the English Channel and forced to return to port. It is possible that some of the ships were wrecked in Island waters.

  • In 1275 King Edward I created a law of shipwrecks, which stated that if any living thing, man or beast, escaped from a shipwreck alive, the owners had a year and a day in which they could claim the salvaged goods. As a result of this, after being shipwrecked, survivors were often killed so that the ship's cargo could be stolen.

  • In 1293, after the last of the feudal overlords of the Island, Isabella de Fortibus, died, the Island became part of England and its rights of salvage reverted to the Crown.

  • In 1301, when a ship from Calais was wrecked near Compton, the king and local landlords split the proceeds of the wreck.

  • In 1313 one of the most famous of the Island's shipwrecks, St Mary of Bayonne, came ashore in Chale Bay. Her story is interlinked with that of the Pepper Pot, Britain's oldest medieval lighthouse, on St Catherine's Down.

  • In 1320 Saint Mary of Santander, after being wrecked near Yarmouth, had her cargo seized. Around 50 people were charged with 'the Misuse of wrecked goods'. Six people refused the summons to the court at Southampton, and were declared outlaws.

  • In 1321 the Portuguese vessel Ship Of Jesus Christ, another wreck off the Island's coast at Brighstone, was raided by around 50 men, some of whom came from Portsmouth, Lymington and even Christchurch, on the mainland. 45 men were accused of the crime of plundering a cargo valued at £5,000.

  • In 1327 a French fleet disguised as English sailors and flying English colours attacked and sacked Portsmouth and Southampton.

  • In 1341 a Spanish vessel was wrecked on a coast were salvage was the right of the king. This was no deterrent for the local population who, armed, took to their boats and with their oars pushed the floating wine barrels and other goods out to the open sea, where they could legally be claimed by anyone.

  • 1The conquest of England by William of Normandy (William the Conqueror) after the Battle of Hastings in 1066.2A lamprey is an eel-like aquatic jawless vertebrate that has a sucker mouth with horny teeth and a rasping tongue. The adult is often parasitic, attaching itself to other fish and sucking their blood.

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