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Kent Archaeological Review extract

The Woolwich Ship.
by D E Wickham.

The Woolwich Antiquarian Society's Proceedings for 1914 noted that ship's timbers found on the riverside at Woolwich in 1912 might be the hull of the Henri Grace a Dieu the Great Harry, one of the finest English ships, accidentally burnt at Woolwich in 1553. No further details appeared but recent correspondence with the Board of Admiralty and the Society for Nautical Research at the National Maritime Museum produced the following information from articles by R C Anderson and W Salisbury in the Mariner's Mirror of 1959 and 1961.

In November 1912 the remains of a large wreck were found during excavations on the site of Woolwich electricity works near Steamboat Pier wharf. After a cursory inspection the Director of Naval Construction said it was mid-18th century and its was only after the controversy caused when someone said, apparently without proof, that the wreck was 16th century and the Henri Grace a Dieu, that Prince Louis of Battenberg set up an Admiralty Court of Enquiry in March 1914. Because of the war, only parts of its report were even drafted and nothing was published. By 1918 most of the timber had been sawn up and sold but two leading authorities supported a 16th century identification.

Luckily the LCC had measured the wreck, making drawings and photographs which still exist and were reinterpreted for the 1961 article. The general details of the ship were quite unlike those of any English ship built since 1650, but there were remarkable similarities with the near-namesake, the Grace Dieu of 1418. The wreck contained items and constructional details like wooden nails and a special form of mast that suggested various dates between 1500 and 1650, and an extensive rebuilding. There are several candidates for the identification.

  1. The Great Harry was burned off Woolwich in 1553 and several discrepancies with written records can be reconciled when we learn that the ship of 1514 was so extensively rebuilt in 1536/9 that some contemporaries regarded it as a new ship. However, certain assumptions about the ship's appearance and details of the first would have to be made, while no trace of fire was discovered in the wreck.
  2. The Great Galley, built in 1515 and rebuilt twice before fading from the records in 1562/5, is a stronger contender, especially as regards appearance and construction.
  3. The Sovereign, built in 1488 and rebuilt in 1509/10, was docked at Woolwich in 1521 in such an unseaworthy condition that rebuilding from the keel was proposed. She is not mentioned after that date, but repairs were urged because her form was so good that 'it were a great pity she should die.' This reputation could explain two puzzling features of the wreck -- a very thorough rebuild but on the original timbers, and no attempt to recover sound timbers from the ship as it silted up.

The opportunity to re-examine the site during recent extensions of the electricity works was missed and, without further evidence, the Sovereign seems the most satisfactory identification.

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