Lights of the Middle Ages

During the troublous times which followed the withdrawal of the Roman legions from this island the lighthouses were suffered to fall into ruins, for the Britons, in spite of their insular position, were in no respect a maritime people, and even the continued incursions of the Saxons did not suggest to them the necessity for fleets to defend their coasts from those merciless enemies. 

When the Saxons had in course of time established themselves as masters of England, a certain amount of trade with foreign countries was done. Essentially an agricultural people, they had little occasion for a seafaring life, and by the middle of the ninth century had probably lost much of the skill in seamanship which they had once possessed. 

When it became necessary to repel the incursions of the Danes they had to cultivate anew the arts they had apparently forgotten, and King Alfred set himself the task of reviving the art of shipbuild – “He commanded,” the English Chronicle relates, “long ships to be built to oppose the esks; they were full nigh twice as long as the others; some had sixty oars and some had more; they were both swifter and steadier and also higher than the others. They were shapen neither like the Frisian nor the Danish, but as it seemed to him they would be most efficient.” In 882 Alfred, with his newly built fleet of one hundred and twenty fully manned ships, gained the first of the many naval victories that grace our annals. He then succeeded in driving the enemy’s ships from the Thames and entered London, where he found the streets deserted and in ruins, the quays (made of timber laid on piles) rotting away, the bridge broken down, no vessels in the port, no merchants and no trade. Having repaired the walls and made new gates, he induced the foreign merchants to return, and reopened communication with such ports as were not occupied by the Danes. 

Even while occupied with his wars, Alfred found time to send out expeditions of discovery and commerce as far as the Indian seas, then the farthest point of the known world, some of his ships even emulating the feat of the ancient Phonicians of doubling the stormy cape at the southern extremity of Africa. His grandson Athelstan further encouraged a mercantile marine by enacting that any merchant who had made three voyages on his own account should, in virtue of them, be admitted to the rank of a Thane, a title until then confined to men of noble birth and large landed possessions. Ethelred the Unready, the annalists tell us, had a larger fleet than any other Saxon king, this supremacy being attained by an edict which enforced on every possessor of a certain amount of land the duty of building one ship at least. 

The Danes made some remarkable expeditions by sea, although they had neither compass nor any of the appliances of modern navigation. They calculated distance by a day’s sail, which was estimated at from twenty-five to thirty miles, and guessed at the direction of the nearest land by letting birds escape and noting the direction they took.

Here is an example of their very primitive method of nautical observation. On one voyage they noticed that the sun was above the horizon both night and day, and on St. James’s Day it was not higher when at the meridian, “than when a man lay across a six-oared boat towards the gun-wale, the shade of that side of the boat which was nearest to the sun fell on his face, but at midnight it was as high as at home in the settlement when it is in the north-west.” This observation has been interpreted by Rafn to indicate that the voyagers were in 75° 46″ north latitude. 

These hardy Northmen of the ninth century carried on a regular trade from the Baltic to Arabia and the East by utilising the rivers running into the Caspian and the Black Seas. They also visited Iceland and even explored some parts of North America. Alfred, as a boy, had visited Rome, while the Bishop of Sherbourne had taken his King’s gifts to India itself and, William of Malmesbury says, brought back with him many brilliant gems.

Under Norman rule shipping was for a time neglected, although we find William I requiring the Cinque Ports to furnish him with fifty-two vessels, each manned by twenty-four sailors. 

The Cinque Ports had been established by Edward the Confessor, who granted them peculiar privileges on condition of providing a certain number of ships during war, there being no permanent English Navy prior to the reign of Henry VII. At the time of their institution these ports numbered five only, as their name implied ; these were Dover, Sandwich, Hastings, Hythe, and Romney; Winchelsea, Rye, and Seaford were added later.

When Henry II set out to conquer Ireland he was accompanied by four hundred sailing vessels, but we have no record of their size. The fleet which sailed from Sicily to the Holy Land with Richard I consisted, the chroniclers tell us, of “thirteen extraordinary ships of capital burthen, one hundred and fifty ships of war, fifty-three gallies besides vessels of less size, and tenders.” A vessel belonging to the Saracens, and which the English succeeded in capturing, was described as a great floating castle manned by 1,500 men.

The Crusades tended to increase the naval force of England, and a considerable expansion of trade ensued. The ports of London, Southampton, Norwich, Bristol and Lynn then began to grow and prosper and many smaller ones became prominent. Those situated on the south and east coasts were, however, the most frequented as being the best adapted to the light and shallow craft which carried on the coasting trade or in fair weather crossed the Channel to the nearest French ports. 

But the closing decades of the fourteenth century were destined to witness a remarkable development in the commerce of Europe, and then the re-establishment of the lighthouses became a matter of necessity. “The foule and feeble roads,” for which England then began to be notorious, were tolerated only because water-carriage was so largely made use of. Until this time England had depended largely on her neighbours for the carriage of what little foreign trade she had hitherto transacted with them, but she now became conscious of her own powers and began to enter upon a new career. 

The poem called “The Libelle of Englysh Polycye,” says

“…..the trewe processe of Englysh polycye 

Is thys, that who seith southe, northe, est or west, 

Cheryshe marchandyse, keep th’ amyralte, 

That we be maysteres of the narrow see.”

The town of Sandwich, which had begun to flourish on the decline of Rutupium, had developed into a considerable port, and in the time of Edward IV possessed 95 ships and 1,500 seamen, with customs yielding no less than £17,000 a year. 

With the extension of her trade to all the civilised maritime countries of Europe, and occasionally even beyond the limits of that continent, England began to build ships in ever-increasing numbers. The Navigation Act of Richard II had prohibited the use of foreign ships by English merchants, provided English ships took reasonable freights, and we learn from the Icelandic annals that in the year 1419 no less than twenty-five of the English ships engaged in the North Sea fishing industry were wrecked round the coasts of Iceland. The miserable ships which had hitherto been used in the trade with the Baltic and the Mediterranean ports were now fast giving way to those of a totally different build and of greater carrying capacity. In fact, so large had the vessels of the Hanseatic League become that they could no longer pass through the arches of London Bridge and lie at anchor as in olden times at the wharves attached to the Steelyard factory.

Henry VII, early recognizing what an opening for reprisals a defenceless coast gave to enterprising men, granted bounties to persons who built large ships and he even built several merchantmen at his own cost. It appears that one John Taverner, a private merchant of Holderness, built a great carack and was rewarded for his enterprise by being exempted from the law of the Staple. This vessel was so long that when engaged in the trade with Iceland it was found to be too large to enter any of the ports there and consequently had to be laden and unladen in the open sea ; for the same reason it was excused from paying harbour dues at Calais. Another merchant, William Canynges, of Bristol, owned 2,853 tons of shipping, among which was one vessel of 900 tons burden. At this time there was trading with the English ports a vessel of 1,000 tons belonging to the King of Sweden. That our commerce during the fifteenth century was of considerable importance is evidenced by the prosperity of so many of our seaports. 

The maintenance of beacon-lights was regarded in mediæval times as a religious duty, and from many of the numerous ruined chapels and hermitages still to be seen perched on the rocky headlands round our coasts warning lights were displayed at night. Adjoining the hermitage of St. Catherine at Chale in the Isle of Wight, established early in the fourteenth century, are the ruins of a tower from the summit of which the priest was wont to show a light to warn vessels off the adjacent point. St. Michael’s Chair, situated at one of the corners of the tower on St. Michael’s Mount near Penzance, is really the remains of a stone lantern from which the monks during the fishing season displayed a light for the guidance of the fishermen belonging to the island. This lantern is just large enough to admit one person at a time, but it is dangerous to attempt an entry owing to its height above the battlements and the way in which it projects over the precipice. Timbs says it was an old belief that if a married woman had the courage to sit in it she would thereby gain the mastery over her husband. 

The monks of the monastery on Holy Island maintained a light on the tower which they erected on one of the Farne Islands off Bamborough, but this disappeared at the Dissolution of the Monasteries and was not replaced until 1776. Leland says that at Cape Cornwall there was a chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas, the patron saint of seamen, and which had “a pharos for a light for ships sailing by night.” This was one of the very few lights to survive the Dissolution. 

The Lantern Hill at Ilfracombe gets its name from the ancient chapel of St. Nicholas on its summit where a fire of wood was kept burning throughout the dark nights of winter. The towers of many of our churches situated on or near the coast were in pre-Reformation days used as light- houses. Thus lights were displayed on the summit of St. Botolph ‘s at Boston (locally known as “Boston Stump “) to guide sailors entering the port from the North Sea, and on the tower of Arundel Church in Sussex to indicate the entrance to Littlehampton Harbour. The records of the town of Rye show that the entrance to that port was marked by a light at the south west corner of the church, supplemented by another in the south-east side of the Ypres Tower. In the Middle Ages Rye was much frequented by travellers passing to and from France.

In the reign of Richard II there lived in a hermitage on the banks of the Humber a monk named Brother Mathew who erected a beacon there and endowed it to certain lands. His successor obtained from the King permission to exact a toll from every ship entering or leaving the port of Hull, the proceeds of which were to be spent in the erection of a beacon tower and the maintenance of a light therein. Before the lapse of two centuries, however, the sea had swept away both hermitage and lighthouse, and, although the coast was so dangerous, no light again appeared there until the reign of Charles II. 

The Guild of the Blessed Trinity at Newcastle-on-Tyne had charge of the navigation of the River Tyne. Their Charter, which was granted to them in the year 1536 by Henry VIII, included a provision that they should “found, build, make, and frame of stone, lime and sand, by the best ways and means which they know or can, two towers, one, to wit, in the northern part of the Shelys (Shields) at the entrance of the port of the said town, and the other upon a hill there fit and convenient for signals,meets and bounds, for the safe and secure custody of the town and port aforesaid, and also of our subjects and others, being in our alliance, coming to the said town and port ” and that “for the maintenance of the said towers and port aforesaid, with a perpetual light to be nightly maintained,” the Society may receive certain tolls, &c. The Fraternity then erected at the entrance to the river two lofty embattled towers from the summit of which shone “two good and steady lights.” These towers were standing as late as 1746. 

The whole of the promontory on the north side of the river at Tynemouth was formerly enclosed by the walls of the Priory which occupied the site of a chapel, erected in the seventh century by Edwin, King of Northumbria, and a beacon was shown from the summit of its tower until the Dissolution. The mouth of the river is now most effiiciently protected by numerous lights, buoys and sound signals. 

It is related of a certain Lord Grenville, whose duties brought him into constant attendance upon royalty, that he once made a memorandum in his diary to watch the King into a good humour that he might ask him for a lighthouse. It is only too probable that his desire for a lighthouse was not because he wished to lead the simple life but rather to realise the very considerable income it was then possible to make out of one. It is not recorded whether he obtained the desired object, but could he have foreseen the heavy penalties the nation in later years would have to pay for having the trusty councillors of kings quartered in this manner upon the mercantile marine he would probably have been too upright to seek such a form of emolument.

At the period when courtiers thus took advantage of a king’s good humour, the vessels served by the lighthouses were few in number and light in tonnage, but as the world’s commerce increased so did the size and number of the ships, and as every ton had to pay its due the owners of the lighthouses must have found their incomes increasing in a most gratifying manner. 

One proprietor, when offered £350,000 for a barren rock in the sea but set with a jewel in the shape of a lighthouse, declared that he would not accept less than £550 000, and that even this large sum would not compensate him for the loss of income he would suffer. In the end a jury awarded him £445 000 only! Another lighthouse cost the nation £300,000 to acquire, while for the wooden structure on the “Smalls” the Trinity Corporation paid £170,000. The total cost of buying out the owners of the numerous private lights was so great that many years elapsed before the surplus light dues had wiped out the huge debt incurred by the Board for this purpose.

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