In 1415, Henry V of England marched his troops through Southampton and departed for France. Two months in to his campaign he led his men, the happy few, the band of brothers, to famous victory at Agincourt.
Southampton at that time was an incredibly important town for Henry V. Like today, it was vital in the nation’s imports and exports, and in addition it was where Henry V kept his royal fleet. Henry also used Hamble extensively. For example, twelve of his ships were anchored there through winter of 1417, guarded by forty archers.
It was the year after Agincourt, in 1416, that the Grace Dieu was ordered. Meaning Grace of God, it would be the largest ship of its day. William Soper, a burgess of Southampton, was tasked with the job of building this enormous war machine, and so he commissioned a huge new dock to be built at Southampton’s Town Quay in order to accomodate the vessel.
According to Soper’s records, 2735 oak trees, 1145 beech trees, and 14 ash trees were used in the construction.
The ship was launched in 1418, before being moved to Hamble for fitting out and final touches. Hamble at this point had warehouses and boatyards aplenty, Soper himself had two warehouses here and he had even constructed a tower at the entrance of the river in case the French had the audacity to attempt an attack.
When finished, the Grace Dieu was one of the largest wooden ships ever built, and its size would be unrivalled for hundreds of years. It was twice the size of the Mary Rose and comparable in size to HMS Victory which was built over 300 years later. The front of the ship was 50 feet above sea level and was designed this way so that archers could use it to fire upon sailors on the smaller enemy ships that would already have to face Grace Dieu’s mighty cannons.
It would have been a truly impressive sight at the time, and an intimidating foe for any enemy ships unlucky enough to come face to face with it.
Well, that would have been the case if it ever went to war. By the time it was ready for duty in 1420, hostilities between England and France had basically ceased. So after all that time building it, all the money spent, all the trees cut and all the effort… There was no real need for the Grace Dieu.
And so it was put into use patrolling the English Channel. Once. Grace Dieu left Southampton in 1420, but soon after departing the town the crew mutinied, and it was forced to divert to the Isle of Wight. That was its only voyage of note.
Henry V died in 1422, and many of his ships were sold off. Grace Dieu was laid up in the River Hamble near Bursledon, and left there.
In 1439 a bolt of lightning struck the ship, and there it burned. The remains sunk in to the mud, where it remains to this day. According to Historic England:
The vessel survives from the keel up to the bilge area; it lies in an intertidal area, the part nearest the shore buried in mud, whilst other frames are exposed and visible at times of low tide.
Five hundred and seventy seven years after it caught fire and came to rest in the mud, a yellow marker points us to the wreck.