When the Newport Ship was Sailing

By Haydn Davis

© Haydn Davis 2011

     Much has been said and theorised about the Newport Medieval Ship’s role in the maritime history of the town. Where did it originate? How often was it seen on the River Usk and during which exact period? None of these questions has yet been precisely answered but there are strong clues that point in positive directions! And what of the small Welsh seaport that played host to the Ship and eventually kept her safely sealed within its river bank for another world to discover over 500 years later?

      The 15th Century was one of the most volatile periods in British history. It began half way through the 100 Years War (1337 – 1453) and continued spasmodically as the Wars of the Roses (1455 to 1485). It was sometime during the central portion of these turbulent times that the Ship must have been plying her trade in European and possibly Mediterranean waters. But she must have led a charmed life, continually passing through the areas of warring nations, evading the attentions of the coastal pirates who infested the mouth of the Bristol Channel, or the bloodthirsty Corsairs of North Africa who lurked all along the route to the Mediterranean.

      With strong evidence now pointing to the likelihood that the Ship started life in a French shipyard, consideration must be given to the idea that she was captured and conscripted into the private fleet of one of the more powerful English barons. Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (the Kingmaker) owned such a fleet and he was known to have made payment for repairs to a vessel at Newport.

     So, what sort of a place was this medieval Newport that presented itself to the Ship on the occasion of each visit – or maybe its only visit? To answer this question it is necessary to begin a little earlier in the century, in fact, before the Ship was born.

      In the year 1400 an appraisal was made of the assets of Edmund, 5th Earl of Stafford and it showed that apparently Newport was a thriving village, almost fully recovered from the ravages of the Great Plague, repopulating steadily, well on the way to complete freedom from feudal bondage and preparing to make its debut as one of the important South Wales maritime trading centres in wool, leather, timber and continental wines. The western bank of the River Usk was coming alive with the sound of hammering and the smell of molten pitch as the infant ship-building industry began to make its way.

     It was a hopeful scenario but one that was abruptly snuffed out in 1403 by the violent attack and terrifying vandalism of Owain Glyndwr’s invading horde. The castle and bridge were burned together with many houses and most of the growing crops. Whole herds of cattle and flocks of sheep were killed or driven off. St Woolos Church was desecrated. Overnight, a town of great promise became a town in despair, ruined, bankrupt and about to be further hit by famine!

     To make things worse, the Glyndwr devastation coincided with the death in battle in 1403 of Newport’s manorial lord, Edmund, 5th Earl of Stafford, whose son and heir was not yet 12 months old! For this reason there was to be no firm, guiding hand on the tiller for years to come – no rational ideas for recovery and no access to resources with which to finance them. Such distressing conditions lead one to wonder exactly how many of the much vaunted Welsh archers at the Battle of Agincourt (1415) could possibly have been from Newport or even the county as a whole!

     In all probability this was pretty much the scenario that greeted the Ship when it made the first of its appearances on the River Usk, although there is no evidence that she ever made more than one, and this for repair rather than trade. It is unlikely that the exact period will ever be pinpointed but, as repair work to the timbers has more precisely indicated the year 1465, it does not seem unrealistic to take the starting date of her voyaging from, say, 20 years before that. So what might have greeted the eyes of the Ship’s company during the mid portion of the 15th Century?

     Well for a start, the River Usk itself had become a much busier waterway than ever before. Trading in the old, traditional commodities was surpassing its pre-Glyndwr best. Vessels of the size of the Newport Ship were not yet a common sight on the Usk but 60 to 80 footers were the work horses of the day and for a large part of the mid 15th Century they were accompanied by the dozens of 50 foot, single-masted ‘crays’ carrying better quality stone from Bristol and Penarth for the final, expensive touches in the rebuilding, extending and refurbishing of Newport Castle which was under reconstruction for nearly 50 years.

     One of the first things that would have told the Ship that it was approaching her regular berth would have been the Town Bridge. In 1403 it had been badly damaged in the Glyndwr attack and, in the absence of any official maintenance fund and the probable fraudulent disappearance of past town taxes set aside for such a purpose, the only alternative was years of temporary patching up. This had the effect of enhancing the rickety appearance and did not make the crossing any less of a risky venture!

     By 1435 a new bridge seems to have been built but apparently it was one of a series of inferior structures thrown up with no thought given to durability. In 1488 the bridge must have been near to collapse because the Bishop of Hereford made a desperate appeal for donations to save the day!

     If the Newport Ship regularly visited the town throughout its working life – and there is no way of proving this – it would have been witness to many of the bridge’s spindly mutations.

     Newport in the 15th Century was a dreary, unprepossessing place. It was nothing more than a small village, although it held the status of a borough, and despite having been endowed with three lordly charters (1385, 1427 and 1476), it fell far short of performing with the dignity that might have been expected to accompany those honours.

     It was an extremely dirty town with its few polluted wells, overflowing bog-houses and streets where the filth accumulating on market days was allowed to remain until a rare scavenger came along, worked completely ineffectually for a day or two and then moved on!

     Town councils were morally corrupt and this venality extended right down the chain of command to everyone who was in a position that enabled him to divert monies from the public purse into the private pocket! Essential services suffered badly. Mayors and aldermen ran bands of villainous retainers to intimidate recalcitrant townsfolk and grew fat and prosperous on the backs of those whom they bankrupted. And once again the Lordship lost stable leadership as the Wars of the Roses (1455 to 1485) claimed the lives of both the old Duke of Buckingham and his son and only heir. To make matters worse, the two men elected as temporary custodians, the Earls of Warwick and Pembroke, were also lost in the conflict.

     Drunkenness was rife and violence common in the streets, leading to increases in crimes as serious as rape and murder. In 1476, King Edward IV issued orders that the citizens of Newport had to give assurances as to their future law abiding conduct on pain of considerable sums to be forfeited if they defaulted. Apparently, the previous monarch, Henry VI, had taken similar action against the town.

     Despite all these measures from on high, it would be only a matter of some fifty years (1532) before the town was again torn apart as the generations-long, smouldering feud between the prominent Morgan and Herbert families erupted in a day of the most ferocious, bloodthirsty rioting!

     The local courts were bursting with miscreants, especially on market days. The town exchequer overflowed with the multitude of fines generated and certain of the town’s book keepers rubbed their hands as they tucked away their ‘duplicate’ ledgers in secret places.

     Smuggling was rife on the Bristol Channel Monmouthshire coast and Newport’s position made it vulnerable to the many illicit landings made from the 15th to the 18th Centuries. Dark nights brought ashore tons of contraband goods along the Caldicot and Wentloog Levels. Much of it was confiscated in bloody clashes with the constantly patrolling excise officers but substantial quantities of strong liquor and tobacco still found their way into the cellars of the local taverns and the secret store rooms of the wealthier, ‘honest’ town gentry.

     It was said that the more daring ships’ captains brought small, illegal cargoes right to their Uskside berths, buried under their legitimate cargoes of wool and animal hides, and quietly spirited them away under the noses of the guardians in the Westgate Tollbooth (tolbothe). Could it be possible that Our Ship .........?                                    

     From 1434 to 1456, three men, William Berne, William Kemys and Richard Adam monopolised the position of Mayor of Newport – 22 years during a large part of which this trio held most of the power to call the tune in every aspect of the community’s affairs! And this in the face of town ordinances which forbade any one individual from holding the post of mayor for more than one year at a time, without a reasonable gap intervening before his next period of tenure!

     Not a very pretty picture but, on the whole, not so very different from many other medieval towns in Britain. This was the face of Newport that greeted everyone who set foot in the town!

           Little is known of Newport’s drinking places as long ago as the 15th Century. The short stretch of High Street was not then regarded as the main street of the town but only as part of the highway passing through. Apart from the house of the Murenger, the Carpenters’ Guild House and the Westgate Toll Booth, few if any other permanent buildings seem to have existed at the beginning of the century. High Street found its main use when it came alive with the carts and stalls of itinerant traders, pedlars and charlatans on market days.

     On the other hand, Mill Street in the old serfs’ village seemed to be the more recognisable as the town centre, possessing at the time of the 1427 Charter, several shops and three taverns, the King’s Arms, the White Swan and the White Lion (the last Old White Lion stood, probably on the same site, until its demolition in the 1970s).

     If these old inns were where most of the sailors did their drinking they would have had to be very careful as they made their tipsy ways back to the river bank through the pitch darkness which masked the presence of lurking thugs seeking easy prey!

     It would not be fair, however, to suggest that the town which played host to the Ship was the sole preserve of thoroughly unprincipled and violent people. The forces for good were present even if at times they were stretched alarmingly.

     Old maps seem to suggest that the original sites where one day Cinderhill and Moderator Wharfs (where the Ship was found), were situated in the north-eastern corner of the Friary Fields.

     At this time disease was endemic in a town that was constantly subject to all sorts of airborne evils and wholly dependent for its supply of drinking water from a small number of heavily polluted wells. Without taking account of plague outbreaks Newport was rarely without its visitations of smallpox, cholera, typhus and a multitude of unrecognised ailments, whilst no qualified doctor is named as practising hereabouts for centuries to come!

     The average human life span in medieval times was little more than 35 years of age and reliance on reaching that age was placed in the hands of travelling quacks and mountebanks who displayed the doubtful qualities of their nostrums and elixirs at the regular town fairs. However, for those too poor to pay, a slightly more credible means existed.

     A short distance south of the Town Pill within the borough was a large area of land where pastoral peace was allowed to reign.

     The Austin Friary was a mere 60 to 70 years old, having been the recipient of this acreage, adjacent to the river bank, by way of an endowment made in 1377 by Hugh, 2nd Earl of Stafford. The Friary included a chapel, a manor house and a small ‘spittehouse’ or hospital for the free care of the destitute, the sick and the blind. It was situated somewhere along ‘Cornes Lane’ (Corn Street). Together with the main house it was situated just a short stone’s throw from where The Ship was eventually found, on a site that may well have been within the curtilage of the friary before the southward development of the river bank began.  

     The black-robed friars would have been familiar figures as they wandered about the tiny borough during the course of their charitable ministrations. There were probably no more than a dozen of them at any one time but, in such a disease-ridden, almost completely undoctored world, their presence with their primitive but sometimes surprisingly effective potions and poultices, together with generous helpings of faith, must have been a great source of comfort to the ignorant, superstitious townsfolk.

     Inadvertently, by the actions of these caring people, the town council was absolved from what was rightfully a municipal duty and only a fool would have delved too deeply into the final destination of that portion of local taxes intended to be set aside for this function!

     In 1480, while the Ship was lying fully visible on the River Usk bank and decisions were still being made about her future, the faint sound of hammering on stone might have been heard from St Woolos Church at the top of Stow Hill. Here a team of Sir Jasper Tudor’s masons were adding a further storey to the first, short, stumpy tower built a century earlier.

     The river bank along the short town reach was completely devoid of built-up wharfs or jetties. Except for the permanent moorings in the Town Pill, accommodation for arriving vessels was provided by slips or slipways, shallow sloping sections of river bank, which had the dual purpose of allowing newly-built or repaired vessels to be launched as the higher tides helped to lift them from their stocks.

     During the reign of King Henry IV (1399 to 1415), Newport was declared a ‘creeke of Caerdyffe’ meaning that whilst not yet important enough to be considered a customs ‘porte’ in its own right, its trading potential had become such that it warranted an upgrade. Consequently, the lush greenery of the River Usk bank began to fade under the onslaught of medieval docking facilities, boat-building yards and small workshops. It grew from a haven of home-grown coastal craft to the landfall of much larger, sea-going vessels many of whose keels had been laid in faraway lands.

     Thoughts about 15th Century Newport rarely touch the minds of modern citizens except perhaps for a dedicated few. These then, are all glimpses of the life and times of Newport during the Age of the Ship. Even if the vessel made no more than one journey up the River Usk to remain a forgotten hulk for the rest of its days, its reappearance in the 21st Century may hopefully have had the desirable effect of opening a small window into at least one medieval period of Newport’s ill-defined past and whetting appetites where little or no interest previously existed!

     One thing is certain however: whilst it was not a very rewarding era for the town, it was a golden age for the Ship!