When the first King Edward was preparing for war with France in 1294 he gave orders through his Treasurer, William de Marchia, Bishop of Bath and Wells, for 26 towns on the east and south coasts to build 20 galleys for his service, some of the towns being paired to construct a galley between them.

One prominent south coast port, Southampton, had to send for a Gascon master shipwright from Portsmouth to superintend the work, and had to lay out a shipyard and plant a thorn fence around it to keep out the pilferers. The absence of any mention of such preparations in the accounts submitted later to the King’s Exchequer by John de Causton and John Lew, the Ipswich bailiffs, implies strongly that no such preliminaries were required.

And the town was also instructed  to provide a ‘barge’ as a tender for the galley; no mere small boat, the ‘barge’ was big enough to need 30 oars. Although this is the first record of a ship being built on the Orwell, it is evident that Ipswich already had the facilities, the skilled workers and the expertise needed for the construction of such craft. It is likely that ships had been launched into the Orwell when the Saxons were living on its banks.

We have no plans or pictures of a medieval galley, but all the same we can have a fair idea of what it looked like. For one thing it was quite different from the galleys of the Mediterranean; it would have been a large vessel, possibly 100ft or more in length, basically similar to the Viking ships in which the ‘Danes’ had come to Gipeswic 300 years earlier.

The Ipswich galley would have been built clinker-fashion, with overlapping planks fastened by iron nails clenched (riveted) on the inside. The planking would have been fastened before the framing timbers were inserted. We know that this method was used because there is mention in the accounts of clenchatores and contra clenchatores or holderes. The clenchatores were clearly the men who clenched the nails, that is, turned the ends of the nails, while the holderes were those who held the dolly on the head of the nail to prevent it being driven out by the hammer blows from within the ship.

A hundred oars were supplied to give the galley both manoeuvrability and speed, and there was also a mast and square sail for use when cruising and there was a favourable wind. There has been much speculation among the experts as to how the oars were arranged, and the only firm conclusion arrived at is that some of them were probably supplied as spares to replace those that got broken in bad weather.

Perhaps the spares came into use when the galley went to sea on a trial trip, because it was caught out in a severe gale and badly damaged. The accounts presented to the Treasury tell us that it was ‘torn apart and broken by the fury of the sea’. One rather cynical historian has suggested that the damage was due to bad workmanship on the part of the men employed to build the vessel, but this cannot be so; the King’s Exchequer accepted responsibility for the £5 6s 6d that it cost to repair the damage, the work occupying seven men for eight days. There is ample evidence in the records that when work proved faulty it was the builder who paid to put it right, not the King.

Bob Malster