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What’s in a name? A clue to fervent royal religion

16 October 2015

by David Keys

James O. Davies

Naval history:the River Hamble, where Henry V’s great warship Holigost lies buried in mud, alongside another from the fleet, the Grace Dieu

Naval history:the River Hamble, where Henry V’s great warship Holigost lies buried in mud, alongside another from the fleet, the Grace Dieu

A HIGH-TECH bid to reveal the buried secrets of a medieval royal warship is likely to highlight the strong religious character of one of England’s most famous kings.

Henry V, who won the epic battle of Agincourt 600 years ago this month, created what was arguably England’s first navy, at least in embryonic form, and archaeologists have tentatively identified one of his most important vessels, the Holigost (Holy Ghost), buried under several feet of mud beneath the River Hamble, near Southampton.

Dr Ian Friel, the historian who identified the site of the Holigost, writes, in Henry V’s Navy: The sea road to Agincourt and conquest, 1413-1422 (History Press), that Henry’s fleet was “conceivably the most effective navy that England had before the Elizabethan Age 150 years later”.

The militant Catholicism of the King and his realm clearly lies behind the names of the ships in his fleet. His four greatest warships were the Trinity Royal, the Grace Dieu, the Jesus, and the Holigost.

Next spring, an archaeological team, working on behalf of His- toric England, will try to create a computerised image of the warship, using sonar-based sub-bottom profiling equipment. The team will also attempt to recover small samples of the timber by using remote probes.

Besides Henry’s four biggest vessels, his so-called “great ships”, most of his other vessels also had religious names. Of the 50 or so ships in his navy whose names are known, 16 per cent were named after the Virgin Mary, and a further 16 per cent after God the Father, Jesus, or the Holy Ghost (or the Trinity as a whole). Six per cent were called after the Archangel Gabriel, and 42 per cent after saints, especially St George, St Paul, St Peter, St John, St Catherine, St Christopher, and St Nicholas.

Henry saw himself as a servant of God charged with imposing what he often brutally perceived as God’s will. After ordering the killing of every male over the age of 12 in a French city, he told a Dominican friar who challenged him over the slaughter, that he, Henry, was the “scourge of God, sent to punish God’s people for their sins”.

His aggressive religious perspective on life was extreme even by medieval standards. So desperate was he to reach paradise that he ordered 23,000 masses to be said for him after his death, and that he should be buried near England’s canonised former king, St Edward the Confessor.

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