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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

Ship Shape

Updated: May 15, 2022

"When they had arrived and were in the midst of negotiations, the gunpowder on one of the king’s ships, which was called Gribshunden, suddenly caught fire. It is unclear whence it ensued: Some say that it was because of lightning while others say it was a fortuitous accident."

Hans Svaning, Chronicon Ioannis, c. 1560 (translation from Danish by Rolf Warming)

The cold waters of the Baltic Sea off the southern coast of Sweden have kept a secret for nearly five hundred years. In 1970, amateur divers discovered the undisturbed remains of a shipwreck in the waters near a small low-lying island known as Stora Ekon. Stora Ekon is one of many islets that protect the coastline from storms, and for centuries, the area was a popular anchorage place.

Nobody at the time recognized the find's significance, and the site of the wreck remained a backup when weather precluded diving in other areas. It was not until 2001 that someone decided to notify local archeologists. Upon discovering hollowed-out logs - gun carriages, researchers believed the wreck was not a fishing vessel but a warship. A Swedish historian suspected that the ship was the Danish royal flagship Gribshunden which sank in the summer of 1495. Medieval ship expert Niklas Eriksson visited the wreck site and realized, based on the ship's construction, that it was indeed the lost Gribshunden. Since 2017, marine archeologists have recovered artifacts from the wreck and added to our understanding of maritime technology at the beginning of European exploration.

The Gribshunden ("griffin-hound") was the flagship of the royal fleet of King Hans of Denmark. King Hans, who reigned over Denmark and Norway from 1481 to 1513, commissioned the ship built in 1485. The king had made extensive use of the vessel, sending it as far afield as Greenland. He regularly sailed on her, and he was aboard the ship for its final voyage. That was the summer of 1495. The Gribshunden led a squadron of ships escorting the king from Copenhagen, Denmark to Kalmar, Sweden. The king's mission was to meet with the leader of Swedish rebels, Sten Sture. The Swedes were seeking to break away from the Kalmar Union. The union was a tenuous political coalition between Sweden, Denmark, and Norway for close to a century. Though they technically remained sovereign states, a single monarch directed the affairs of all three countries. The union continually fell victim to the conflicting interests of monarchs who wished to create a strong nation-state and those of the nobility, particularly in Sweden, who did not want to cede any of their power to a central monarchy. King Hans sought to reestablish the Kalmar Union while asserting his authority over Sweden as their king.

The fleet was a display of royal power and meant to impress the gathering of Swedish nobility at Kalmar. Along with the king, he had an entourage of courtiers, noblemen, and soldiers. The elite paraded in their finest clothing. The soldiers were armed with the latest gunpowder weapons. The king ordered the ship stores filled with the most extravagant food and drink. Preserved Atlantic sturgeon was one of the finds among the wreck of the Gribshunden. Sources claim the ships carried silver, gold, gems, as well as letters and royal charters. Even the royal astronomer came along, and one chronicle claims that the astronomer foretold the impending disaster and urged the king to go ashore.

The details of what happened to the Gribshunden are not precise. It had anchored in the sheltered waters near Stora Ekon. Based on later chronicles, the most likely culprit was gunpowder stored in the ship's hold accidentally ignited, setting off a fire aboard the ship. The blaze quickly spread and trapped many who were still on the vessel. Others plunged into the water and drowned. Much of the treasures the king had brought with him went down with the ship. Fortunately, King Hans was not present but in a small vessel a short distance away when the accident occurred. Royal flagships were more than just warships. They represented royal power and status. The Gribshunden was meant to instill in the rebellious Swedes that King Hans was the rightful leader of Scandinavia. The sinking of his flagship dampened the king's prospects at Kalmar. It would be another two years before he realized a re-vitalized Kalmar Union and became king of Sweden.

Yet the Gribshunden was more significant. Not only was it one of the largest naval vessels of the period, but it was also one of the first ships to be armed with cannons. But the most crucial feature of the ship was the hull construction. Two predominant shipbuilding techniques were utilized in Europe during the medieval period: clinker construction and carvel construction.

The clinker construction was used throughout the region of the North and Baltic Seas. It originated in Scandinavia. The main feature of this type of construction was that the planks of the hull overlapped. Timber frames were then attached to provide stiffness and support to the hull. The nails used to fasten the planks together were clenched over washers. Clinker is derived from the words clinch or clench. In the Mediterranean, the popular tradition of building ships was called carvel construction. Here, the frame of the ship was built first. Then planks were attached edge to edge with no overlap. This method is sometimes referred to as skeleton construction. Another regional difference was in the rigging. Northern seagoing vessels still preferred a single square sail on a central mast. By the 14th century CE, ships in the Mediterranean began adopting the lateen, or triangular, sail situated on a pair of masts fore and aft.

An increase in economic activity led to a robust maritime trade between Northern and Southern Europe. Ships of various construction started to appear in ports across Europe, and shipbuilders in Pisa, Genoa, and Venice began to incorporate the best features of the Northern and Southern traditions. Their base was the framed hull of carvel construction, to which they added a central rudder and combined the larger main square sail with smaller lateen sails. These modifications resulted in the more recognizable classic "ship rig." Soon, the builders on the Iberian Peninsula were constructing larger, sturdier vessels. The Portuguese called them "caravellas." Northerners referred to the larger ships as "carracks" and smaller versions as "carvels" or "caravels." By the end of the 15th century CE, all ships were known as carvels.

Carvel construction had important advantages for merchants and monarchs. This construction allowed for larger and more robust ships. This made them suitable for long-distance open ocean voyages. These were the ships of Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, and Ferdinand Magellan. They were also fast, maneuverable, and easily defended—ideal for naval warfare. The next logical step was cannon mounted on platforms. This was something that could not be done with ships of the clinker design. These ships would form the European fleets that would usher in an era of globalization and colonization.

The wreck of the Gribshunden was an essential find for archeologists. For instance, a recent analysis of the hull's timbers shows that the ship was built in the more sophisticated fashion of the Iberian Penisula. This was surprising for a ship built probably in the Netherlands. It points to the ambitions that King Hans of Denmark had for the region. Shipwrecks from this time are extremely rare, and to have on this well preserved is exceptional. The ship represents the fusion of the various maritime technologies and the earliest among the nation-states around the North and Baltic Seas. The artifacts give us a glimpse of the life of a royal personage of the period, but the wreck also provides clues to shipbuilding in this early stage of the age of exploration. Archeologists hope to glean new information on how shipbuilding techniques were transmitted and how ships like the Gribshundern influenced the balance of power in the Baltic and across the globe.


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