A 15th-century royal flagship found laid out “like an Airfix kit” on the Baltic seabed is a unique survival from the beginning of the Age of Discovery and represents a turning point in history, marine archaeologists say.
Gribshunden or Grifun — “Griffin-Hound” or “Griffin” — was the technologically groundbreaking flagship of King John of Denmark (1455-1513). It was built in the early 1480s and participated in naval operations in the Baltic and a voyage to England to negotiate fishing rights around Iceland before it sank with the loss of gold, silver and many lives in 1495.
The wreck, off the Swedish island of Stora Ekön in the southern Baltic, was discovered by a local diving club in 1971, but its significance was not recognised until decades later. A new study from Professors Jonathan Adams, of the University of Southampton, and Johan Rönnby, of Södertörn University, reveals the latest findings from ongoing excavations and highlights the ship’s European and global importance.
The authors say that Gribshunden is the earliest known ship in the archaeological record of a type that combined technology from Northern and Southern Europe to supercharge the ocean-going capabilities of European states. As they write in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology: “Ships of this construction provided capacity, accommodation, and armament that enabled a new globalisation through exploration, colonisation, and exploitation. The looting and transportation of gold, spices, textiles, sugar, and many other goods across the oceans changed the world forever.”
Gribshunden is recorded as having sunk after a fire broke out on board when it was anchored with other vessels while en route to a meeting between King John and Swedish leader Sten Sture the Elder. John was seeking to restore the defunct union of Sweden and Denmark under the Danish crown and Gribshunden would have contributed to a show of force. The king was ashore at the time of the sinking and sources state that his “household”, including his personal astronomer and mathematician, were lost.
Today the remains lie under 10m of water, in a remarkable state of preservation. Adams said: “Once you swim around and understand what you’re looking at, it’s rather like an Airfix kit. All the components are lying around waiting for archaeological or digital reassembly.”
The timbers indicate that Gribshunden was around 30-35m in length and 300-350 tonnes, with three masts and a forecastle and aftercastle — a large vessel for the period. Analysis of the wood shows that it was felled in 1482/3 around the upper part of the River Meuse. This suggests that the ship may have been built at a shipyard between Rotterdam and Antwerp, around the Meuse estuary in the Duchy of Burgundy.
The ship was carvel-built, meaning the hull was constructed from planks attached, edge to edge, to a frame that was made first. Carvel construction was a Southern European tradition and was new to Northern Europe at the time — reaching Burgundy in the late 1450s. Earlier Northern European ships were clinker-built, meaning the hull’s planks overlapped and the frame was a secondary structure. Carvel-building allowed for larger ships carrying bigger rigs and more cargo and firepower.
Nevertheless, ships such as Gribshunden derived other core features from Northern European shipbuilding traditions, including a square sail on the mainmast and a centreline, or stern, rudder. The square mainsail worked in combination with Mediterranean-style triangular sails on the foremast and mizzenmast to give the new hybrid ships greater power and manoeuvrability.
Such hybrids were inevitable due to close trading contacts between the Mediterranean and cities along the Atlantic seaboard. They were first built in Southern Europe, where Northern features were added to Mediterranean-style ships, enabling them to operate with smaller crews. Adams said: “Those ships then traded north, where they were seen, copied, captured and bought by the Northern European nations that start building them themselves. Gribshunden is essentially the next stage where they start building specialised versions of this type of Mediterranean ship.
He added: “Although the whole construction still shows its Mediterranean ancestry, they are already showing methods that we see much later in Northern European carvel shipbuilding. If I had just seen one small piece of the hull on its own, I probably would have guessed that it was a century or more later than it really is.”
“Gribshunden is the earliest carvel ship of its kind we’ve yet discovered and an immensely important find.”Professor Jonathan Adams
Illustrating the capabilities of the technology, in the 1470s, the Danes sent a ship that would have been similar to Gribshunden to Greenland, and, depending on one’s reading of the sources, perhaps further west to the “cod country” off Newfoundland. Adams said: “This type of ship not only had the seakeeping abilities to handle the Atlantic, but included cargo space and accommodation for a crew big enough to handle ships of this size, process cargo and survive not only for a few days at sea as was common in the medieval period, but for weeks, if not months — sometimes even overwintering.”
For context, the ships used by the navigators Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama on their voyages to America and India, respectively, later in the 15th century were also carvel-built and combined elements of Southern and Northern European traditions. However, they were smaller than Gribshunden.
To date, the remains of 11 wrought iron guns have been found on the wreck, but records suggest it carried 56 guns. These would have been fired over the rail and were anti-personnel guns, unlike the heavy broadside guns fired through the gunports of ships a generation later. The archaeologists have also found remains of crossbows and crossbow bolts and the stock of an early handgun.
Other artefacts include a turned wooden tankard marked with an incised image of a crown, meaning it was royal property. A spindle-whorl and a toy cannon are among objects suggesting that women and children travelled on the ship. And there are barrels for beer and fish, one of which contained numerous sturgeon bones. Some objects were salvaged from the wreck on King John’s orders shortly after its sinking, but many more likely await discovery.
Most visually striking of the artefacts recovered to date is the ship’s figurehead, showing a grinning, dog-like monster devouring a screaming man. The archaeologists point out that this resembles the biscione heraldic device used by the Dukes of Milan. Christian I and Dorothea of Denmark, parents of the future King John, were guests of the duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza when they travelled to Italy to meet the pope in 1474, meaning that an Italian inspiration is possible.
Adams said the technological exchange of the 1400s and 1500s represented by Gribshunden put shipbuilding on a completely new trajectory that carried through until the end of the wooden shipbuilding era in the 19th century. “Gribshunden represents a key moment of that technological development and a similarly important period of social and cultural development — essentially, the emergence of nation states and the maritime competition that involves.”
In its short career, Gribshunden played an important role in diplomatic and naval missions linked to John’s ambitions to build up a strong Danish royal power with global reach. Adams said: “Gribshunden and the ships of this period were tools of state-building. And Gribshunden is the earliest carvel ship of its kind we’ve yet discovered and the flagship of one of the principal power players. It makes it an immensely important archaeological find.”
The generation of carvels after Gribshunden included heavily-armed warships such as England’s Mary Rose, which was built in 1509 and rebuilt in the 1530s with the addition of heavy broadside guns and gunports. Since its discovery, with thousands of artefacts, in 1971, and its raising from the seabed in 1982, the English ship has been considered one of the most significant and informative wrecks worldwide.
Adams and Rönnby believe Gribshunden ranks with Mary Rose in importance. Adams said: “The discovery of Mary Rose revealed and enlivened our knowledge of a period of history and Gribshunden has done that with this period of new ways of doing things at the end of the medieval period and beginning of the modern era.”
Rönnby added: “Archaeology is about finding things and investigating things. But it’s also about telling stories from what you find. You’re able to tell different stories from the same ship. If I were to chose a story to tell from Gribshunden, I wouldn’t concentrate on it as a Swedish or Danish ship but as a European ship. It’s part of European history, and part of the new Early Modern Europe and a period of globalisation.”
The top image, a photograph of a 15th-century work by Carpaccio, is from Wikimedia Commons, shared under the ShareAlike 4.0 International license (CC BY-SA 4.0).