‘…considering the cumulative weight of archaeological, historical and documentary evidence, all of which perfectly fit the location, period and profile of the wreck, it would seem stubborn in the extreme not to accept that this is the unnamed ship that was carrying dispatches from Lord Burghley to Sir John Norreys and whose loss off Alderney was attested in the State Papers of 1592.’
The firearms and their accessories, the heavy ordnance, the style of armour, the bladed weapons, the pewterware and the pottery, put the wreck somewhere within the last two decades of the sixteenth century, certainly not later than the very first years of the seventeenth. Dendrochronological analyses of a port cover (inv. no.145) gave a felling date of not before AD 1575, but at least ten of the sapwood rings were missing thus raising the date to1585. On top of that we must take into account the time it took to season the timber and finally, of course, there is the age of the ship. A properly maintained vessel of that time could have a working life of well over twenty years.
A more secure terminus post quem comes from a bellarmine jar fragment that is dated to (15)86. But we can do better. Two lead pan weights feature the crowned monogram EL (for Elizabeth). This cypher was introduced by royal proclamation on 16 December 1587, but it was not fully enacted until after the Armada year of 1588. Although not in bad condition, the weights have suffered some wear-and-tear which suggests they were at least a year old at the time of their loss and must, therefore, date to after 1589. The burden of evidence clearly indicates that the wreck dates to somewhere within the 1590s.
This period fits comfortably with the single pewter pipe from the site. Tobacco smoking became fashionable, at least with the upper social classes, during the late 1580s and more especially the 1590s. Pewter pipes are extremely rare and the only securely provenanced example from the period under consideration, came from the wreck of the San Pedro which sank off Bermuda in 1595. It is so similar to the Alderney find that specialists have suggested they might be from the same workshop.
Turning to the question of nationality. Commentators have pointed to the presence of French and North European pottery on board as a clue to the vessel’s origin, but these pieces must be viewed with extreme caution for mixed ceramics are common on wrecks, particularly Channel traders, and all the recognisable wares from the Alderney ship have been found, some in abundance, on English soil. Much better indicators of origin are the pan weights that have been stamped with the cipher of Queen Elizabeth, and the armament, particularly the heavy artillery, which typifies what we know of English gun production at that time (Guns and shot, passim). The best evidence of nationality, however, comes from the port cover which dendrochronological specialists have identified as being oak from the south of England.
Of particular relevance to the discussion on nationality, is a pewter bowl that has been inscribed with the name A. DEBOURCE, which local historian John Roberts has identified as a late sixteenth century Jersey name. A link with Jersey, which was, of course, under English authority at the time, is not so surprising for, as we shall see below, the ship’s likely itinerary and the importance of its mission, meant that it would have required a skipper, or pilot, with an intimate knowledge of the reef patterns and furious currents around the islands. In short, the weight of the archaeological evidence points to a vessel of English construction, with possible Jersey links, that was lost during the 1590s.
We can further sharpen our enquiry by considering the nature of the ship which, taking into account its cargo of arms and armour, was clearly military. It is possible that it was armed for battle at sea, for this after all was the most active period of privateering in English history, but the character and quantity of the weaponry suggests terrestrial warfare. The only seaborne troop mobilisation at this time was Sir John Norreys’ Brittany campaign, the purpose of which was to prevent Spain from securing a deep-water port on the ‘invasion coast’ of France from which it might launch a second Armada upon England (Historical context, passim).
The English expeditionary force to Brittany in support of the French king, was an undertaking of the highest national importance for it concerned nothing less than the survival of the realm. Naturally, the particulars surrounding these events were well described in the state papers of the time. A survey of documents in the Nation Archives and other depositories has, so far, revealed only one military shipping loss within the period and theatre of the campaign. In a letter from England’s foremost soldier, Sir John Norreys, to Elisabeth’s Chief Minister, Lord Burghley, dated 29 November 1592, reference is made to ‘a shypp cast away about Alderney’ while on her way to Brittany with ‘packets’ from Burghley.
Although the vessel’s prime mission was as a dispatch carrier, one can safely assume that she would also have been used to transport peopwasle and, from a second letter, this time to the Queen’s Privy Council, we know that she was also carrying ‘apparel and baggage’ which we can take to mean all the impedimenta of war that might be associated with an army abroad. Since no Queen’s ship (i.e. regular navy) lost in this area at that time, we know that she must have been a Queen’s charter. Because she was a dispatch carrier in which speed and security were of the essence, we can further assume that she was fleet of build and well capable of defending herself. From the little we have so far been able to gather on the vessel’s dimensions, we know that this was not a large ship and, as we have demonstrated elsewhere (Guns and shot), she was extremely well armed; in other words, the Alderney ship was exactly as might be expected for a vessel carrying Queen’s business of the highest national importance.
In conclusion, considering the cumulative weight of archaeological, historical and documentary evidence, all of which perfectly fit the location, period and profile of the wreck, it would seem stubborn in the extreme not to accept that this is the unnamed ship that was carrying dispatches from Lord Burghley to Sir John Norreys and whose loss off Alderney was attested in the State Papers of 1592.
And if it is not the ship that was ‘cast away about Alderney’, then there must be, somewhere off this tiny island, another Elizabethan wreck of similar type, from the same period, that also went down while carrying a cargo of military supplies.