Mapping medieval maritime merchants

Henry Grace à Dieu, the largest ship in King Henry VIII’s navy.
Henry Grace à Dieu, the largest ship in King Henry VIII’s navy.

Researchers at the University of Southampton have undertaken the mammoth task of mapping the complex network of merchant trading routes and ports that operated during the late medieval and Tudor periods. The project team analysed 50,000 ship movements between more than 600 ports in England and Wales from AD 1400-1580, scouring heaps of data from custom accounts, navy payrolls, and national ship surveys.

The fruit of their labour, a fully searchable database that is categorised by criteria including port, crew, or voyage, is now available to the public at www.medievalandtudorships.org. Users can click on each port, ship, or journey for detailed information; and there are also two interactive maps, highlighting the shipping routes as well as departure points and destinations.

‘Our website and maps give a fascinating insight into the structure of shipping in England and Wales during what was a period of fundamental importance to our history: a time when the seeds of maritime empire were sown,’ said Dr Craig Lambert, principal investigator on the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project. ‘At the start of the late medieval and Tudor period, English shippers were mainly coastal traders – but by the end, Francis Drake had set out on his voyage of circumnavigation and Walter Raleigh was close to planting England’s first settlers on Roanoke Island in North America.’

One of the project’s highlights is its detailing of the number of medieval ports that have now faded into obscurity. While those at Southampton, Falmouth, Cardiff, and Liverpool thrive today much as they did 500 years ago, many other prominent sites are now not much known for their maritime exploits. These include Cley-next-the-Sea in Norfolk and Millbrook in Cornwall. The most dramatic change, however, is Dunwich in Suffolk. Once a major international port, the harbour fell victim to flooding and erosion from several major storms over the years and has now completely disappeared.

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