Henry Grace a Dieu (1514)
Carrack Great Ship
The Henry Grace a Dieu proved a revolutionary Age of Sail warship, serving the English Fleet quite well for her time.
Authored By: JR Potts, AUS 173d AB | Last Edited:
In 1514, King Henry VIII of England built the "Henry Grace a Dieu" ("Henry, Grace of God") which was called by the men who sailed her "Great Harry". Great Harry was laid down and constructed at the Woolwich dockyards located on the River Thames in London where King Henry could watch the progress of the ship's building. She was to be a large carrack-type "Man-of-War" vessel - also referred to as a "Great Ship" in the period. Great Harry was built to counter the carrack "Michael" built in 1511 by King James IV of Scotland. Great Harry displaced at 1,000 tons and was crewed by 1,420 men while being outfitted with 69 guns of various caliber. Her length was 190 feet with a beam of 50 feet and draught of 20 feet.
The Henry was built using the carvel hull-type method where the planks were set end-to-end and not overlapping. However, her rudder would eventually prove too small for the size of the ship. The vessel featured a large, imposing four-deck forecastle along the bow that protruded out from the ship. Through the forecastle was a long bowsprit which rivaled the height of the fourth mast, called the Bonaventure Mast, positioned closest to the stern. Henry Grace a Dieu was essentially a floating castle which made the stern her keep. The fore-castle was four decks high and used as the sailor's and soldier's quarters and also as a downward-firing platform for archers and light gunners. The stern was six decks high and covered a much larger area over the officer's quarters. Officers aft and sailors forward became the naval standard concerning quarters arraignment going forward. She was luxuriously fitted out as a royal showpiece with flags flown from the top of every mast and 50 to 80 foot elaborately embroidered pennants flying from the bowsprit and along the masts between the sails.
For the period, the principles of shipbuilding were traditional and handed down from each shipwright to the next apprentice. The ship's proportions and chief dimensions were continued as a matter of tradition without many changes or improvements. Like the ancient galleys of old, carracks were long, narrow and top-heavy, making them less stable in heavy weather and rough seas. The recurrent number of ships capsizing and the frequency of accidents with loss of life, fortunes and the loss of crown prestige limited the times they would be sailed out of their ports. When they did sail, it was more often in the summer months when the winds were favorable towards the planned destinations.
The displacement of the Great Harry various depending on some texts - listing it as 1,000 tons while others showcase 1,500 tons. By this point in naval history, tonnage of a ship was not based on knowing the combined weight of the timbers, cannon, stores and masts. Displacement became the actual weight of the ship for, as a floating vessel, it displaces its own weight in water. The method used to calculate ship displacement was based on the number of tons (or "tuns"), casks or butts of wine that a ship could carry. A Man-of-War ship's tonnage, or displacement, was estimated by the shipwright when comparing the warship's capacity against a large merchant ship's known storage through the maximum amount of casks of wine she could hold.
King Henry VIII sponsored a new weapons upgrade innovation for the Henry Grace a Dieu. The King ordered the shipwright to cut port holes along the sides of the ship on the main and lower decks for cannon. The builders were against the idea of cutting holes in the decks due with the concern of sea water rushing in during stormy weather and causing the ship to flounder. The King saw the cannon portholes as the next logical step in naval military evolution as it could be possible to keep the ship at a distance from the enemy ship by pounding their hull and masts at range with solid iron shot. Some Navy historians credit King Henry as being the father of the English Navy for this new military strategy of the "broadside" formally came into play. King Henry purchased fifty large- and medium-sized bronze and iron cannons from the master cannon foundry of Hans Proppenruyter in Flanders. The King also purchased at least 100 lighter iron cannon for the Great Harry from local English gun makers. The type and caliber of cannon allowed some tactical flexibility to the captain - able to attack at long, medium and short range with weapons suited for different roles and ranges. At the time of its completion, the Henry Grace a Dieu became the most advanced and heavily armed warship in the world.
Great Henry Gun Arrangement
King Henry introduced heavy bronze cannon into the hold, or waist (or the center), of the ship on the main and lower second deck for stability. Two heavy cannon (60-pounders) used 60lb solid iron shot with each cannon weighing upwards of 8,000lbs. One was mounted along the portside and the other along starboard. Six Demi-cannons (32-pounders) were added with these barrels typically 11 feet (3.4 meters) long and having a caliber of 6 inches (15.4cm). Each cannon could weigh up to 5,600lbs (2540kg). Twelve bronze Patronal cannons were also installed, these having a 6 inch bore firing a 24lb (24-pounder) iron ball. The largest number of cannon at the second deck were thirty Culverin (18-pounder) guns taking a 18lb cannon ball. The cannon's bore was 5in (130mm) and weighed about 4,500 lb (2,000kg) each.
On the main, or quarterdeck, and the poop deck (as well as at the stern-castle) were located some 100 smaller cannon mounted on skids or wheels or grooved blocks. 5 x Iron Demi-Culverins (9-pounders) medium sized cannon fired solid round shot projectiles with a high muzzle velocity. 10 x Sakers (5-pounders) were also in play, these barrel approximately 9.5 feet (2.9 meters) long and weighing 1,900 lbs (860 kg) firing a five pound ball. The Minion was a (4-pounder) gun of small bore, typically 3 inches (76.2mm), and fired a 4-pound cannonball while requiring fewer gunners to manage. 20 of these were carried. The smallest wheeled carriage gun were the Falcons (2-pounder). Their barrels were approximately 4 feet (1.2 meters) long and weighed 176 lbs each. 65 were mounted and able to be fired through port holes in the ship sides as well as many were situated at the stern-castle. The Falcons (2-pounders), called "man-killers", were designed to fire down onto enemy ships when they finally came alongside each other for boarding. The onboard marines would fire at the enemy crews, hopefully wounding or killing as many of the enemy as possible before the formal boarding action took place.
Great Henry Sail Arrangement
The Henry Grace a Dieua was designed as four-masted carrack-type ocean-going vessel. Some feel the horizontal large bow-sprite rigged with a square spritsail could be considered a fifth mast. As the carracks became the "big ships" of their era, they required large sails in respect to their rigging. The Foremast, or the first vertical mast, in the Great Henry was located forward, passing through the forecastle near the bow peak closest to the bow-sprite. The foremast had a large square main sail, a topsail and a topgallant sail. The tallest vertical mast, the mainmast, was placed amidships, the part of a ship midway between bow and stern, and supported the largest square main sail, a larger topsail and a larger topgallant sail than found on the foremast. The third vertical mast was named the mizzenmast and was aft of the mainmast. On the Great Harry, it was located half the distance from the mainmast to the stern.
The three sails on the mizzen were triangular-shaped, lateen-rigged sails. Lowest was the largest sail, the mizzen-main while next was the mizzen topmast on top a smaller mizzen topgallant sail. The forth vertical mast on the ship was placed very close to the stern of the ship and named Bonaventure-mast that, by eye, looked as high as the bow-sprite was long. Some refer to this smallest mast as the jigger-mast and was more for display than for speed on the Great Ship. The two sails on the jigger-mast were also triangular-shaped, lateen-rigged sails with the lowest being the main sail and the smaller topgallant sail on top.
Great Harry was the pride of the English Fleet and used by King Henry VIII as his own personal yacht. In 1520, she carried the King and his court across the English Channel for a conference between Francis I of France, bringing together the two great naval powers of the world. Before the Great Henry departed, King Henry ordered her sails painted the color of gold. Francis I of France entertained King Henry and his court for some three weeks south of Calais with banquets of such grandeur that the event became known as "The Field of the Cloth of Gold" in honor of the Great Ship present.
The Great Harry was rebuilt during the years spanning 1536 to 1539. It was estimated that her displacement was reduced to decrease her top heaviness. This is when she had the Bonaventure-mast added, plus her masts were extended, so the topgallant sails could be added. This allowed for the ship to be handled much easier with the additional sails spreading the force of the wind out more equally over the ship. The changes made for better headway speed and maneuverability and allowed better use of the heavy cannon during a broadside. The six decks of the stern castle had guns added, bringing the total of smaller caliber guns upwards of 150. King Henry not only spent a lot of treasure on Great Harry but increased the overall number of ships in the Royal Navy during this period. When Henry became King, his Royal Navy numbered just six warships. At the time of his death, he left his heir with 57 warships, 15 galleys and lesser smaller vessels. When Spain sent its Armada against England and Queen Elizabeth, the ships and coastal defenses provided by King Henry played a major part of in their defeat.
Great Harry's primary combat service occurred in 1545 at the Battle of the Solent against the French Navy from the span of July 18th to 19th. French King Francis I launched an invasion of England to expand the reach and regional power of France. The invading armada numbered 200 ships and came loaded with 30,000 infantry. Comparatively, the English Fleet numbered 80 ships with 12,000 soldiers. The French faced bad luck at sea when the admiral's flagship, Carraquon, caught fire and forced his transfer to the warship La Maitresse. La Maitresse thne ran aground. The French Fleet landed troops on the Isle of Wight and at the Sussex coast but failed to overcome the defending British militia.
On July 18th, English ships sailed out of Portsmouth and engaged French ships without a decisive outcome. Due to the rushed repairs after she ran aground, La Maitresse was sinking. This proved a major loss to the French Fleet. That night, King Henry dined aboard Great Harry, then serving as the flagship of Admiral John Dudley, Viscount Lisle while celebrating the loss of the La Maitresse. However fortune was to turn when, the next evening during a storm, the Great Ship Mary Rose capsized, taking 400 of crew with her. Reports indicate that her gun ports had been left open due to the fear of attack from the French. The French made no advantage on sea or ashore and returned to France in August of 1545.
Two years later in 1547, King Henry VIII died and his son, Edward VI, at 9 years old, was crowned King. As was the tradition, the Great Harry was renamed for King Edward VI. The Great Edward's fate is not documented though the likely outcome was that she was consumed by fire while docked at Woolwich in 1553. After 38 years of showing the English flag at home and abroad, she ended up as a castoff hulk on the River Thames.