At Stora Ekön outside Ronneby in Blekinge, in ten meters of water, lays a large LateMedieval shipwreck. The hull has opened up and fallen outwards, and various parts of the ship lie scattered on the bottom and are partly covered by sediment. From these remains, and through a systematic analysis of the place, we see with astonishing clarity an extraordinary example of ship construction from the 1400s.
It is a big ship for the period, over 30 meters long and would have been rigged with three masts. The floors running across the keel are made of large grown oak timbers and the framing together with the inner and outer oak planks form what is known as ‘carvel’ construction, originally developing from a fusion of northern and Mediterranean shipbuilding technologies and adopted throughout Northern Europe in the 15th century. The upper hull both fore and aft were built into ‘bow- and stern castles’ respectively and, as opposed to other parts of the hull, these appear to have been clinkerbuilt, an earlier construction technology but in terms of lightness, one well suited for this part of the vessel.
Beam-shelves and concreted bolts through the side of the hull indicate the level of the main deck where a large number of small, wrought iron guns would have been fitted. The findings from the wreck are complex and include bones, clothing, leather, and lime stone. Finds of crossbow bolts also underlines her function as a late medieval warship. A long beam that served as a central support for the triangular forecastle has in one end a large sculpture of a huge grinning "dragon" or a griffin devouring a screaming man. This symbolic head once projected from the bow of the ship in the manner of a figurehead. Iconographic parallels connect it to the "monster" images and sculptures that can be seen in late medieval churches and cathedrals. At the end of the Middle Ages it was still the North German Hanseatic towns that dominated the shipbuilding in the Baltic Sea.
The 1400s were however, a transitional period with regard to the construction of larger vessels. Part of this was the adoption of the aforementioned ‘carvel’ technology, a construction sequence in which the shell of planks was laid edge to edge and fastened only to the frames instead of being overlapped and fastened to each other as in clinker construction. The rig was also changed when the bigger ships started to be fitted with multiple masts, in which square sails were carried on the fore and main masts and lateen sails on the mizzen mast at the stern. The development of these new ships is closely linked to a general change in Europe connected to the emergence of nation states controlled by dynastic monarchies.
Their need for new large ships was about defense and conquest but also the struggle for resources and opportunity to acquire the riches of an increasingly global world being rapidly enlarged by geographical discovery. The second half of the 1400s was also a tumultuous and rather chaotic period of Scandinavian history. The Kalmar Union through which Denmark, Norway and Sweden were united was still a reality even if a domestic regent had for a long time ruled over the Swedish region. These mighty men had castles, land and often possessed quite large ships. Sten Sture the Elder for example, in the1490s had his own small fleet which, among other things, included at least one large carvel-built ship. Another example was the ruler of Gotland, Ivar AxelssonTott, who as early as 1485 was the owner of a large modern ‘kravel’.
But those who had the most resources for holding their own warships in Nordic countries during this time were the Danish Union kings (although a monarch in the need of a larger fleet often had to "borrow" ships from various other noblemen). From the year 1487 there is an early record of the warships of King Hans (1455–1513) in which 12 different ships are listed. On the basis of their names and sizes it can be assumed that many of them were relatively large carvel-built ships. One of the ships mentioned here, and one of the largest, is Griffen. This ship figures again eight years later in written sources. King Hans is at this time on his way to Kalmar to negotiate with Sten Sture the Elder to try to restore the Union.
The power hungry, Swedish ‘big man’ had long procrastinated for he has long since determined to seize the throne of Sweden if he can. In the summer of 1495, the king’s fleet is halfway from Copenhagen, anchored outside Ronneby in Blekinge. Fire breaks out on board the Griffen or Gribshunden (“Griffin Hound”) as she now is called. The sources says that many nobleman, along with gold, silver and the king’s "best Fatabur" (clothing, food etc.) were lost when his great carvel went to the bottom. The King never met Sten Sture that summer, but two years later in 1497 Hans was finally crowned king also including the Swedish half of the kingdom.
The size of the ship which rests on the bottom outside the town of Ronneby, the details of the wreck location and the associated finds, all prove that this ship is Gribshunden. The dendrochronological analysis of the timbers shows that she was built sometime after the winter of 1482/83. The provenience of the timber is northeast France which maybe indicates that Hans bought his new ship abroad. The identification provides an opportunity to combine written and archaeological sources, it also places the wreckage in an interesting phase of Nordic history. The wreck is however, regardless of its identity as Gribshunden, a shipwreck with great research potential.
Structurally it has much in common with what one can see in the wellknown Catalan votive ship model from Mataro, in Spain, dating from the middle of the 1400s, which is often depicted when construction of late medieval ships is discussed. Gribshunden is also contemporary with Christopher Columbus’ famous ship Santa Maria from 1492 (but bigger!). Gribshunden is therefore the best preserved example so far discovered of this first generation of large northern European carvel-built ships which in turn led to the construction of increasingly specialized warships like Mary Rose (1545), Mars (1564), Vasa (1628) and Kronan (1676).
The recently recovered figurehead of the grinning "monster” and the finds material on board give us an unparalleled insight into the nature both of everyday life and specifically of warfare and of the associated symbolism that surrounded one of the new princes of the age who at that time were changing Europe. Gribshunden still belongs to the Middle Ages but is on her way to meet the early modern period when she burns and sinks at Stora Ekön outside Ronneby.
Prof. Johan Rönnby, Södertörn University