I suppose to some extent it is because I grew up around ships and shipping. Norfolk is surrounded on three sides by water and the sea is an inescapable reality. If you don’t love the sea then, quite frankly, you are in the wrong county. Move to Leicestershire. Norfolk is a county that produced Admiral Lord Nelson (who apparently hated the place) and Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell (who sank half the British Mediterranean fleet by sailing it into the Scilly Isles – but we don’t talk about him) and it’s difficult to live within a few miles of the coast without finding yourself drawn to stare at the thin blue horizon.
Anyone who has ever spent any time dealing with seagoing ships will understand it when I say that ships have personalities. They have names, certainly, but each vessel also has a unique quality that sets them aside from every other seagoing craft – even those built by the same hands in the same boat-yard. They are all individuals. And the same is true of the ship graffiti.
The first time I came across ship graffiti was with John Peake up at the churches of the Glaven ports – Blakeney, Wiveton, Cley and Salthouse – in north Norfolk. Hundreds of little ships carved into the screens, piers and stonework of the churches. Each one different. Each one unique. Some were crude and simple outlines etched in the stone, whilst others showed masses of detail – rigging, anchors, banners, flags and planking. Each one a vessel of the port etched into the parish church. To the medieval inhabitants of those villages many of these would have been distinct and recognisable ships, identifiable by a name that we no longer know. Belonging to people they shared their lives with, crewed by friends, family and neighbours.
What struck me then, as it still does today, is a complete lack of understanding as to why these images had been created. The general idea, that they are found in coastal churches, appears no longer to be the case. The graffiti surveys currently being undertaken across England have found almost as many examples inland as they have by the coast, with examples now coming to light as far away from the sea as it is possible to get in central Leicestershire. Only a couple of weeks ago a very unusual painted and incised example, probably dating from the sixteenth century, was discovered at a church in Hertfordshire. Also noteworthy is the fact that all the examples I have come across, either on the coast or far inland, appear to show seagoing vessels. Not river craft, but fully equipped seagoing ships.
Why then are we finding images of sailing ships all over our English parish churches? Are they simply local people doodling images on the walls of the everyday items they see, or is there a deeper function and meaning to them? Well, at a couple of sites that I have looked at there are a few tantalising clues that these images of ships may have had a far more devotional and spiritual aspect than we give them credit for.
Blakeney church on the north Norfolk coast is packed full of early graffiti inscriptions, which include dozens of examples of ships. However, although the early graffiti is to be found all over the church the ship graffiti is all heavily concentrated in one area, the easternmost pier of the south arcade. This pillar is literally covered with little images of ships, each respecting the space of those around them and not crossing over each other. According to maritime historians the ships depicted were created over a period of at least two centuries. Intriguingly, the pier in question sits facing the south aisle altar and is exactly opposite a now empty image niche.
Even more intriguing is the fact that this very same distribution pattern appears elsewhere. Whilst surveying Blackfriars Barn undercroft in Winchelsea for the National Trust (also full of ship graffiti) I took the opportunity one lunchtime to go and look at the remains of St Thomas’ church in the main square. Here again I discovered early graffiti all over the church, and a good number of ships. However, as with Blakeney, all the ships were focussed upon one area in the church – the side altar and associated chapel. According to the church records that chapel was dedicated to St Nicholas, the very same dedication as the church at Blakeney. For those of you who don’t know St Nicholas, as well as being associated with children, had a distinct maritime association and, for many centuries, was looked upon as the patron saint of ‘those in peril upon the seas’.
So what are we really seeing here? It would appear to me that these images of ships are far more than idle doodling. Their distribution patterns and their apparent association with a maritime saint would suggest to me that these inscriptions are actually devotional in nature. That they are literally prayers made solid in stone. It doesn’t account for all the examples I come across, but it certainly appears to hold good for many of those found by the coast. The last question I suppose must be what type of prayer are they? Are they thanksgiving for a voyage safely undertaken, or a prayer for safe passage on a journey yet to come? As several people have pointed out, some of these ship images appear to show deliberate damage, begging the question as to whether they are prayers for long overdue ships? Vessels that never quite made it back to port, family and friends. The answer to that question, I guess, we will probably never know.