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Voyages Into the Past

The Merchant Fleet of Late Medieval and Tudor England, 1400-1580

A public database tracing thousands of ship voyages is challenging familiar narratives of a sixteenth-century “Age of Discovery” and helping national museums and local communities alike recover England’s lost maritime heritage.

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Within a few years of beginning research into England’s merchant fleet Dr Craig Lambert was already questioning what we thought we knew about our past: revealing that the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt began in a mariner community (Fobbing) whose members had been recruited by the crown to serve at sea, for example. Lambert went on to challenge the accepted narrative of the Hundred Years War, which held that English strategy after 1369 was moribund and ineffective. By contrast, Lambert showed, English commanders turned to the sea to prosecute an aggressive and successful war with limited resources. In 2015 he presented a new narrative for the logistics of Henry V’s 1415 Agincourt campaign, demonstrating that the English fleet was half the size previously believed.

 

Shipping website

 

A grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council allowed Lambert to extend his project to cover the period 1400-1580, increasing his database from 10,000 ship-voyages to over 50,000. The Merchant Fleet of Late Medieval and Tudor England, 1400–1580 database launched in November 2017, and allows us to reconstruct the English merchant fleet at the level of individual ports, counties or regions—over a 200-year period. Careers of individual shipmasters and other members of the shipboard community have also been brought to light, in a format accessible to fellow historians and members of the public. Analytics show users visiting the site from more than 53 different countries: from the US and China to Libya and Australia. Lambert continues to research the biographies of Tudor shipmasters and their families, alongside the voyages they made. For related media, click on the “Media” tab above.

In July 2015 Lambert's radically reduced estimate of the size of fleet at Henry V's disposal for the battle of Agincourt in 1415 drew the attention of national media, featuring on the front page of The Guardian and Times as well as the local Southern Daily Echo, all of whom hailed its significance for the oft-debated question of "How few were the happy few." The November 2017 launch of his database also attracted national coverage.

In February 2016 Lambert’s expertise led to an invitation to help the National Maritime Museum redesign their Tudor and Stuart Seafarers’ Gallery, which aims to increase public understanding of the role mercantile expansion and the development of a permanent navy in this period played in Britain's rise as a global power. By demonstrating that England’s pre-1600 seafarers rarely sailed far from their home ports Lambert’s research helped to contextualize familiar figures of the “Age of Discovery”, highlighting just how exceptional Sir Francis Drake and Richard Hakluyt were among the Tudor maritime community. In August 2018 the revamped gallery opened at Greenwich, which received over 4m visitors by December 2019.

The project has also helped communities closer to Southampton recover their lost maritime heritage. Working in collaboration with Eastleigh Borough Council, Lambert delivered a two-year (2015-17) project that brought together artists, digital creatives and fellow historians in a set of initiatives reconnecting local residents with the lives of late medieval shipping communities on the River Hamble and Southampton Water. These initiatives included a riverside heritage trail, an augmented reality exhibition entitled Road To Agincourt that travelled to 17 different sites and events, as well as an interactive map of “Harry’s Hampshire” which used the latest technology to highlight the role Hampshire played in the build-up and aftermath of the Battle of Agincourt.

Although the “Age of Discovery” features in history modules popular with A-Level History teachers, such curricula afford little by way of opportunity for students to experience how historical narratives are constructed from “raw” archival data. In 2019 Lambert produced a Teacher's Pack for the University of Southampton’s “Re-Sourcing History” website, enabling A-Level history teachers to use the shipping website/database to plan classes. The research team is visiting local secondary schools to talk about the project and show students different ways of approaching history, and have created online teaching resources based on the project.

List of all staff members in
Staff MemberPrimary Position
Craig LambertAssociate Professor in Maritime History; Senior Tutor
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