This post seems very appropriate, when king Richard the Third's bones have just been discovered.
His conqueror and successor, Henry the Seventh, granted John Cabot (or Giovanni Caboto to give him his real name) permission to sail in search of 'all parts of the eastern, western and northern sea' to look for new lands. Cabot sailed from Bristol in 1497 and eventually landed in what is now either Newfoundland or Nova Scotia, so becoming the first European ship's captain to set foot on what became the North American mainland since the Vikings (or possibly St Brendan).
I've been having a very interesting discussion with Royston Griffey, the chairman of the trustees for the 'Matthew' about what the subject of the new figurehead for the Matthew should be. Royston particularly likes the White Greyhound of Richmond, the badge of Henry VII.
My research has led me to believe that a Talbot is a better choice. Talbots were a now-extinct breed of hunting dog which were very popular in medieval times. The original figurehead on the replica 'Matthew' was a Talbot head carved by Paul Hatch but this was lost a few years ago in a collision at sea. The picture below is of a Talbot and comes from Haddon Hall in Derbyshire.
- The 'Matthew' was almost certainly not a ship of the line, and so would not have carried a royal figurehead normally. As you pointed out Royston, it was probably bought or hired. It seems highly unlikely that such an elaborate (and expensive) figurehead would be made and bolted onto a ship that was going on such a potentially perilous voyage with a good chance of not returning. It's also unlikely that an expensive ship of the line would be sent on such a mission (which would also perhaps draw unwelcome attention from the Spanish and Portuguese).
- The actual design of the White Greyhound of Richmond is far more elaborate than was usual for ships figureheads of the time. No pictures from that period show anything nearly as complex as this. In Carr Laughton's Old Ship figureheads and sterns he says 'such applied ornament as there was before the 16th century was almost certainly extremely simple'. He does point out that there are 'about 1400 very occasional mentions of 'personages', which personages appear usually to have been saints, and of the royal leopards or badges similarly carved' but then goes on to point out that it was far more usual for such badges to be painted on the ship rather than carved as a figurehead. The National Maritime Museum confirms this on their website. I've shown some other examples from my research below. The top one is the figurehead on the 'coca de Mataro', a model of a carvel-built ship (probably a votive offering) from the 15th century, now in a museum in Rotterdam. It's believed to have been made by a shipwright and to be an accurate representation. No figureheads seem to sit below the bow, but obviously that is where one would have to sit on the replica Matthew.
|Detail from image copyright Prins Hendrick museum, Rotterdam|
- I have spoken to my friends who have crewed many times on the 'Matthew' (Louise, Breamie, Darren, Tom). From talking with them, it became clear that the figurehead takes quite a buffeting in high seas. The White Greyhound is a complex and graceful design, but this is why it would be highly likely to get damaged at sea, particularly the muzzle and legs. One way to strengthen the figurehead might be to drop it's head down onto the neck, but then a dog which looks like it has a broken neck is probably not ideal either. The figurehead needs to have a sturdier design.
- The grant from king Henry VII gives right to sail 'under our banners and ensignes' but no mention of carved figureheads. I'd say that this could be a clue as to the Matthew itself not being a royal ship and so not having a royal motif as it's figurehead.
- I'm concerned that covering the Matthew with royal insignia inappropriate to ships from that period of history risks making it look like Earnest Board's delightfully romantic Victorian painting of Cabot's departure from 1906 . Nothing wrong in that, I love Boards colourful image, but historians seem unanimous in saying that it is “way too romantic' (Byrne and Gurr The Bristol Story).
- I like the idea of the Talbot's hunting dog senses bringing the ship safely back to port. After all, medieval sailors seem to have been quite a superstitious bunch – maybe they would really have believed that it would help! 'Such was the reputation of the Talbot that 15th and 16th century seafarers believed it could track anything, anywhere and a Talbot figurehead could track it's way across any sea or ocean, finding the best passage to keep the ship and crew safe”(Talbotania Feb 99)
- The Talbot Research society's 'Talbotania' dated Feb 1999 has a whole section about the Talbot as a figurehead on the Matthew. They point out that 'the original Matthew probably didn't have a figurehead when she was built but it is quite probable that one was made and fitted as a good luck symbol before the ship set out on her voyage across the Atlantic'. It appears that in the 15th century, figureheads would often be carved by the ship's carpenters. Professional figurehead carvers (and the more complicated designs that they carved) don't seem to come along until later, around the sixteenth century when figureheads started to become more common. A ship's carpenter would be using his tools (axes, saws and simple gouges etc., not specialist carving tools) and so would produce something a lot simpler than the White Greyhound of Richmond design which you sent me, as contemporary pictorial records seem to show.
- Also in the same article is this paragraph, which particularly caught my eye: