Regarding Henry (and his bodycount)

henry viiiIf in doubt, resort to a cheap Carry On reference

For once I’m going to respond to something right up to date – a claim on the nonetheless excellent and thoroughly entertaining (if somewhat ghoulish) ‘Execution of the Day‘ blog that King Henry VIII, famous for killing all his wives (two of them actually), also had executed 72,000 of his subjects. In its defence, they do say that it came from ‘reality’ TV programme ‘Big Brother’, although you might think that this would be reason enough to reject it out of hand.

Except it’s not really an up to date claim. It’s been doing the rounds since the 16th century, and is practically received knowledge. But more on that in a moment, as I like to subject these things to the old bullshit ‘smell test’. How plausible is the claim?

Well, the population in 1550 was around 2,800,000. 72,000 is 2.6% of the population – more than the percentage of the US population killed in the American Civil War, for example. That’s 2000 people a day on average – the equivalent of a large scale set-piece medieval battle. In fact, 72,000 deaths is more than twice the number of deaths than occurred in the bloodiest battle in English history. And I think the battle analogy is appropriate, because you’d be talking about a majority of physically able males – precisely the sort of people required to keep a strained post-medieval economy and fluctuating birth-rate going (bearing in mind that we aren’t just talking ‘capital’ crimes here). This would surely be a massive impact upon society (for better or worse) that (to the best of my knowledge) we just don’t see evidence of in the historical record. More than just one chronicler would have noticed a death toll of that nature. But more than that there’s the logistical difficulty of getting that many people killed. The Nazis had poison gas and automatic weapons. The Tudors had archery, arquebuses, and artillery. Then there’s the expense of (for the sake of argument) firing several people at a time out of a bombard – much easier to half-starve a criminal in a disease-ridden shithole of a prison that he might well die in anyway.

Anyway, we’re verging on argument from incredulity, so let’s look at the evidence. This work has already been done, by James Anthony Froude and mid-19th century contributors to Notes and Queries. To summarise, the figure of 72,000 is usually (even today) attributed to chronicler Holinshed, but incorrectly so (a sure sign of a lack of primary source checking by those perpetuating a claim). The figure is sometimes disputed on the basis that said author was writing some 30 years after Henry’s death, but in fact by historical standards, that’s still a primary source. It’s actually William Harrison’s ‘Description of England‘ that the claim appears;

“Henry the Eighth, executing his laws very severely against such idle persons, I mean, great thieves, petty thieves, and rogues, did hang up threescore-and-twelve thousand of them in his time.”

Note that far from decrying Henry’s brutality, Harrison is actually approving of the idea, due to a perceived rise in crime at the time of writing (despite 3-400 crims still being executed by his own estimation!). This is a bit like pining for the days of Margaret Thatcher, but ironically this hard-line criminal justice angle isn’t the origin of the claim. Thanks to Harrison giving his sources, we see that, via astrologer Girolamo Cardano, the source is actually the Bishop of Lisieux. Now, I don’t need to tell you that bishop is a Catholic post. Nor should I that Henry’s relationship with the Pope was not the most cordial. But if I also told you also that the claim by this bishop is often given as being 72,000 Catholics, and not “thieves and rogues”, you might get a sense of the bias bound up in this myth. Note also an Irish Republican who states that the figure has been “computed” in order to lend it extra weight.

What if I then told you that the bishop in question was the brother of one of King Henry’s sworn enemies – the Admiral of France who led the same failed invasion of England that also saw the loss of Henry’s flagship, the Mary Rose? Between the personal, national, and denominational angst that the bish must have held toward Henry, we have more than enough bias to have serious concerns over the figure given.

There is also the extreme unreliability of figures in individual historical sources in general. It’s rare for historians to go with a single claimed figure for anything because of an awareness of this tendency to over-estimate numbers – people were not, for one thing, aware of the population of the country at the time. Take battle casualties – which are routinely re-assessed at much lower totals, sometimes even 50% lower. Or, as the Notes and Queries link relates, the number of churches in England was overestimated by fives times the actual figure. In short, we cannot take this source on face value.

Now, let’s qualify this debunking somewhat: Henry absolutely did have people killed for being Catholic – amongst other things – and directly or indirectly, must have been responsible for a lot of deaths. In the best (or worst) traditions of English monarchs, he also killed lots of French people – as the source of this piece of propaganda would have been all too aware! By today’s standards, he was bloodthirsty, and although he was not responsible for killing that many people, it may not have been for want of trying – the implication of Froude’s research is that the laws enacted during Henry’s reign were actually too harsh and were unworkable, ironically (and unintentionally) saving lives. But whatever the truth, this is why we need to critically examine sources in order to make reasonable judgements of figures from history, without being blinded by our evolved sense of morality and social justice.

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Mary Rose sunk by Johnny Foreigner after all?

Another strange one, because it’s actually based (loosely!) upon some really neat science. There was a Channel 5 documentary on last night about the men that died on Henry VIIIs flagship, the Mary Rose. It, and more so the associated press coverage, featured a funky new theory about how the ship came to sink as it did. At least, the same old theory involving water-tight gun ports being left open, but with an added twist – the idea that it may have been a language barrier issue (see here for The Times’ take). That foreign sailors might not have understood the order to close the ports, assuming that it was given. This would be amusing if true, given the short shrift given to French claims to have sunk the ship themselves. Us English types I think would rather cause our own disasters than let our European cousins wreak them.

Anyway, these hapless Europeans have been thrown in the mix by new research carried out by a criminologist and a medical doctor. Historians seem to be few and far between in this story, which may explain the leap that’s coming. Before I get to that, let’s give the science its credit – analysis of oxygen isotopes in the teeth of 18 of the ship’s complement shows that they did not come from the British Isles, nor even from northern Europe. Very neat, I think you’ll agree, and adds to our knowledge of this amazing archaeological find. All the more shame then that these guys want to make it sexier than it is by tying it to the most sensational aspect of the Mary Rose’s history.

They suggest that because 18 men were non native English speakers, all of those responsible for the operation of the ship were likewise. In a quite stunning leap of logic, they claim that an order was given to close the gun ports, and these foreigners failed to understand it. Thus the ship was lost.

Hopefully you can see the inherent flaws in this line of reasoning even before the facts of history rudely intrude upon the assumptions that hold it together. In my view, even assuming communications problems between officers and seamen, we have no more reason to believe that language was the issue than say, poor discipline, failure of command, negligence or just plain “fog of war”. Let’s look at the flawed assumptions here;

Assumption 1. That the foreign men found on the ship were sailors.
As the documentary says, and is well known, English monarchs made routine use of mercenary soldiers. And there were nearly as many soldiers on board the Mary Rose as mariners – 185 vs 200. Given the sample size used in this study – 18 men out of a ship’s complement of 415 (or just 4%), the mystery “strangers” (as the Tudors would have called them) are just as likely to have been fighting men as they are seamen. When you factor in the historical record, which shows very few foreign mariners (navigation specialists and officers, mainly) in the employ of the Tudor navy, but a hell of a lot of mercenary soldiers of all nations, it’s actually more likely that the soldiers are our guys. The proponents of this theory acknowledge as much, but fail to recognise that as soldiers, they would not have been subject to any order given to close gun ports, whether or not they understood it! They are, in my opinion, a total red herring as far as the sinking “mystery” goes.

Assumption 2. That Not English = Don’t do English.
Assume for a moment that the 18 were seamen rather than soldiers. We’re talking (in either case actually) about well-travelled men of the world who had to make themselves understood wherever they may go. They would do this through picking up something of the various languages they might encounter, and by good old fashioned gesturing. Surely the Spanish (or whatever) for “window” must have been known to some of the English-speaking crewmembers. Are we to assume that the Spaniards (or whoever) lacked even a tourist’s understanding of English? Why?

Assumption 3. That foreigners were foreign to English ships
This related assumption seems to stem from ignorance as to the size of the world the Tudors inhabited;

“I had assumed, as had everyone else, that the men on board were all British,” she said. “Nobody had considered a naval vessel would have a huge foreign component to it, which is a little shocking.”

I’m sorry, but personal incredulity does not equal an earth-shattering discovery. Why has no-one spoken to a medieval or other historian for some context and perspective here? Instead the writer of that article approaches a museum director who is equally amazed that 16th century Europeans travelled and fought for countries other than their own. Mercenaries had to be transported somehow, and they would be a valuable defensive asset whilst on board (pre the Royal Marines).

Even if we agree that we’re talking here about sailors, the assertion that multiple languages (and who says there was more than one anyway?!) would have been “a recipe for disaster” is ridiculous. Generations of seamen would disagree with her. Mixed crews were common, most famously on pirate ships, but also in state navies. How did these ships function? How did the 18 different nationalities represented on HMS Victory centuries later (by which time the proportion of foreign seamen was restricted by law) communicate successfully?

If we’re going to infer anything from this scenario, it actually seems to me that if the King’s flagship had many apparently trusted foreign sailors on board, other ships in the fleet are also likely to have. If there were problems as a result of this, where is the historical evidence? Where are the incidents of incompetence? The recommendations and laws passed to remedy it?

We have only two pieces of historical evidence cited as backup. One is a widely reported claim (got to love the implied xenophobia in the Daily Mail version) that;

..letters written by King Henry VIII were uncovered at the British Library in London, written six months before the ship went down, in which he says he’d hired 600 Spanish mariners for his navy.

…and that this confirmed the above findings. Firstly, it’s not at all new. Secondly, it’s not at all accurate. These men were not mariners but mercenary soldiers (harquebusiers). They had been sent home with minimal pay as surplus to requirements, so when they laid over at Falmouth, Henry had them pressed into service. They were immediately sent to the Scottish borders, making it less likely that these could be the specific individuals found on the Mary Rose. But Henry’s papers alone show many hundreds of Spanish mercenaries and other nationalities besides, so I’m not sure why those men in particular should be seized upon as evidence.

The other “evidence” is a quote from Sir George Carew, Admiral on the Mary Rose who is said to have shouted that the crew were;

“the sort of knaves whom he could not rule.”

This is offered as proof that there were indeed non-English speakers onboard. The problem is that it doesn’t say anything of the sort. Seamen were all “knaves” by anyone’s definition at that time, and you might even find crews of convicted criminals employed. Discipline was non-existent, meaning that captains often had to rule by brute force. Carew is simply saying that the crew was impossible to control. If he’d had trouble with foreigners, he’d have had no compunction over saying so – it would have been an even better excuse for losing the ship. And again, even if this did refer to foreigners, it doesn’t mean that they couldn’t understand orders, nor specifically any order to close ports. The argument is circular.

Assumption 4. That no interpreter would have been employed.
Again granting a scenario where the majority didn’t understand English, the obvious and elegant way to the verbal communication of information and orders (see below re “action” orders) is to have an interpreter on board. Be he informally selected from either group, or brought in professionally before departure, it’s inconceivable that a captain (overseen by an Admiral in this case) would take out a ship where the simplest of orders could not be understood, all for want of someone with the equivalent of GCSE Spanish (a lingua franca even then). And this is exactly what was done on the Galley “Subtylle” in 1546 when a Spanish captain was employed on a ship full of Englishmen.

Assumption 5. That verbal communication is even relevant to this scenario.
This one renders the others redundant. On a ships firing deck in battle, with men, equipment and the ship itself all moving noisily around, and with cannon going off at regular intervals, orders were transmitted by bosun’s call or whistle, not by shouting. Ironically, one of the featured skeletons in the documentary and the articles was found with a bosun’s call next to him, yet still we have this ridiculous theory of dozy shrugging “Dagos” bringing down the King’s finest vessel. The programme even states that the order to open and close gun ports would have been delivered by a man like this, with a whistle like this. Where does language or nationality come into it?

Assumption 6. That closing the gun ports would even have been achievable.
The old theory goes that the ship went down in a hard turn, as water began to flood into the gun ports. This is based upon ports found to be open on the wreck, plus the short distance to the waterline. This new add-on theory suggests that after this turn was commanded, the ports should have been closed. This would have been very difficult to do in the time available. Was the order even given? Should it have been? Would the ship’s crew really have been required to close the ports for each and every turn? Or, was the turn executed too steeply in the first place, as the original theory suggested?

All of this makes the hypothesis as presented in the media a totally unsupported assertion, built on an already uncertain inference about the gun ports. The osteoarchaeological evidence for Mediterranean seaman being on the Mary Rose is very cool. But to take it further than that is pure speculation. I’m always suspicious of media coaching of unwary academics, so I await the upcoming article with interest and as open a mind as I can manage given the bare facts of the case.

Update 30.9.08

The abstract of the forthcoming article in Archaeological Science is available online. It’s still not looking good for the history side of things. For one thing the authors have misquoted Admiral (who they call “Captain” George Carew as saying he had;

“the type of knaves of whom, he could not rule”

The actual quote (from the Life of Sir Peter Carew and other of the pre-C20th sources) is that he had;

“…a sort of knaves, whom I cannot rule”

Quite different emphasis there. The first version from the article, though it still does not support the idea of a foreign crew, does have the right emphasis – it’s saying “I have the kind of crew I can’t control”. This can be twisted to mean that said crew couldn’t understand orders. But the more accurate quote is saying something more akin to “my crew are a bunch of scumbags. I can’t control them”. “Sort”, if you pay attention to the “a” and the comma, doesn’t mean “type”. I read it as meaning “assortment” or “group”.

And the summary of the conclusions, though more tentative than the TV programme and media coverage, still states that the hypothesis is of a ship’s crew who failed to understand the order to close gun ports because they were foreign. Which is nonsense for the reasons I’ve already outlined.

Once again, the biggest flaw here is that any foreigners amongst the ship’s complement are likely to have been mercenaries. The abstract gives this as one possibility, but fails to recognise that mercenary sailors were not employed by the Henry VIII – but mercenary soldiers certainly were (including the 600 men that were proposed in the documentary). As I pointed out previously, 200 of the ship’s complement are KNOWN to have been soldiers. These are your Europeans, these are your mercenaries. And they would have had nada to do with the running of the ship.

I see that the Mary Rose Trust are thanked in the article – why haven’t they pointed out the obvious flaws in this thesis?

Update, November 2008 – I’m still not convinced.