Trading with the enemy: Tudor ship provides clues to Anglo-Spanish ties

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Marine archaeologists have found in the mudflats of the Thames estuary the remains of an Elizabethan merchant ship which may have been carrying out a secret trading mission.

Marine archaeologists have found in the mudflats of the Thames estuary the remains of an Elizabethan merchant ship which may have been carrying out a secret trading mission.

The 100ft-long vessel, one of the few Tudor merchant vessels ever found around Britain's coast, is of immense archaeological and historical importance. The ship was built of East Anglian oak at an east coast ship-building centre, probably Ipswich or Aldeburgh, around 1575 and its cargo and armaments suggest it may have been illegally trading with England's arch enemy, Spain.

Armed with at least four 3-inch-bore cannon, it was carrying a cargo of more than 100 8-metre-long folded iron bars, a few tin and lead ingots and a small number of Spanish olive jars, probably containing olive oil, when it sank, almost certainly in the 1580s or 1590s.

It is not known where the ship was bound or where it was coming from when it was lost some six miles off the coast of north-east Kent.

Apart from Sweden, northern Spain was western Europe's major source of iron. The presence of the cannon suggests that it had been active in the pirate-ridden Bay of Biscay or beyond.

Dr Wendy Childs, an expert in late medieval and early modern trade at the University of Leeds, said: "Current knowledge of late 16th century maritime trade patterns and the armed nature of the ship would suggest that the iron bars probably came from Spain - and the presence of some Spanish olive jar ceramic material on the ship would be consistent with that.

"In Elizabethan England demand for iron far exceeded supply - making export of English iron very unlikely. Although the tin and lead could have also come from Spain, it is more likely that those two metals came from England." It is conceivable the iron was being imported to help England increase its cannon and warship production.

Throughout the period of hostility between Spain and England - even at the time of the Armada itself - English ships, often disguised as Scottish or Irish vessels, continued to trade with Spain. Anglo-Spanish trade was permitted by the English government but between 1585 and 1603 it was illegal under Spanish law. Indeed scores of English merchant vessels were confiscated when they illegally entered Spanish ports to trade - and their crews were conscripted into the Spanish navy either as sailors or galley slaves.

Professor Pauline Croft, an expert in 16th-century Anglo-Spanish trade at Royal Holloway, University of London, said: "Given some of the material on board, the vessel discovered in the Thames estuary may well have been an English merchant ship returning from Spain. If the voyage took place after 1585, which may well have been the case, such trade would have been illicit but that didn't stop many English merchants taking the risk."

Among the guns found is a cast iron cannon made in the 1560s or 70s by Thomas Gresham, a well-known Elizabethan entrepreneur, at his foundry at Mayfield, East Sussex. Gresham, who died in 1579 at the age of 60 and was active in shipping in the 1550s and 60s, had a small fleet of merchant ships himself - but the wrecked vessel is probably too late in date to have been directly associated with him. The ship itself had been repaired many times - and is likely therefore to have been at least 10 to 15 years old.

Archaeologists from Wessex Archaeology working in conjunction with the Port of London Authority discovered the wreck buried in silt in around 8 metres of water while investigating a shipping lane in preparation for essential Port of London Authority dredging work.

Over the past 18 months 15 to 20 per cent of the original vessel has been recovered.

Dr Antony Firth, head of coastal and marine projects at Wessex Archaeology, said: "It is a rare survival of an Elizabethan merchant ship ... It is also bringing us much closer to the people who actually built and sailed in English merchant vessels of the Elizabethan era."

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