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Pharology - History Lighthouses in the British Isles - The Charter of Henry VIII

BR06: The Charter of Henry VIII

We have seen that the origins of the Trinity Houses lay in (a) charitable work (b) overseeing pilots and their licences (c) navigational aids - beacons, buoys and ballastage. These three main functions have survived through the centuries. Prior to the formal recognition of lighthouses as a necessary navigational aid, Henry VII had given a Royal Charter to the 'Respectable Company of Mariners, in the College of Deptford', with the authority to prosecute anyone who destroyed seamarks around the coast of England.

Henry VIII chose Deptford in 1513 as the site for one of his naval dockyards and in that year a group of mariners associated with navigation of the Thames petitioned the King in that year informing him of the lack of suitably qualified mariners to pilot ships. The main selling point was the fact that many of the young men who assisted in pilotage were inexperienced and easily tempted to make money from wrecking. They also pointed out that these young men were 'Unwilling to take the labour and adventure of learning the shipmen's craft on the high seas'. Furthermore, there could be grave consequences if this practise continued as it made it dangerous to allow 'foreigners, including Scots, Flemings and French, the opportunity to learn the secrets of the King's streams' [Barrett, 1893]. Henry VIII agreed with the petition and his Charter of the 19th March 1513 formed the College into a perpetual Corporation. Their title was recorded on the Charter as 'The Master, Wardens and Assistants of the Guild or Fraternitie of the most glorious and blessed Trinitie and Saint Clement in the parish Church of Deptford Stronde in the County of Kent'[anon, 1513]. (St. Clement is the patron saint of mariners.)

The Charter also invested in the Corporation the authority to collect light dues from ships using the beacons and buoys, especially on the Thames. Regrettably, most shipowners saw the Charter merely as official recognition for the charitable work that Trinity House supported which was, of course, considerable for no less than 21 almshouses were being provided for by Trinity House at the time.
It is interesting to note how Trinity House first levied dues. Payment was six pence for two-masted ships, four pence for one-masted vessels and two pence for others. Collection was the responsibility of the Customs Officers, but in reality these so-called Crown Officials had no loyalty either to the Crown or to Trinity House and much of the money failed to reached its intended destination. In later years it would become an offence not to issue a receipt for the levy, which in turn made the recording of dues taken much easier to check.

The Charter was accepted from Henry VIII by Sir Thomas Spert, Comptroller of the Navy and Master of the first real man-o-war, the "HENRI GRACE A DIEU" affectionately known as "the Great Harry." This shipcarried guns in the waist in addition to those on the fore and aft castle, making it then the most powerful ship afloat [Barrett, 1893]. Spert was the first Master of Trinity House and set to become the longest holder of the position, which he did until 1541. After this time, all Elders and Masters held their positions for three years only, when they had to stand down or be re-elected.

One item in the Charter was wrongly worded for although it made members of Trinity House exempt from all land-based (military) services, including jury service, they were required to serve the Crown at sea in time of war. Members could, in theory at least, have been press-ganged into military service and it would be many years before this matter was addressed again.

From its first constitution, the number of the court at Trinity House was one Master, four Wardens and eight Assistants, a total of 13. This number has strong connotations with the Holy Trinity, literally "three in one". The composition of the court was raised by the James I Charter of 1604 from 13 to 31, a number still retaining the digits one and three, the extra 18 being called Elder Brethren. Although members had always been known as Brethren, derived from the old Brotherhoods, this Charter was the first to refer to Elder and Younger Brethren, terms which survive today. Provision was thus made for the appointment of Younger Brethren, deputies from whom the ruling members were chosen. These were to be admitted at the pleasure of the Court, but to have no function in the court except to vote in the election of the Master and Wardens.

A less well known role of Trinity House was to raise local militia when the need arose. Thus, during the later part of the 16th century, Trinity House was put on a war footing as part of its charter. Elizabeth I had been concerned about the rising threat of a Spanish invasion. Captain Robert Salmon (Master, 1588-9) wrote to Lord Burghley (Queen's advisor) and informed him that it was possible for 30 merchant ships to be fitted out in four days and made ready for the use of the Lord High Admiral. A few days later, Lord Henry Seymour ordered Captain Salmon to 'go with his galley and make ready to guard the mouth of the Thames'. A former Master, Captain William Borough (1585) sent a chart of the Thames and Medway to Lord Seymour, with a letter that said '30 or 40 good ships would be sent from Flushing to assist the good Lord' [Barrett, 1895].

We do not know whether these ships were ever used for this purpose by Seymour, but, in 1797, during the mutiny at Nore, Trinity House Elders removed or destroyed all the beacons and buoys along the Thames and effectively stopped the mutineers from being able to navigate to the open water of the English Channel. The only other time in the history of Trinity House when they armed their ships for war to protect the English Coast was in 1803. They were formed into the Trinity House Volunteer Artillery and blockaded the Thames at Lower Hope as a defence against a threatened French invasion.

Often, lighthouse projects were rejected by both Elizabeth I and James I on the grounds of national security, the arguments given that lighthouses would assist their enemies at a time of war so the only effective way was to extinguish them. The Elders of Trinity House proved this action to be wrong, when the cost of replacing ships threatened the Crown purse and almost bankrupted many shipowners.

On only three occasions during its history has Trinity House extinguished its lights or removed buoys. The first time was during the Dutch War (1665-7) when Charles II and his government insisted that all beacons and buoys be removed from the coast and from the Thames. Ironically, more of the English fleet were sunk because of this action than by the Dutch Navy. Things were different during the first and second World Wars as lights remained off, but were occasionally relit for the use of British or Allied shipping.