by Edda Frankot
Aberdeen in the second half of the fifteenth century was the second busiest port in Scotland. But unlike in today’s harbour, where several ships arrive and depart on a daily basis, only a few vessels were anchored there throughout the year in the middle ages. In fact, there were rarely more than ten annually. The harbour of medieval Aberdeen was frequented by ships from various ports in north-western Europe, such as Dieppe, Veere, Stralsund and Danzig (Gdańsk). But there were also ships which hailed from Aberdeen itself. One such ship was the Nicholas.
When I was checking the transcriptions of the LACR corpus, I had already noticed the Nicholas. It seemed to appear relatively regularly and had a suitable name for a ship from Aberdeen. I had also noticed that two men from the same Wormet family were engaged on the Nicholas as a shipmaster. Were Robert and Magnus father and son, and did the son take on the role of shipmaster when his father retired? And what type of ship was the Nicholas? Was she even one ship? These were questions I tried to answer for a public talk that I presented at the Maritime Museum last June, and which I will briefly discuss here.
The Nicholas is by far the most prominent vessel in the council registers. It appears on various occasions in the period from 1458 to 1493. It is possible that there were a number of consecutive ships called the Nicholas. In most of the entries she is simply called ‘schip’. But in a few cases a specific ship type is mentioned. In 1458 she was called a barge, in 1463 a balinger and in 1480 and 1489 a caravel. Barges and balingers are generally considered to have been fairly similar, and relatively small ships, though the bishop of St Andrews owned a very large (500-tun) barge. A caravel, on the other hand, was considered to be a slightly different, and larger ship. But the council registers also make mention of ‘the small caravel’ at some point, so she may have been a relatively small one. It could be that between 1463 and 1480 one Nicholas was replaced with another, but the general confusion concerning ship types in the middle ages may also have resulted in the Nicholas simply being called different things throughout her career.
It appears that shipmasters changed ship on a regular basis, as no less than eight men are named as the master of the Nicholas between 1458 and 1493 and there may have been more. Some were only engaged for a single journey. There is also some information on who owned the ship in the sources, but this is far from complete. As was common in this period, the Nicholas was owned by a group of people. In 1458, for example, Robert Gray, who was also shipmaster of the Nicholas, sold his quarter of the ship to John Stewart. Magnus Wormet also owned part of the ship for a while, as will become apparent below.
ACR 5, p. 342: David Dun questions the selling of a quarter of the Nicholas by Robert Gray to John Stewart (1458).
As said, two members of the Wormet family were involved with the ship, but it has proven difficult to establish their relationship to each other. They may have been father and son, and the latter may have taken over the role of shipmaster from the former, but this is in no way certain. Looking at Robert and Magnus in more detail does provide us with more of a glimpse of shipping in medieval Aberdeen.
Robert Wormet was admitted as a burgess and guild brother in 1440. By 1442 he was married to a woman called Marjory, whose last name is not mentioned. Robert had at least two sons, David and John, the latter of whom he bodily harmed according to a charge made against him in 1467. He was already involved in shipping in 1442, when his wife appeared in court concerning a ship’s part owned by him. Presumably he was away from Aberdeen himself at the time. In 1444 he demanded freight from a merchant in court, so he must have been acting as a shipmaster by then. Five years later he reported on a decision from a court in the Low Countries concerning the pay of his crew after his ship had driven onto the Netherlandish coast through storm while on its way to London with a cargo of salmon.
In 1455 Robert is named as the shipmaster of another ship, the Martin. The cargo of the Martin had been taken by an English ship. Between 1463-1469 he appeared in court on a number of occasions as the master of the Nicholas. With this vessel too, he ended up in a different port than planned: in 1468 five merchants complained that the Nicholas had sailed to Zeeland instead of to Le Havre. In this case the assize (jury) decided in Wormet’s favour: he had been right to go to Zeeland, as this was where the merchants who were on board with him wanted to go.
ACR 6, p. 62: Robert Wormot defends his decision to sail to Zeeland (1468).
Robert Wormet last appears as a shipmaster in 1469. His last appearance altogether is in 1472. Magnus Wormet first appears as a shipmaster soon after Robert’s disappearance from the records, but this may be just a coincidence. He first appears in the council registers in 1453 in a case of disturbance. He is also named as the co-owner of a ship in 1463. Magnus lived in the ‘vico navium’, i.e. on Shiprow – a suitable place for a man involved in shipping.
It may be that Magnus was master of the Nicholas as early as 1473 (or even earlier). In that year he travelled to England on an unnamed ship carrying salmon. In 1476 he took another cargo of salmon to England. But we only know for sure that he was the shipmaster of the Nicholas’ in 1478, carrying malt from an unknown port, while at the same time owning a third of her. In 1484 Magnus made his wife, who remains unnamed, his procurator. His wife was to ‘do for him in his absence what he might do himself’. Obviously both Magnus and Robert trusted their wives to take care of business in their absence. This does not go without saying: usually other men were appointed as procurators, and only very rarely do we see women in this role in the fifteenth century.
Magnus was still the part owner of the Nicholas after he stopped being her master. It is unclear whether he continued to act as a shipmaster after that time or only as a merchant and part owner. The naming of his wife as his procurator does suggest regular time away from home. Magnus Wormet must have died between October 1491, when he last appeared in court alive, and April 1492, when his widow claimed the freight for Magnus’ part of the Nicholas.
A final aspect that appears to have been a regular part of many a shipmaster’s life was appearing in court for disturbance. Robert and Magnus Wormet were both charged on a number of occasions for ‘perturbatio’, in Scots ‘strublance’, a term which was used for a great variety of disturbances, both verbal and physical, and against individuals, public order and the court. Other shipmasters also regularly feature in such entries, most notably David Dun and David Hervy. Often there was a charge of disturbance of one against another and then vice versa in the next entry. In 1453, for example, Robert Wormet and David Dun were both convicted of distrubling the other. In 1449 David Dun and David Hervy were in court for common brawling and disturbance and also for disobeying a baillie (who was in turn charged with distrubling David Hervy!). The year before Hervy had already been accused of disobeying a baillie and distrubling David Dun. And there are several more examples to be found.
ACR 5, p. 12: David (and John) Hervy vs David Dun and John Voket, the baillie (1449).
It appears that occasionally these convictions took place around the time that the men appeared in court opposing the same person, so it may well be that emotions were running a bit high, which resulted in the men throwing obscenities at each other and at the court officials. Life at sea may also have made these men a little rough around the edges. Or perhaps a maritime career was considered suitable for them because of their characters. But at the same time these men often served on assizes and juries, or as arbitrators in maritime cases, as they had great practical knowledge of such matters and were well respected for their opinions. Hervy, for example, was one of the men on the assize that decided in Robert Wormet’s favour in 1468 when he had sailed to Zeeland instead of to Normandy. Most of the maritime cases were decided by assizes of men who were involved in overseas trade, be they shipowners, merchants, skippers, or even occasionally helmsmen.
As a result of their regular appearances in court, it is possible to find out relatively much about these men. As such, Robert and Magnus Wormet’s story serves as a useful example with regards to what information can be found concerning individual medieval Aberdonians once the LACR corpus will be available and searchable online.