HUMA Maritime archaeology Gotland
The Visby Sea Disaster of July 28th 1566
By ARNE ADOLFSSON and RUNE FORDAL
The Nordic Seven Years' War (1563 – 1570) witnessed one of the worst naval disasters in the history of the Baltic Sea. On the night of July 29th 1566 a powerful north-westerly storm sent fifteen warships - 12 Danish and 3 from Lübeck – to the bottom of the sea just off the coast of Gotland near Visby. The fleet consisted of 36 or 37 ships in total.
From 9 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon on July 26th 1566 the combined Danish-Lübeck fleet had engaged a Swedish naval force off the northern tip of Öland. During the battle the Lübeck flagship lost its main mast. Among the Danish casualties was an officer of the nobility, Kristoffer Mogensøn.
The admiral of the Lübeck ships wanted to withdraw to Danzig for repairs. His Danish counterpart, on the other hand, insisted that the fleet should sail to Visby where Kristoffer Mogensøn could be given a proper burial. The Danish admiral had the final say and the combined fleet headed for Visby.
The Swedish fleet was initially in pursuit but stormy weather forced it to break off and withdraw to the shelter of the skerries.
The Danish-Lübeck fleet anchored in highly exposed, treacherous waters near Visby, despite repeated warnings from both the Danish county constable Jens Bille and the commander-in-chief that this was 'foul ground'.
Some of the ships had already sustained damage in stormy weather on the night of July 28th. But when the commanders of these ships urged that the fleet should find a more sheltered anchoring point, the admiral simply replied that a storm was unlikely because 'storms don't happen every day'. A number of vessels nevertheless slipped away to safer waters, thus preventing the disaster from assuming even greater proportions.
Kristoffer Mogensøn's burial took place on July 28th in the afternoon. After the ceremony most of the attendants returned to their ships. According to King Frederich II's chronicle, the sky that evening turned a strange colour and the sea beneath the ships seemed turbulent despite the weather being calm. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, the storm broke out. It raged for 5 or 6 hours.
Figure 1. The disaster on Visby roadsted as illustrated in a 17th century copper engraving from’King Frederich II’s Chronicle (detail). The masts of 2nd flagship Hannibal can be seen at ‘4’ right besides the town.
Dawn on July 29th revealed a tragic scene. The storm had sunk fifteen of the fleet's ships including the largest vessel, the flagship. The coastline was littered with wreckage and debris. Some of the vessels further away remained afloat. The Danes lost the following ships: Samson (flagship), Hannibal (2nd flagship), Merkurius, Akilles, Engelen, Floris, Solen, Køgehøgen, Papegøjen, Gribben, Engelske Fortun and Hertug Adolfs Pinke. The Lübeck fleet lost the Morian (flagship), Josva and Meerweib. According to reports, between 6,000 and 8,000 sailors lost their lives, although this figure appears to have been somewhat exaggerated.
The drowned included the Danish admirals Hans Lauritsøn and Jens Truidsøn Ulfstand and the Lübeck admiral Bartholomew Thinnappel (who was also Mayor of Lübeck). They were buried in the Church of St. Mary in Visby. Today only Thinnappel's tombstone remains in the church chancel. On the north wall you will also find an epitaph for Thinnappel depicting the sea disaster.
Figure 2. Silver spoon with H I L P on the back and I H S on the front. At the transition between shaft and blade two engraved coat of arms and initials IV and LB (referring to vice admiral Jens Truidsøn Ulfstand and his wife Lisbeth, born Bille) are seen. Photo: Hans Hemlin
Salvage work was commenced immediately and the rescued items were returned to Denmark and Lübeck. In 1960 some of the members of an amateur diving club on Gotland became interested in the history of the disaster. Sporadic diving trips in the waters near Visby and limited archival research were conducted but with no results. In 1965, however, a number of finds were made approximately 75 meters off the coast outside the southern part of an area known as ‘Hampfabriken’. Two amateur divers found a number of shapeless rusty piles at only 7 metres depth. The objects were initially not thought to be cannon balls. A later discovery was a highly corroded chunk of iron, which was thought to be the remains of a cannon. The Historical Museum of Gotland (Gotlands Fornsal) and the Swedish Maritime Museum were contacted.
Figure 3. Bone decoration from a flintlock pistol illustrating a naked woman (Eve?) and a warrior. Photo: Hans Hemlin.
The first finds that could be dated with any degree of accuracy were sections of a musket. Two coins embedded in rust were also found, one minted in 1565 and one in 1564. During the year 1966 2 tons of rusty lumps were raised from the seabed. Perhaps the most interesting find was a silver spoon which, according to the engraved coat of arms and initials, belonged to the Danish vice-admiral Jens Truidsøn Ulfstand and his wife Lisbeth (born with the surname Bille).
Figure 4. Recovery of an iron concretion containing a cannon, spring 1966. Photo: Hans Hemling
Some of these artefacts have been conserved while others are being treated at the Wasa Shipyard in Stockholm. To commemorate the 400th year of the disaster the Historical Museum of Gotland hosted an exhibition of all the artefacts found to date, and a memorial service was held in Visby Church on July 28th 1966. The Danish and German consuls attended the ceremony. Work is going ahead at the now-protected wreck site and is being conducted in combination with historical research.
LIST OF KEY FINDS, DISCOVERED PRIOR TO OCTOBER 1st 1966
2 Danish shillings from 1565
1 Danish shilling from 1564
lump of rust with impression of coin
fragment s of a smaller cannon
around 40 iron cannon balls
cannon ball mounted with iron bar
stone cannon ball
small bullet with fragment of fabric
2 lead balls, small bore cannon balls - 39 mm (probably for serpentine gun)
2 pistol bullets
flintlock pistol with decorations engraved in bone
2 rifle butts
sword with leather handle and scabbard
sword blade with barding intact
cartridge box with lid
handle to lint stock
U-shaped iron object (part of the rudder?)
mooring ring of iron
fragments of rope
clay pot, glazed
pieces of a bronze cauldron
2 leather sheaths for 3 knives with knife fragments
knife shaft (?)
strap plates in brass