William Soper was born in c 1390 and is most famous for his role in overseeing the build up of the English Navy in Southampton during the Hundred Years War conflict with France.
Using Watergate Quay, and the nearby ‘Canute’s Palace’ as a storehouse, Soper first rebuilt a Spanish ship in 1414 – the Santa Clara – and named it the Holy Ghost. He was commissioned to build a number of vessels by Henry V, including the Grace Dieu, begun in 1416 and launched two years later – at 1400 tons, the largest ship to have been built in England at that time. After completion Soper’s ships were moored in the Hamble River, which provided a safe anchorage. It was here that the Grace Dieu was struck by lightning in 1439 and destroyed by fire.
Soper had other skills, notably as a diplomat and politician. He visited London for the parliament of 1413 and was elected to the House of Commons eleven times. He was also Mayor of Southampton on two occasions. Following the death of Henry V in France in 1422 Soper was paid to bring back his body, and was later involved with escorting Henry VI’s bride-to-be Margaret of Anjou across the channel prior to their wedding at Titchfield Abbey.
The role of Keeper of the Kings Ships was held until 1442, though the fleet itself had declined following the death of Henry V. Soper then took up an appointment as a New Forest Verderer, looking after the Royal Hunting Grounds. William Soper died c 1459.