Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:20 am
Every now and again, something takes our breath away. I thought I knew roughly what to expect when visiting the Mary Rose Museum. I broadly knew the story: the 16th century English warship, a favourite of Henry VIII’s, that sank with the tragic loss of most hands. I remembered when she was raised from the bottom of the sea in 1982 and knew that she is displayed in a state of the art museum in Portsmouth’s Royal Dockyard. However, nothing had prepared me for walking into that museum and being confronted with a preserved Tudor warship. It wasn’t just the fact of her, the size of her, the sudden awareness of what Tudor shipbuilders were capable of – it was all of the above, and more. It was the instant appreciation of the audacious genius that considered displaying the preserved remains of a 500 year old shipwreck in this way, and it was the awe for the technical ability that enabled the vision to be realised. I instinctively stopped and whispered, “Oh, wow”.
Of course, the Mary Rose doesn’t have just one story to tell, but many.
In this article, we’ll put Mary Rose in her Tudor context, tell you a bit about her history and try to explain what happened to her.
Mary Rose in context
Despite being prone to invasion, largely surrounded by the sea and often threatened by France, Scotland and piracy, medieval England had no regular navy. Ships were privately owned. By and large, those employed in royal service were appropriated merchantmen and fleets were cobbled together for particular purposes – such as the occasional offensive against France. That said, Henry V did have a massive purpose-built, albeit short-lived, flagship of at least 1400 tons, the Grace Dieu. It was Henry VII, however, who began a programme of warship building, constructing a dry dock at Portsmouth. When his son, Henry VIII, took over in 1509, England already had five royal warships – though the Royal Scots Navy was much larger. But by the time Henry VIII died in 1547, his ‘Navy Royal’ had grown to in excess of 40 vessels. He had also built dockyards at Deptford and Woolwich and set up the Navy Board and Office of Admiralty, laying the foundations for the current Royal Navy, formally established in 1661.
Mary Rose was built in Portsmouth in around 1510-11 and had a sister ship, the Peter Pomegranate. It is thought the ships were named for the saints – the Virgin Mary and Peter the Apostle – and that the ships’ badges commemorated Henry (the Tudor rose) and his first queen, Katherine of Aragon, whose symbol was the pomegranate. Though both were fighting ships, Mary Rose was significantly larger than Peter Pomegranate, reputedly taking 600 oak trees to build, and was designed to carry heavier guns. Mary Rose also boasted a relatively new feature – gunports, so that more guns could be carried and could be fired from lower decks. There were two fighting decks, the upper ‘open’ deck and the enclosed main deck, with the orlop deck and the hold below that. The fore and sterncastles each had two decks. Mary Rose was the 16th century equivalent of a modern warship equipped with the latest weapon system.
History of the Mary Rose
It is a popular myth that Mary Rose, like a Tudor Titanic, sank on her maiden voyage. In fact, Mary Rose had a busy, 34-year, career that spanned most of Henry VIII’s reign. Shortly after she was built, England was at war with France and, on 10 August 1512, Mary Rose was Admiral Sir Edward Howard’s flagship at the Battle of St Mathieu off the Brittany coast. She engaged with the French ship Grand Louise early in the battle, which is believed to be the first time naval ships with gunports had exchanged fire at a distance, without attempting to close in, ram and board one another. Mary Rose shot out the mainmasts of her opponent, killing 300 men and taking Grand Louise out of the battle. In 1513, James IV of Scotland invaded England in support of the French and Mary Rose contributed by transporting troops (gunners from Gdansk, apparently) to the north. All this culminated in the Battle of Flodden Field on 9 September, where the cream of Scottish nobility, including James, perished. Mary Rose participated in further fighting against the French until peace was signed in October 1514. Her next significant act was in June 1520, as part of the escort taking King Henry to his famous summit meeting with Francis I, King of France, at the Field of the Cloth of Gold near Calais (at that time part of England). War between England and France broke out again in 1522 and Mary Rose was again involved, as flagship to two admirals, Lord Thomas Howard and Vice-Admiral, Sir William Fitzwilliam. As well as being fast, at this time Mary Rose is believed to have had a reputation for handling well.
From 1527 into the 1530s, Mary Rose does not seem to have done much. In 1534, Henry VIII broke with Rome and declared himself head of the new Church of England, placing additional strain on his already erratic European relationships. The Pope excommunicated him, war loomed once again and there was fear of invasion. From 1536, Mary Rose underwent a refit, which included adding more guns and gunports. It has been suggested that these additions adversely affected her erstwhile excellent performance. Meanwhile, an alliance between Spain and France came and went. In 1542, Henry himself signed an alliance against France with Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, and, in September 1544, captured Boulogne. Shortly after, the alliance with Spain came to an abrupt end and the French (in addition to sending troops to Scotland) gathered an enormous taskforce of 200 ships – twice the size of the Spanish Armada of 1588 – to launch an attack on England. Some sources claim that King Francis said his aim was “to liberate the English from the Protestant tyranny that Henry VIII had imposed on them”. How kind.
The Battle of the Solent
The huge French fleet was largely untroubled by the English sending fireships against them and, on 12 July 1545, resolutely set sail across the English Channel. By 18 July, it threatened the coast of Sussex, where a small force landed, and was repulsed. The invaders continued west and, on 19 July, entered the Solent, the stretch of water between mainland Britain and the Isle of Wight. Both English ships and shore batteries opened fire, at long range.
The main English fleet comprised about 80 assorted vessels and lay in wait around Portsmouth Harbour. The King, having travelled to Portsmouth with his Privy Council in anticipation of action, dined with Admiral John Dudley, Viscount Lisle and Vice Admiral George Carew aboard the massive warship Great Harry (Henry Grace à Dieu – ‘Henry, Thanks be to God’). Carew was given command of the Mary Rose. The following day, 19 July, Henry went to his newly built Southsea Castle. The castle, along with Deal and others, was part of the most extensive defence system in Britain since Roman times, which Henry had begun in 1539. He stood on the fort’s battlements, overlooking the Solent, the massive French invasion force and the smaller English fleet that opposed them. Although the French had numerical superiority, they needed sufficient depth of water to safely land 30,000 troops – a big ask given that the English ships blocked their way.
The day began fine and calm, unsuitable for sailing ships. So the French sent their small galleys, which had a single fixed canon at the bow, against the English. It was a tactic intended to lure their enemy away from Portsmouth Harbour, but it failed. Later, when the wind grew more favourable, the larger English ships moved into the Solent, firing salvos against the French. And it was then that, to the horror of everyone watching, including the King, that the Mary Rose suddenly and inexplicably capsized.
Mary Rose is the only ship known for certain to have been lost in the battle. The English, close to home and supplies, only had to hold out until the French gave up and, after several days of stalemate, that is exactly what happened. The French did make several landings on the Isle of Wight, reasoning that if they controlled the island they could gain the upper hand and, moreover, tie up English resources. Accounts of these landings vary but, ultimately, the French withdrew.
What happened to the Mary Rose?
No one knows for sure. There is a suggestion that a French ship sank Mary Rose, with a cannon shot below the waterline, but no definitive evidence has been found to support this. Most historians seem to believe that Mary Rose probably turned after firing a broadside and, as she did so, a sudden squall caught her sails, she heeled over – possibly also because she was top-heavy after the refit – and that water flooded in through the gun ports, which fatal human error had left open before the manoeuvre. This view is supported by an account from one of the few survivors, a Flem.
Mary Rose was a dangerous and unpleasant place to be at the best of times. Below decks, it was dark, smelly, and a health and safety nightmare with many hazards to trip over or bump delicate flesh against. It was also crowded. When she went over and the sea rushed in, anyone on a lower deck was effectively imprisoned. There was virtually no chance of getting out and few did. There were no escape routes, no emergency lights or exits. As the angle of incline steepened, heavy items, like guns, would have slid across the decks in the pitch blackness, pinning or crushing anyone in their way. Even those that could swim would have been disorientated. On the upper decks, some would have been tangled or trapped by anti-boarding netting, or rigging. Of the 500 or so souls aboard Mary Rose that day, including 185 soldiers, only 35 survived. Imagine the terror, the panic, the tantalising knowledge that dry land was so near – yet so far. Mary Rose did not go down in particularly deep water – there was simply no way out. It has been said she was close enough to shore for the screams of the dying to be heard; but few would have heard the muffled cries of those trapped and engulfed in the darkness below decks. It was all over in minutes.
The sinking of the Mary Rose is famously depicted on the Cowdray Engraving, a section of which is shown above. You can see her masts poking out of the sea, just in front of Southsea Castle. The Cowdray Engraving is a copy of a contemporary painting commissioned by Sir Anthony Browne of Cowdray House, Midhurst, West Sussex. Also known as ‘The Encampment of the English forces near Portsmouth’, it was one of five paintings hanging in Sir Anthony’s dining room showing scenes from his life. He was Master of the King’s Horse and is shown at the centre of the painting on a white horse behind Henry VIII and next to Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, Commander of the Land Forces. The original paintings were lost in a fire, but fortunately engravings of them had been made about 20 years beforehand.
A year and a half after Mary Rose sank, Henry VIII died. The attempted invasion of 1545 had been a serious threat to England. As it was, the French were unable to secure a foothold, the Battle of the Solent was inconclusive, and the war petered out. There were, and would be, other wars. Had it not been for the Mary Rose, I wonder how widely this one would be remembered.
Next time – discovering and visiting Mary Rose.
In July 2021, the Mary Rose Museum launched a new immersive (pun intended) visitor experience – “Experience 1545 – When their world ended.” It is meant to be jolly good. Take wellies (obviously).
There is a terrific imagined account of the sinking of the Mary Rose in CJ Sansom’s book, Heartstone.