Last Updated on 9th November 2021 by Mike@bitaboutbritain
In the story of the Mary Rose, we took a brief look at the history of the famous Tudor warship, said to be a favourite of Henry VIII’s, that sank without warning on 19 July 1545, with the tragic loss of about 500 lives. Now, we hear a bit about her recovery, her treasures, what she can tell us from the past – and the astonishing Mary Rose Museum.
Recovering Mary Rose
It is not true that Mary Rose was forgotten until being discovered and raised by curious archaeologists in the 1980s. When she sank in the Solent, between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight, Mary Rose came to rest on her starboard side in about 40 feet (12 metres) of water, the tops of her masts protruding above the waves. To the Tudor authorities, she and her contents were worth a small fortune. Between August and December 1545, attempts were made to move the ship to shallower water where she might be refloated. Her sails were retrieved but, after several failed attempts to budge her (during which her masts snapped), on 8 December it was decided to give up. They still wanted her contents, though; the guns alone were worth millions of pounds in today’s money. A specialist Venetian firm was contracted to dive into the wreck and retrieve what they could and, it seems, some items were indeed recovered – including five cannons. In the dark, 40 feet down, without modern lifting equipment and breathing apparatus, it beggars belief how they did even that. However, after several years, this exercise too was abandoned. The head diver was a young man called Jacques Francis who came from Guinea, West Africa, where he had probably been a pearl diver. Jacques was clearly a highly skilled specialist – and also thought to be the first black person known to have given evidence in an English court when his boss was accused of theft from another wreck and Jacques testified on his behalf.
Gradually, Mary Rose and her crew faded from general and official memory and were left to rot in the shifting silt of the Solent. For almost 300 years, she lay undisturbed. Then, in 1836, fishermen reported that something was snagging their nets and divers went down to investigate. Again, guns were recovered, which identified the wreck as that of the Mary Rose. There was a great deal of public interest and more items, including human remains, were brought to the surface. It is a matter of shame that no one knows what happened to the human remains – or indeed most of the other items. In 1843, it was decided to abandon the site and, allegedly and inexplicably, destroy it. The Victorians certainly used explosives to assist their salvage efforts but, as we know, the site was not destroyed.
Once again, the tides of history, including two world wars, flowed over Mary Rose. That state of affairs would probably have continued had it not been for the determination of one man, Alexander McKee (1918-92). McKee, an author and diver, was fascinated by the story of the Mary Rose and set out to find her. In 1966, with another member of the Southsea branch of the British Sub-Aqua Club, John Towse, he identified the whereabouts of the wreck and dived down to it. More dives were carried out, but it wasn’t until 1971 that the remains were finally confirmed as those of the Mary Rose. Explorations and limited excavations continued in parallel with increasing public interest. The project received even more support when Prince Charles participated in dives on the site. In 1979, a full-scale systematic excavation commenced, with full-time and volunteer staff. The artefacts that the team recovered had not been seen for more than 430 years.
The climax came on 11 October 1982 when, with the world watching, Henry VIII’s fragile battleship was carefully raised from the seabed using a purpose-built steel frame and gently removed to Portsmouth Dockyard, home of the Royal Navy and where she had been built all those years ago. It was an astonishing achievement.
Visiting the Mary Rose
What the experts brought to the surface in 1982 was the starboard portion of Mary Rose’s hull, which had been preserved in mud and silt over the centuries whilst the exposed port side gradually disintegrated. Though put on public display within a year of being raised, the delicate timbers underwent years of conservation work, being soaked first with water then a preservation solution, and visitors could only view the ship’s remains through a glass panel. Artefacts were shown in a separate building. Since 2013, Mary Rose has been on display in a unique building at Portsmouth, constructed over the historic dry dock she lay in. Entering through an airlock, a walkway takes you through the middle of the ship, from stern to bow, level with the main deck. On your right is the preserved remains of the hull, exposed in section like a cut-away drawing. Every so often, parts of it come alive with projected animations of the crew going about their business. On your left is a mirror image facsimile of the lost port side, populated with many of the retrieved relics displayed in what would have been their rightful places aboard ship.
It is an extraordinary experience.
Some 19,000 artefacts have been documented from the Mary Rose and an astonishing number of them are on display. The wreck has been described as a Tudor time capsule, providing an extraordinary insight into so many aspects of life 5 centuries ago. Some things have obviously been preserved better than others have: so linen has not survived, but leather has; wooden tool handles have, but iron blades have mostly corroded away.
So, experts have discovered a bit about the diet on board ship and Tudor technology, from shipbuilding and navigation to weaponry. Butchered bones found in barrels revealed that the on-board diet was better than you might imagine and included beef, pork and fish, though it lacked fresh fruit and vegetables. Analysis of cod bones revealed that these fish had been caught in the waters off Iceland and Newfoundland. There were two large brick-built ovens to cook supper on, as well as barrels for the crew’s beer. The beer ration was about a gallon per person each day and, just as today, it was much better for you than water. Weaponry included large 2.5 ton muzzle loading culverins (cannons) and lighter breech loading port guns. Some of the guns were loaded and ready to fire. Also recovered were some curious handguns with shields built round them and 137 traditional yew long bows with 3,500 arrows. The longbow was England’s medieval infantry terror weapon; a trained English or Welsh archer could shoot 12 aimed arrows per minute. The bows on Mary Rose had an average length of 6 feet 6 inches (1.98 m). Also uncovered have been 65 ballock knives, the deadly looking personal dagger of choice at the time – named for its distinctive hilt. Over 60 nit combs have been found, as well as other personal items such as rings and other jewellery, a manicure set, shoes (more than 250 of them), leather jerkins, prayer book covers, rosaries (so some of the crew were evidently Catholic), portable sundials, wooden bowls with their owners’ marks on them (few could write in Tudor Britain) and pots and pans of all sorts. There are coins, the latest navigation instruments, scales, musical instruments and games – some of them, like fiddles, drums, dice and backgammon, familiar to us today. Carpentry tools look very recognisable too – as do some of the surgeon’s implements – such as saws and earscoops. Also recovered were corked jars that contained the remains of Tudor medicines and a urethral syringe used to treat venereal disease by injecting nasty liquids like mercury into the urethra. That’ll teach you.
In any event, what has been discovered on the Mary Rose is reckoned to be the best collection of Tudor artefacts anywhere. Here are photos of some of them.
Meet the crew
Who used all these things? The only identified people aboard Mary Rose on the fateful day she sank were the captain, Carew, and another officer, Roger Grenville (father of Sir Richard Grenville, famously captain of the Revenge*). Both men perished when the ship went down. The name ‘Nye Coep’ is carved on several objects found in the wreck and he may have been the cook. But that’s it; nothing was known of the other 530 or so souls.
The remains of 179 humans have so far been recovered from the Mary Rose. They are all male and mostly under 30 years old; the oldest was around 40, the youngest just 10. From their bones, scientists have managed to assemble 92 skeletons, individuals who not only made Mary Rose function, but whose descendants may well be sitting near you while you’re reading this. Some of their remains are on display at the museum.
Like detectives, archaeologists ascertain a great deal from where bodies are found, as well as the objects found near them. Thus, for example, an educated guess identified a possible Master Carpenter, whose possessions tantalisingly hinted at Spanish origins But scientists can take things further than this, extracting astonishing information from bones and teeth to reveal something about where people came from, what they did, their age and their health. Eight individuals from Mary Rose have been examined in detail, and the results are fascinating because three of them were not as English – or even as British – as you might expect. The Master Carpenter certainly originated from the Mediterranean area, probably Spain. There was a ‘gentleman’ – so called because of the fine quality goods found near him – and he, too, was brought up in southern Europe – possibly the Iberian Peninsula, or Italy. A third individual, found trapped under a cannon and already identified as an archer in his early 20s by his physical characteristics, and the fact that he was wearing an archer’s leather wristband, turned out to have been brought up in North Africa. Interestingly, his wristband was stamped with the Royal Arms of England, as well as a pomegranate – a Spanish symbol and also that of Henry VIII’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon. This is a bit of a mystery, since Katherine had died in 1536 and by 1545 Henry was on his sixth, and final, wife – Catherine Parr. In any event, our elite archer seemingly in Royal service was not English at all. A fourth individual, a muscular youth aged between 16-19, had been found wedged deep in the hold of the ship. He had been given the name Henry and his skull had already been noted as having characteristics typical of someone with African ancestry. However, Henry was not only found to have been brought up in southern England, but also to have had North African, possibly Berber, ancestry. So what was his story?
We already know that one of the survivors of the sinking was a Flem. We also know from records that a Spanish surgeon served on the Mary Rose in 1513. So, whilst claims that Mary Rose had an international crew might seem fashionably hyperbolic until more is known, at least we can be sure the Tudor Navy was an equal opportunities employer. That aside, and remembering the fascinating West African diver, Jacques Francis, the Tudor world was obviously far more cosmopolitan than we might think. I guess if you consider the nature of seafaring, where cultural exchanges would be normal, the wars (where mercenaries were often used), and the relationships that existed at the upper levels of society, that makes sense. Sadly, we will never know the individual stories behind the basic facts, but it is exciting to realise that we can learn more than we might do.
We should also mention the ship’s dog, ‘Hatch’, a young male of uncertain breed who was discovered by the entrance to the ship’s carpenter’s cabin. Hatch may have had a dual role as a pet and rat-catcher.
Today, a yellow buoy marks the spot where Mary Rose sank. It is a protected area; there are still significant remains buried in the seabed. Since ABAB visited Mary Rose, the bow timbers have been added to the museum. They were recovered as a consequence of the Ministry of Defence considering whether a new channel had to be dredged through the wreck to accommodate new aircraft carriers. So, Mary Rose’s story is still being uncovered, as more discoveries are made – not least by analysis of the objects already found.
My shots of the museum are less than wonderful. All but one of the photos used in this article were taken by Natalie Lewis. Visit Nat Lewis @british.history.explorer on Instagram, where you will find a whole range of her excellent and detailed photos of the exhibits, of which only a selection has been used here. In fact, if you’re not following @british.history.explorer, you should be.
The website of the Mary Rose Museum is superb and of course provides much more information than is possible here, as well as details of special exhibitions, visiting times and so on.
The Mary Rose Museum is housed within Portsmouth’s amazing Historic Dockyard and is just one of several attractions that can be visited as part of a single ticket for the whole dockyard complex. Attractions include HMS Victory, HMS Warrior, M.33, a harbour tour, the Submarine Museum at Gosport and the Museum of the Royal Navy.