The Mary Rose

The sinking of Henry VIII's flagship the Mary Rose almost 500 years ago has fascinated historians for centuries. Although various theories have been put forward about why she sank in the mid-16th century, the cause remains a mystery.

Even the discovery of her remains in 1971 and the successful 11-year recovery mission to raise the stricken ship from the ocean bed didn't provide a definitive reason for her demise, that caused the loss of more than 360 crew members and the ship's dog.

Since the vessel's recovery in 1982, the remains of the hull have been on display at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, while a collection of artefacts is on display at the purpose-built Mary Rose Museum, on Main Road, Portsmouth.

Mary Rose

Constructing the Mary Rose

The Mary Rose was a carrack-type navy warship. Construction began in Portsmouth in 1510. At the time, Henry VIII had inherited a small navy from his father, containing only two large ships, the Sovereign and the Regent.

The king commissioned the building of two new ships, the 500-ton Mary Rose and the 450-ton Peter. During the early years of his reign, which began in 1509, he commissioned several new vessels, building up his Navy Royal - the predecessor of today's Royal Navy.

The Mary Rose was a massive task of construction. The amount of timber used was estimated to be around 600 large oaks, representing 40 acres of woodland. One hull plank weighed more than 660 lbs and a main deck beam weighed almost three-quarters of a ton! The ship had ten sails flown from four masts and the bowsprit.

Built at a time when heavy artillery was being rapidly developed, the ship's armaments were a combination of old and new weapons, including bronze and wrought iron guns of different sizes, designs and ranges.

Years in service

The Mary Rose was launched in July 1511. During her 34-year career, the size of the crew varied considerably depending on whether it was peacetime or wartime. When the ship was in reserve at times of peace, a skeleton crew of around 17 men would take care of the basic maintenance.

When the vessel was used during wars, the crew comprised around 200 sailors, 185 soldiers, up to 30 gunners, surgeons, members of the admiral's staff and ceremonial trumpeters, totalling around 450 men.

The ship first went to battle in 1512, joining the Spanish in a joint naval attack against the French. The Lord High Admiral, Sir Edward Howard, aged 35, was at the helm when they set off on a mission to clear the seas of French vessels between England and Spain's northern coast.

Skirmishes were not uncommon, as the growing nations competed to take control of the seas. The Mary Rose's debut mission was considered a success and 12 French ships were captured before she returned to dock at Southampton.

Over her years on active duty, the Mary Rose took part in many expeditions against the French. England was continually at war against France until 1546. Over the years, England became increasingly isolated from former allies, as a result of Henry VIII's complex marital situation and his unpopular dissolution of the monasteries.

Sinking of the Mary Rose

The Mary Rose went into battle during the third war with France, which had begun in 1542. The English fleet had captured Boulogne in September 1544, but in May 1545, the French navy assembled a large fleet in the Seine estuary, intending to transport troops to land on English soil.

An English fleet of around 80 ships, including the Mary Rose, was stationed at Portsmouth harbour. As the French galleys approached on 19th July 1545, much of the English fleet was unable to manoeuvre, due to it being in port.

During the ensuing conflict, known as the Battle of the Solent, two of the largest English ships, the Mary Rose and the Henry Grace à Dieu, led an attack on the French. However, the Mary Rose inexplicably leaned to her starboard side, allowing water to rush in through the gun ports.

She began to sink quickly and the crew couldn't do anything to correct the sudden imbalance, so they had to try and scramble to safety on the upper decks. In the ensuing chaos, equipment, supplies, ammunition and storage containers came loose, while the massive brick oven in the galley collapsed.

The 90-gallon copper cauldron hurtled on to the deck above. Heavy guns broke loose and slammed into the opposite side of the deck, not only preventing the crew from escaping, but also crushing them.

Many of the men who were not killed or injured by the falling objects were trapped below deck as they tried to flee, with the corridors becoming bottlenecks - as was proven when the ship was recovered more than 400 years later.

The ship went down and most of the crew died in the tragedy. Even those who made it on to the deck from below ended up trapped in the netting and were dragged down. Less than 35 survived and the casualty rate of more than 90% was described as "catastrophic".

Why did the Mary Rose sink?

No-one has a definitive explanation of why the ship went down. There was one eye witness account, said to be that of a surviving crewman, which was written down by the ambassador to Henry VIII's court, François van der Delft, on 24th July 1545.

The report claimed the ship had fired all of her guns off one side but was caught in strong winds as she turned to present the guns on the other side, keeling and taking in water through the gun ports, which were open.

Vice-Admiral George Carew, who went down with the ship, had earlier claimed the Mary Rose had shown signs of instability when her sails were raised. This seemed to back up the claim she had listed to one side. However, French cavalry officer Martin du Bellay, who was present at the battle, said French guns had sunk the Mary Rose.

Du Bellay's theory goes against all of the other accounts of what had happened. The most common theory is that the sudden strong wind had caused it to list - but historians pointed out the Mary Rose was a veteran of many battles, so it didn't make sense that she would suddenly sink after 34 years.

It was also claimed that the crew had suffered a severe epidemic of dysentery, which had left them unable to carry out their duties properly. This had been deemed insubordination at the time, as records show they were described as "the sort of knaves" whom Carew "couldn't rule". It was suggested the crew had failed to close the gun ports at the crucial moment.

The Mary Rose had been modified late in her career, including being "rebuilt" in 1536. Subsequently, the weight of the extra guns left the waterline only 3ft from the gun ports of the main deck. Whatever the reason, the sinking of the Mary Rose remains one of England's most devastating naval tragedies.

How was the wreckage found?

The search for the Mary Rose in modern times began in 1965, when Southsea branch of the British Sub-Aqua Club began looking for vessels in the Solent under the guidance of amateur diver, historian and journalist Alexander McKee.

A second search team, sponsored by the Committee for Nautical Archaeology in London, was led by Lieutenant Commander Alan Bax, of the Royal Navy. A massive team of divers, scientists and archaeologists was involved in locating the Mary Rose in 1971 and then later with raising her.

Professionals and amateurs alike helped the project, which broke new ground in diving techniques. Sonar scans were used to detect any strange shapes on the seabed. Between 1968 and 1971, teams of divers explored the area where it was suspected the Mary Rose lay.

Dredgers, water jets and airlifts were used to excavate the ocean bed and the first evidence of the ship was the sighting of pieces of timber. Eventually, on 5th May 1971, diver Percy Ackland found three of the Mary Rose's port frames.

Once the vessel had been identified, it took 11 years for the salvage operation to be completed. The divers found many sad reminders of the fate of the crew, including the skeletons of those who perished. The remains of a terrier dog were found too - it was believed he had been taken on board to catch rats.

In total, more than 26,000 artefacts were recovered in one of the most costly and ambitious maritime archaeology projects ever undertaken. Among the items found were the casks used to store food and drink and the crew members' personal items, including fishing equipment, the master carpenter's chest, a backgammon set and a sundial. There were also eight additional chests of carpenters' tools.

The remains of weapons were found, including cannons and cast iron hailshot pieces. Musical instruments recovered included two fiddles, a bow, a drum, a drumstick and a selection of three-hole pipes. The early navigational equipment included compasses, a stick used for charting routes, divider callipers, protractors, tide calculators, sounding leads and an instrument for calculating speed, called a log reel.

Ancient medical equipment was unearthed in the surgeon's cabin, as well as barber's tools - it was common practice for the surgeon to take both roles.

The recovery operation took so long because it was important to preserve the artefacts properly so that their condition wouldn't deteriorate further once brought up to the surface. They are on display at the Mary Rose Museum, which provides a fascinating visitor experience.

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