A Great Tudor Warship

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The Great Tudor Warship, The Mary Rose now reigns in her permanent home, a state-of-the-art museum in Portsmouth.

But let us start from the beginning…

There are two explanation’s for her chosen name, one being that it was named after Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister (but there is no evidence to prove this), but it is thought that it was most likely named after the Virgin Mary, who was known at the time as ‘The Mystic Rose’.  The earliest reference to her name was a recording of payment made by Henry VIII for bringing her to the River Thames, from where she was in Portsmouth Harbour.

She was built there, in 1510, from timber of almost 600 large oak trees, which is approximately 40 acres of woodland. She was built under orders from Henry VIII, and by the following year 1511 she had been launched.  In 1512, this, the king’s flagship fought its first battle, leading an attack on a French fleet. The ship’s captain called it ‘The noblest ship of sail’. The Mary Rose was placed alongside the rest of Henry’s inherited nucleus of a royal fleet given to him by his father King Henry VII. He kept adding to his fleet and by the 1520’s he had established a permanent ‘Navy Royal’, which is the ancestor of todays ‘Royal Navy’.

The Mary Rose became the turning point in history as it was almost certainly the first ship to fire a broadside in anger, but it was also one of the last to use archers and longbows to shoot arrows. During this time there was many squimeshers and battles.  Not only did England fight the French over many years, over three wars, they also fought the Scots as they joined forces with the French against the English.  Throughout these many skirmishes and battles the Mary Rose played her part, until in 1522 when she sailed home to Dartmouth, she was then kept in reserve until 1535.   There was still a threat from Scotland, having already sided with the French, but in general, these times were quiet for The Mary Rose, and in 1527 she was caulked and repaired in a new dock at Portsmouth. 

Painting of Mary Rose. © Geoff Hunt

Mary Rose’s life serving as a Navy ship came to an abrupt end in the early hours of 19th July 1545.  She had being alongside 80 other English ships, when they took an almighty pounding from the French fleet at the third and final battle, the Battle of the Solent. Sadly, hundreds of men and boys aboard the Mary Rose drowned as she went down, legends saying that their screams could be heard back on land. The loss of the ship affected the King very deeply.  There were only around 35 survivors, according to contemporary records. The Great Mary Rose had been in service for 34 years.

A number of attempts were made to salvage the ship. Expert Tudor divers were hired to undertake the work, at first there being reports that between a day or two the Mary Rose will be weighed up and saved.  However this never happened, they could not lift her out, or shift her into shallow ground, and despite all efforts the Mary Rose remained stuck on the seabed on her starboard side, while the Solent currents encouraged marine life to thrive on her port side.

Between 1545 and 1549 they were unsuccessful attempts made to raise the wreck.  They did manage however, to recover some items, such as sails, parts of the masts and rigging, and later some guns.

After the Mary Rose sank the navy redesigned its ships to be less top heavy with the front raised part of the ship being made smaller, (smaller forecastles). They also altered its tactics to fight in open water. It is said that during the 17th and 18th centuries the entire site was covered with a layer of hard grey clay, sealing the Mary Rose off from further erosion.

Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth. © Charlie Ross

In 1836, pioneer divers John and Charles Deane discovered the site of the wreck and recovered a bronze demi cannon gun believed to have been made at a foundry in London.   Until this time the Mary Rose had lain undisturbed for almost 300 years, then was lost again for another 100 years.

A new search for the Mary Rose began in 1965 and in 1971 she was re-located when divers first saw her exposed timbers.  Since then, it is said divers made 27,000 dives to the wreck site outside the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour.

From 1979 until 1982 contents of the ship continued to be excavated bringing more than 19,000 artefacts to the surface.  There was much joy and excitement and also sadness, for the many lost lives, as in 1982 the wreck of the hull of this wonderful War Ship was raised, the event was watched live on television by an estimated 60 million people worldwide.  (I was one of them!).

This brings us back to to-day. For with all these rare artefacts discovered, plus the crew’s indivual belongings and their human remains being found and studied  the secrets of the Mary Rose is well and truly being told. Told through the eyes of those who lived at the time, all those lost at sea.  Every aspect of their life and times is well exhibited at the new Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth, where even the skeleton of a dog is on display.

A Maritime archaeologist Alex Hildred who was part of the team who excavated and raised the wreck studied the human remains. She discovered more about the men and boys aboard the ship, whose ages ranged from 12 to 40 years old. ‘You’ve got a really good glimpse of Tudor males at a moment in time’, she said. ‘It’s a healthy, living population you are not looking at a churchyard’.

Archaeologists know that the crew were well fed from their diet, but because of the severe famines in the 1520’s there was evidence of vitamin deficiency found in some of the bones examined showing that some suffered from rickets or scurvy as children.

Facial reconstructions of crew members, including a carpenter, cook and an archer, based on forensic examinations of their skulls and skeletons are also displayed.  

As I walked amongst these re-constructed people, knowing they were once lived, it made me feel unnatural, even spooky at times, making the blending of the past and present seem a very extraordinary experience, but one I am glad I was able to be part of.


Feature image: theguardian

Cheryl Campbell
My name is Cheryl Campbell, freelance writer, author, poet and craft maker. To date I have authored and had published a non-fiction book, written many magazine articles, product descriptions, long/short stories, and I have also appeared in a resource book for teaching foreign students English. You can find me via my website: http://cherylcam.wordpress.com
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