The Mary Rose: A Tudor tale

Rosamund West

Raised from its watery grave by archaeologists 30 years ago, Henry VIII’s vice-flagship the Mary Rose has been given a new state-of-the-art home in Portsmouth, UK, close to where she sank in 1545

The guns fired and the ship made a sharp turn, taking on water through the gun ports, which bobbed only a metre above the sea. Admiral George Carew was heard to exclaim: “I have knaves I cannot rule!” Henry VIII, watching the battle from nearby Southsea Castle, heard the screams of the drowning men as he watched the pride of his fleet being subsumed by the waves. 

The remains of what was King Henry VIII’s privately funded super-vessel were preserved in silt at the bottom of the Solent – a stretch of water dividing the south coast of England from the Isle of Wight and the English Channel – for nearly 500 years until they were raised by a team of archaeologists in 1982. 

The search for the Mary Rose started in the 1960s and it took six years before divers found her. Rear Admiral Lippiett, chief executive of the Mary Rose Trust, told Global that it was the largest maritime excavation that’s ever been carried out, involving 28,000 divers and the recovery of 19,000 objects – including 10,000 human bones and the skeleton of the ship’s dog. Years of painstaking archaeological excavations in very murky conditions led up to the moment when the Mary Rose finally broke the surface of the water. 

Nearly 500 years later, the Mary Rose is being presented to the public in a new way – a modern setting that shows conservation at the cutting edge of science. The eagerly awaited new exhibition welcomed 52,000 visitors through its doors during the first month after it opened in May 2013. 

The new display of objects invites visitors to confront the real people on board. “It is incredibly personal,” says Rear Admiral Lippiett. “It’s very moving because we have forensically recreated the faces of these key individuals so we can look them in the eye and we can understand something about them.” Several men on board have been identified by the objects that surrounded them and the re-creations of their faces, as well as some of the tools of their trade, are displayed on the decks on which they would have worked. 

The skeleton of the archer, a powerful man nearly six ft tall, shows the physical strain which many of the ship’s company experienced. “The bones of a 20-year-old man of that day have the wear and tear of a 60-year-old today,” says Lippiett. This was a life of hardship visible in the form of the repetitive strain injuries, broken bones, arrow wounds, arthritis, scurvy and rickets. 

The artefacts dredged up from the seabed were commonplace, functional and unglamorous. Work tools, board games and navigational instruments form a collection that paints a vivid picture of sailors’ lives down to the most prosaic: nit combs complete with nits. This approach is proving popular with visitors: “People are finding it very appealing to actually understand the men of the Mary Rose and this is what the museum is about,” explains Lippiett. 

“We are the only 16th-century ship on display like this anywhere in the world. We say we’re like Pompeii, but I think we’re better than Pompeii – this ship sank instantly on the afternoon of 19 July 1545; Pompeii was buried over a number of days and a lot was damaged. With the Mary Rose, you can see their clothes, you can see the bowls that they ate out of – to see all the objects that were there with them is absolutely unique. I’d say it’s the finest insight into life and death 500 years ago anywhere in the world. It’s a stunning collection – it’s more than just a warship, it’s a look into a Tudor town. You can see how they cooked, we can see the animal bones of the food they were eating, the fish bones and the scales the cook used to count out how many pounds of meat to give out to the men each day.” 

One archaeologist, Christopher Dobbs, who worked on the excavation, describes emptying one of the recovered pots during the initial conservation process. As the content was decanted for tests the unmistakable smell of menthol rose into the air, not unlike the jars of honey found in Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s Egyptian burial place. 

The Mary Rose has long been hailed as an important snapshot into a time that remains largely unknown. While many British schoolchildren study Henry’s tumultuous marriages and politics, little is known of the day-to-day life of the vast majority of people living in England at the time. 

Remains recovered from the depths of the Solent also give new clues about fashions of the time. Contemporary portraits typically show members of the aristocracy and there is little evidence of the clothes worn by ordinary people. The deep silt of the seabed, however, preserved wool, leather and silk – more than 500 shoes were recovered. 

Among the items preserved underwater was a leather jerkin, which has provided an earlier date for the advent of that most useful of fashion developments – the pocket. Experts at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which holds an important fashion collection, were incredulous. They assured archaeologist Margaret Rule, who played a key role in raising the ship from the sea in the 1980s, that the pocket did not come about until much later, according to evidence from paintings. Talking to the BBC, Rule said, with a wry smile: “It’s inside the jerkin, so a painting wouldn’t show a pocket.” 

Many have tried to get to the bottom of why the Mary Rose sank. Theories range from a badly timed gust of wind, overloading or gunfire from the French. One theory put forward by scientists at University College London, however, could explain Admiral Carew’s exasperated cry. Experts tested the bones to find out where the sailors had grown up and revealed something unexpected. Up to two thirds of the crew were from southern Europe, not the UK. 

This startling discovery may be explained by an account of ships landing in a storm at Falmouth in Cornwall. Among the crew were 600 Spanish sailors who were forced into military service, having no money to pay their way home. With a cacophony of guns, shouting and crashing waves, much of the crew not speaking English can’t have helped with communication. It is suggested that this may have meant that the order to close the gun ports did not get through, allowing water to flood the vessel. 

I put this theory to Rear Admiral Lippiett, but he’s not convinced. “Most certainly there were quite a number of foreigners on board and that would be absolutely normal… It’s a great theory. I love theories about the Mary Rose,” he chuckles. “Every couple of years they come out with a documentary, ‘What really sank the Mary Rose‘. It’s a detective story and there are many factors. I believe it’s a combination of factors.” 

Whatever the truth may be, the Mary Rose Museum commemorates not only the men who lost their lives but a legendary moment in British history. The personal meets the historical in this unique display of maritime history and sheds light on the lives of ordinary people living nearly 500 years ago. 

The visitor experience

Opposite another famous ship in British history, Admiral Nelson’s HMS Victory, the new Mary Rose Museum in the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard provides a stark contrast with the glory of the gilded 18thcentury vessel. The dark, wood-clad form treads an odd line between UFO and Tudor warship in appearance and gives only subtle clues as to what lies inside. Keen observers might notice spidery hieroglyphs etched into the cladding. These signs, an architect’s joke, are designed to mimic the markings found on many objects discovered near the wreck.

It is thought that they each represent a unique symbol of ownership, something like the modern graffiti artist’s tag, and were used by the illiterate sailors to mark their possessions. 

On board, the story of the ship’s heyday and dramatic sinking is told through the thousands of objects found preserved in the silt of the Solent. The remaining starboard side of the Mary Rose is now propped up in the museum crossed with fat, grey, modern drying pipes. Opposite, the port side has been rebuilt in a mirror image, and cleverly used to display the many objects recovered from the wreckage. One particularly fine bronze cannon sits on a Perspex replica of a gun carriage. The original is still in existence but to display it would require a lot more protection and keep visitors at a distance. 

Such a long soaking damaged the timber and it is still going through a complicated process of conservation that will allow the wood to survive out of the water. After years of spraying, first with sea water and then with different concentrations of polyethylene glycol (PEG), the ship is now in its drying phase. Although, at present, the remains of the ship are behind glass, conservators hope that the display will be completely open by 2016. The task of preserving one of the UK’s most famous ships for future generations is daunting to say the least. The Mary Rose Project is not alone however. Archaeologists and conservationists in Sweden have blazed a trail in this kind of conservation. The Vasa, a grand 17th-century ship with dark, once painted, carved figures standing in serried ranks up the stern of the ship, is a generation ahead of the Mary Rose in terms of its conservation. The two projects are frequently in touch with each other to discuss the kind of problems they encounter along the way.


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