Almost 40 years have passed since the wreck of the ill-fated Tudor flagship, the Mary Rose, was raised from the Solent seaway (see CA 218 and 272). Today, her surviving remains are preserved in a purpose-built museum in Portsmouth, a short distance from where the ship was built more than 500 years earlier, and in close proximity to other naval icons such as Nelson’s Victory and – outside the Historic Dockyard – some of the most modern warships in the Royal Navy, bristling with armaments that dwarf the bows, arrows, and cannon with which the Mary Rose fought.
Since the wreck’s recovery in 1982, an astonishing array of research has shed vivid light on the Mary Rose’s make-up, as well as on the skeletal remains of her crew – most of whom drowned when the ship sank while fighting the French in 1545 – and on the artefacts that they used on board. The leading interim academic publication on the ship, to which I contributed, came out just over a decade ago, but since then specialist analysis has continued, allowing a much more detailed reconstruction of the ship’s appearance, and a better understanding of the human remains from the wreck. Thanks, too, to the extensive publication of relevant historical documents in recent years, particularly French sources, we also now have a much clearer idea of what the Mary Rose was doing when she sank (see p.39). I have set out some of the latest advances in knowledge in 1545: who sank the Mary Rose? (see the ‘Further reading’ box on p.41). It is a book aimed at the general reader, and I have deliberately limited the use of technical shipbuilding terms (it is also worth noting that some terms have changed their use between the 16th century and the present day), while exploring some of the new thinking about the ship’s design, her crew, and her final moments – some of which I will discuss here.
Reconstructing a wreck
The partial survival of the Mary Rose in the seabed off Portsmouth has given us an amazing glimpse into the English Royal Navy soon after it was founded by Henry VIII in 1512. This is in no small part thanks to the efforts of the extraordinary archaeological team, led by Alexander McKee and Margaret Rule, that found, excavated, and raised her remains. Our understanding of how best to interpret the many human skeletons and the huge number of objects in this ship depends on knowing what the Mary Rose looked like at the time of her sinking in 1545. So, what can we deduce?
The ship represents a moment of important technological change, a movement – over a period of around two decades – away from the medieval use of bows and arrows and mostly people-killing small guns to the employment of ship-smashing guns that could sink enemy vessels. She also represents the naval ambitions of Henry VIII, and his determination to gain territory in France. Just seven months after his coronation in 1509, Henry commissioned two warships to be built at Portsmouth. One of these was Peter Pomegranate, her name combining references to the Apostle Peter and the emblem of Henry’s wife, Catherine of Aragon. The other, named after the mother of Christ and the symbol of Henry’s own Tudor dynasty, was the Mary Rose.
Both vessels were complete by 1512, and while no image of either ship survives from this time, we do have a detailed list of fixtures and fittings from 1514 which – together with images and models of other contemporary carracks – help to reconstruct their appearance. The original Mary Rose had four masts, possibly made of spruce, and the vessel was decorated with three long streamers, 18 gilded flags, and 28 small flags as a colourful demonstration of the young king’s power. We know that the ship’s galley had two ovens, and that the vessel was equipped with 78 guns. In around 1536, though, the Mary Rose was given a complete overhaul, modernising the ship to the latest standards.
Her original bell was kept – the one recovered from the wreck has an inscription saying it was cast in 1510 – and tree-ring dating of surviving timbers suggests that much of the central part of the hull was retained during these works, but the bow and stern ends were entirely rebuilt (dendrochronological analysis of their timbers shows that they came from trees felled after the 1520s) and the keel was lengthened, enlarging the Mary Rose’s capacity from 500-600 tons to 700-800 tons. The ship’s armoury was also enhanced, making her a much more effective fighting vessel: the 1514 list suggests that the Mary Rose originally possessed just five ship-smashing guns, but by 1545 she had 26. This expansion of firepower was a gradual process – some of the recovered guns bear manufacture dates of 1535, 1537, 1542, and 1543.
Why these changes? This refit came during a tumultuous period of Henry VIII’s reign: he had divorced Catherine of Aragon in 1533, and wrested the English Church away from the authority of Rome in order to do so. Neither move endeared him to Catherine’s relatives in Spain, or to Catholic France, and it was in this atmosphere of political peril that Henry can be seen building up his coastal defences with dozens of new fortifications, and enhancing several other ships in addition to the Mary Rose. His confidence seems undented, however: one of the surviving guns from the Mary Rose bears a grandiose inscription proclaiming Henry to be ‘King of England and France’ and ‘Defender of the Faith, of the Church of England and also of Ireland, in Earth the Supreme Head.’
Questions of castles
Around a third of the Mary Rose has survived to the present day. She had come to rest on the seabed on her starboard side, so that much of that side and her bottom was buried and preserved, together with the remains of her lowest four decks. Although her port side was largely eroded away, enough remains of her main hull for us to determine what it looked like – but her castles, located on top of each end of the hull, posed a problem when we were coming up with our initial reconstruction ten years ago. There remained a little of the forward end of her sterncastle, but nothing of her forecastle, and we were therefore uncertain of how many decks these spaces had. It was initially thought that each castle had only one or possibly two decks, because the structure of the sterncastle seemed to be weak, but this did not allow room for the nearly 500 men who had to be accommodated there. A contemporary view of the ship, preserved in the Anthony Roll which is today held by Magdalene College, Cambridge, shows three decks, and new research into pictures of similar ships helps to confirm this interpretation.
Adding to this picture, it has always been known from contemporary sources that the Mary Rose had four masts and a bowsprit, each carrying sails. But their sizes, and therefore weight, have never been estimated because they had not survived. If the stability of the ship is ever to be reconstructed, then we need to know their weight, for the heavier they were the less stable was the ship. This is where there has been a breakthrough, for there had to be a relationship between the size of the masts, yards, and sails, and the size and shape of the ship’s hull, which has survived. On the off-chance that the earliest known set of English proportions, first published in 1627, were used, we worked out that the foot of her mainmast should be 29.92 inches in diameter – but only if this calculation was employed. This was then checked against the size of the surviving socket in the bottom of the ship, and, amazingly, it showed that the bottom of the mast was between 27.5 and 32.5 inches in diameter. This incredible coincidence suggests that the proportions were indeed being used, and means that it is now possible to calculate the approximate sizes and weight of most of the Mary Rose’s masts and yards, including the bowsprit, and consequently the minimum amount of ballast that she would have carried to keep her upright.
Dead men tell their tales
New insights into the appearance of the Mary Rose do not only give us a more accurate view of what the ship was like – they also help us better to understand the people whose remains were found on board. No crew list survives for the Mary Rose, and no formal tally was taken of those who were lost – even the precise number of the dead is only an estimate. The position of the human remains within the wreck is instructive, however – the location of many of the skeletons fits with an ‘action stations’ list for another ship, and such orders may have been in general use on other naval ships, including the Mary Rose, meaning that we are able to suggest possible roles for many of the men.
Take, for example, a group of four skeletons who were found lying on mud covering the main gun deck. All were young, aged in their 20s, and had evidently drowned alongside the great 2-tonne bronze gun that they may have been operating, at the lowest of the ship’s starboard gun ports. These unfortunate individuals would have been among the first to be overwhelmed as cold, dark seawater rushed into the ship. A few metres away, another man was found with a silver whistle (or naval ‘call’) on a ribbon, which identifies him as a boatswain or boatswain’s mate, perhaps checking the readiness of the gunners. In life, he would have stood at around 5 feet 4 inches tall, and he would have no doubt suffered greatly from the dental abscesses that affected his upper and lower jaw. Marks on his lower leg bones speaking of strongly muscled ankles and feet are also revealing, evoking a man who was used to keeping his footing on a rolling deck.
These are not the only clues to come from the Mary Rose skeletons: robust muscle attachments on arms and shoulders speak of archers and gunners. Many of the other skeletons seem to have been those of soldiers, found beneath the sterncastle where they were waiting with pikes, spears, and daggers, ready to board a French galley – but what about the ordinary sailors?
The remaining skeletons represent young men who were apparently of generally poor health, their strained backs speaking of heavy work. These were unlikely to have been the intrepid ‘topmen’ who climbed the masts to handle the yards and sails, and who were quartered in the rigging with small guns, darts, and bows and arrows at ‘action stations’. Instead, they are best interpreted as the less agile ‘deckmen’, who managed the rigging and mooring ropes at deck level – this would explain why they were found on the lowest decks, and also helps to shed light on why the majority of leather shoes found in the ship were slip-on types. These would have been unsuitable for wearing by the ‘topmen’ as they scrambled aloft (the much smaller number of more secure footwear with a fastening strap may have been theirs), but they could well have belonged to their deck-bound crewmates. It does appear that the remains recovered from the Mary Rose do not represent a full cross section of the crew (perhaps unsurprisingly, given that only 92 skeletons have been reconstructed) – where, then, were the topmen? It is possible that some of them were among the survivors of the wreck, being stationed above the netting that pinioned most of the crew – but, in the case of those who did not escape, perhaps their remains were simply washed away from the masts by the tides and currents after the ship sank.
In many ways, it is possible to feel that we know a lot about these men. Through studying their bones, their clothing, and their personal effects (from combs and the knives they used to spear their food – forks were not used at this time – to musical instruments), we can build up a picture of their lives and interests. Their bodies speak of hard physical lives, leaving signs of stress on spines, arms, and legs. Many had painfully bad teeth. Others show signs of healed fractures to limbs or at the base of their spine, hinting at falls from height and offering powerful reminders of the dangers that these men faced. We can look into their faces, thanks to reconstructions that have been made based on a few surviving skulls, while isotope analysis tells us where they came from, speaking of a cosmopolitan crew that included men who had ancestors from as far away as North Africa. Yet, for the most part, we do not know their names. The deaths of the two noblemen on board, Sir George Carew and Roger Grenville, were documented in contemporary records, and we can also name one crewman, ‘Ny Coep’, who etched his name onto two artefacts, and his profession (‘cook’) on one. The skeletons themselves, though, remain anonymous, known to researchers only as, for example, FSC 73, ‘Fairly Complete Skeleton 73’.
Will it be possible to identify any of the dead? With no roll call of the crew to consult, the sailors will remain nameless, but there are still clues to be found. While most of the skeletons were well preserved when recovered, just a few were badly eroded – a puzzling observation, until a recent study showed that they were all found in the collapsed sterncastle, suggesting that they had been standing there at the time that the ship was lost – their eroded condition being due to their exposure in the upper part of the ship after the Mary Rose sank. The sterncastle is where the senior nobles and gentlemen, the embryonic officers, were quartered – some of these senior people are only known from their initials, found on their pewter tableware. Much more has yet to be discovered, though, by analysing the earlier publications. For example, tucked away in one report is a mention that four red-silk dress fastenings were found in the collapsed sterncastle with part of a silk garment and a human skeleton. As only people from noble families were then by law allowed to wear silk garments, he should be one of the most senior people in the ship. Could he represent the remains of Sir George Carew or Roger Grenville? Maybe a DNA study of this skeleton will identify him in the future.
Why did the Mary Rose sink?
At the time of our interim publication, it was not clear what the Mary Rose was doing when she sank, because ten years ago neither the wider English archives nor the French records had been studied. This is no longer the case, however, and this research puts the story of the ship into a new perspective. Instead of the ship being the central feature, we need to think about the events that she was part of, and the focus has shifted to Lord Admiral Lisle (who was responsible for the whole English navy) and his efforts to counter an unexpected French invasion.
In 1545, the French king, Francis I, had sent an armada of about 300 ships to seize the Isle of Wight as a bargaining counter for the return of Boulogne, which Henry VIII had captured in 1544. They carried thousands of soldiers – a far larger force than the Spanish Armada that tried to invade 43 years later. Francis’ ambition was frustrated, however, thanks to the brilliance of Lord Lisle, who repulsed the French despite being greatly outnumbered. Previously, historians have described these events as an inconclusive sea battle, but examination of all of the records shows that this was a huge English success – despite the loss of the Mary Rose – because the French were unable to succeed in their aim, and Boulogne remained in English hands. This also marked the final time that the French attempted to take the Isle of Wight.
Similarly unclear was the precise date when the sea battle started. Some historians, with good cause, believe that it began on 18 July, but new analysis of the records shows that the French fleet appeared off the Isle of Wight during the mid-afternoon of 19 July. The English fleet quickly set sail from Portsmouth to meet them, with the ships divided into three squadrons and the Mary Rose leading the northernmost of these. Sir George Carew was on board as the junior Admiral in charge of that squadron.
It was while at battle stations, after attacking a French galley, that the Mary Rose suddenly sank at about 6pm on 19 July – but this was not as a consequence of the battle, although the French later claimed to have sunk her with their gunfire. Rather, a strong gust of wind seems to have heeled her over so that the sea flooded through her open gunports (which, Sir Walter Raleigh wrote decades later, were just 16 inches above the waterline). Trapped beneath the anti-boarding netting that was strung across her decks, all but around 40 of the ship’s c.500-strong crew were lost.
Did you enjoy this article and want to learn more about the Mary Rose? Listen here to Peter Marsden discussing the latest research in more depth on the latest episode of the PastCast.
Source Peter Marsden was the lead author commissioned by the Mary Rose Trust to publish interim descriptions and a reconstruction of the ship in 2003 and 2009, and to reconstruct her history. He has used this detail to undertake new research, published in 1545: who sank the Mary Rose? (see ‘Further reading’). Peter was a founder of the Council for Nautical Archaeology, which successfully campaigned for the creation of the 1973 Protection of Wrecks Act, and he founded the Shipwreck Museum in Hastings. In addition to uncovering significant parts of Roman London (see CA 333), he has excavated the oldest seagoing sailing ship found in northern Europe, as well as Roman and medieval wrecks in the Thames, and was commissioned to record the Bronze Age boat at Dover.
Further reading Peter Marsden, 1545: who sank the Mary Rose? Seaforth Publishing, £30, ISBN 978-1526749352
All images: Peter Marsden, unless otherwise stated.