The Mary Rose: celebrating three decades of research

On the 11 October 1982 a pioneering campaign of underwater excavations culminated in the raising of Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose. That was only the beginning of a programme of research and conservation that continues to this day. Thirty years on, Christopher Dobbs of the Mary Rose Trust explained what has been learnt to Matthew Symonds.


The Mary Rose’s final voyage was not a long one. After 34 years service, she sailed from Portsmouth for the last time to intercept a French invasion force larger than the Spanish Armada. The French king Francis I, stung by the recent capture of Boulogne, had sent a fleet to land a 30,000-strong army on English soil. On 19 July 1545 the French galleys entered the eastern mouth of the Solent, the channel between the mainland and the Isle of Wight. All that stood between them and a successful landing was a handful of the King’s Ships, the forerunner of the Royal Navy.

Watching from Southsea Castle, Henry VIII saw his fleet becalmed and immobile. The situation was serious. At the head of the English force was the warship Mary Rose. Carrying the Vice Admiral of the fleet, Sir George Carew, she was bristling with over 30 carriage-mounted guns. Finally a wind blew up as the Mary Rose engaged the French galleys only 2km from the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour. Precisely what happened next is lost in the fog of war.

IMAGE: Geoff Hunt © Mary Rose Trust A reconstruction painting of the Mary Rose under sail, by Geoff Hunt. It is based on a combination of the latest ship research and her depiction in the 1546 Anthony Roll. Note the grapple at the prow, and the gun ports in her hull, both essential weapons of war during this evolutionary period of maritime combat.

Flower of England

A French witness, Martin du Bellay, claimed that their guns sank the ‘MarieRose’, but his is a lone voice and there is no sign of battle damage on the surviving part of the hull. Others blamed overloading with weapons or men – one estimate has 700 people crammed on the ship’s decks – or Vice Admiral Carew’s inability to control an unruly crew. A letter penned only five days after the loss is often viewed as the most authoritative account. Written by François van der Delft, the Holy Roman Emperor’s London ambassador, it records a conversation with a Flemish survivor. He revealed that ‘the disaster was caused by their not having closed the lowest row of gun ports on one side. Having fired the guns on that side, the ship was turning, in order to fire from her other side, when the wind caught her sails… plunging her open gun ports beneath the waves’. While consensus remains elusive, many scholars now believe that the loss of the Mary Rose came from a combination of mishaps, each harmless on their own, but deadly in unison.

The Cowdray Engraving. This is based on a painting approximately contemporary with the Mary Rose’s loss, but subsequently lost in a house fire. It shows the immediate aftermath of the ship foundering, with bodies in the water and survivors clinging to the masts. At the bottom of the image, Henry VIII watches events unfold from Southsea Castle as the French galleys start their attacks and the King’s Ships defend the entrance to Portsmouth.

What is certain is that in her final moments the Mary Rose heeled – or leant – sharply over. This is how she appears in the Cowdray Engraving of the Battle of the Solent. Depicting the immediate aftermath of the Mary Rose’s loss, her masts jut from the Solent at an awkward angle, while survivors cling to them and bodies bob in the water. Beneath the waves, the Mary Rose settled at 60° to starboard. Whatever circumstances forced her to founder at that angle were also responsible for her astonishing degree of preservation. Less than a month after her loss, the Mary Rose’s awkward repose frustrated Tudor attempts to salvage the vessel. Although the operation commenced with assurances that ‘by Monday or Tuesday the Mary Rose shall be weighed up and saved’, this ultimate prize eluded them. With so much of the ship held fast by the seabed, the salvers had to content themselves with the ship’s masts, rigging, and a few of the guns.

IMAGE: courtesy Kester Keighley The Mary Rose settled at an angle of 60° to starboard on the seabed. Sediment quickly built up inside the hull, preserving the ship and her contents. But exposed parts were eaten away by sea creatures. Eventually the wreck was sealed beneath the seabed.

It is more common for wrecks to settle upright on their keel. In such circumstances the upper decks of wooden vessels are lost. After being weakened by wood-boring creatures, any exposed timbers are scoured away by the currents. Thanks to the angle at which the Mary Rose lay, portions of five decks – the hold, orlop deck, main deck, upper deck, and castle deck – became preserved beneath the seabed. This was aided by the particular conditions of the Solent. Sheltered by the Isle of Wight and with numerous streams debouching into it, this stretch of water is more akin to a gigantic river estuary. Fine silt blanketed the starboard portion of the ship so swiftly that within 18 months oyster shells that had colonised the guns were smothered. This sediment also created an oxygen-free environment, preserving wood, leather, and other organic remains in a unique Tudor time capsule 12m below sea level. Thirty years to the month since the largest intact portion of the Mary Rose was raised, the breadth of artefacts protected by those Solent silts and the insights that can be gleaned from them continue to amaze.

Raising the Mary Rose

Looking back today it is easy to forget that raising the Mary Rose was both a breathtaking endeavour and a pivotal moment for underwater archaeology. That it happened at all is thanks to Alexander McKee’s steadfast belief in the 1960s that the wreck site could be relocated. The Mary Rose’s resting place had been identified once before in 1836, when Victorian divers investigated some timbers that fishermen’s nets were catching on. Wearing the bulky helmets typical of the earliest underwater explorers they could do little more than walk around on the seabed, lassoing objects to be raised. Fortunately these divers lost interest before their attempts to dynamite their way into the wreck caused serious damage. Yet an inscription on one of the cannons they lifted identified the vessel as the Mary Rose. Its location was noted on an 1841 chart, providing a vital clue for McKee and his divers.

IMAGE: C Dobbs Two divers trowelling away the upper sediment of the Mary Rose wreck site in 1980. This is precisely the technique that would be used on land – only using airlifts instead of wheelbarrows.

Renouncing a ‘finders keepers’ attitude that could border on little more than souvenir hunting, the team resolved to apply the most rigorous standards of land-based excavation to the wreck site. Margaret Rule was brought in as the lead archaeologist, and the project pioneered a new approach to maritime excavation. Key to this was treating the area as an archaeological site in its own right, just as you would on land. Between 1965 and 1977 the divers concentrated on excavating around the sides of the ship. Here, layers that had accumulated over 400 years created stratigraphy up to 3m deep, preserving evidence for the site’s use as a naval anchorage and also for fishing and leisure. Upper layers yielded hundreds of clay pipes, some with beautiful decorations like turban heads, while ugly intrusive black craters proved to be a product of the Victorian divers’ explosives.

The largest intact portion of the Mary Rose was raised on the 11 October 1982, and found to consist of 3,000 intact timbers. Once lifted, conservation began.

By 1977 the location of three sides of the ship had been established. In 1978 a trench across the bow confirmed the presence of sealed Tudor deposits, and even in situ decks. Raising the wreck became a serious possibility, and in 1979 the Mary Rose Trust was founded to ensure suitable conservation facilities. Over the next three years the Mary Rose was meticulously surveyed, recorded, and excavated. Once again the principles of land-based excavation were applied. Rather than the handful of divers that had previously typified maritime excavations, a team of 500 divers was assembled. With individual divers only able to spend about an hour at a time in the murky waters of the Solent, regular rotation allowed up to 50 divers to work on any one day. This meticulous approach was repaid with the recovery of 19,000 artefacts from the site. Careful recording of their location within the ship, even when the object’s relevance was initially unclear, has allowed life on board to be reconstructed with dazzling clarity. Once excavated, the 3,000 timbers that remained intact were raised on the 11 October 1982, revealing a portion of the ship 32m long and 14m high.

The conservator, the late Dr Glenn McConnachie, inspects the hull timbers while they are being sprayed with polyethylene glycol. This process took 18 years to complete.
IMAGE: C Dobbs View from the bow before the main deck planks were replaced in the hull.

Tides of war

The successful application of land-based archaeological methods to the seabed and the creation of new methods of survey revealed a ship from a period when navies were eschewing land-style fighting in favour of a distinctive maritime form of combat. Built in Portsmouth in 1510 and launched in 1511, the Mary Rose first saw action in a world where warships served as little more than glorified floating platforms for brutal hand-to-hand fighting. Engaging the enemy depended on one ship ramming another, and then snaring it with a grapple. A boarding party would attack the crew with exactly the same mêlée weapons used on dry land. But over the course of the 16th century, larger guns became steadily more important until, by the last decades of that century, heavily armed battleships vied to disable each other at a distance. This early move towards depersonalised warfare can easily be seen as a tentative step towards modern conflict, where drone operators sat in an airforce base near Las Vegas can engage and kill targets around the world.

The Mary Rose sank before this transition was complete, but an extensive 1530s refit had modified her into a hybrid capable of operating on the cusp of both these fighting styles. It was almost certainly during this refit, for instance, that extra main-deck gun ports were added. Watertight when closed, this crucial innovation allowed large guns to fire from lower in a vessel’s hull, and not just from the top deck. This saw the number of carriage-mounted guns on board the Mary Rose rise from 10 in 1511 to over 30 in 1545. Yet the Mary Rose also had raised decks at the bow and stern of the ship, known as the fore- and aftercastles. These are reminiscent of later Medieval vessels, when height was an advantage and hand-to-hand combat still an important part of any battle plan. Coming from a period before shipwrights’ plans survive, the Mary Rose wreck provides both a unique insight into Tudor ship design, and a missing link between vessels designed for close-quarter and distance conflict at sea.

The crew’s hand weapons also reflect this era of evolution, providing a snapshot in time before the celebrated longbow became obsolete, but after muskets were established. As the Mary Rose sailed out to meet the French fleet on that July day in 1545, archers and musketeers stood shoulder to shoulder on her decks. While the musketeers’ handheld matchlock guns could blast through armour that arrows simply ricocheted off, the archers were capable of loosing over 12 arrows per minute, far more than the rate of fire from a musket. In total, 137 yew longbows and over 3,500 arrows were found in the wreck. Still formidable weapons, they had a draw weight of up to 160lbs. With approximately twice the pull of a modern competition longbow, they could only be handled effectively by archers that had been trained from a young age. Other weapons on board the Mary Rose soon to be eclipsed by ever-more sophisticated gunpowder weapons included pikes, shields, and halberds.

Yonkers and gromits

Three decades of study into the objects excavated from the Mary Rose have revealed that there was far more to ship life than battle. The Anthony Roll, completed in 1546, places 200 sailors, 185 soldiers, and 30 gunners on board the ship around the time she sank. Of those 415 hands, the remains of 179 were encountered during the excavations. All male, the youngest were only 10 – serving as ship’s boys and gunners’ boys, known as yonkers and gromits – while the oldest were in their 40s, little older than the ship herself. Common among the pathologies was acute stress to the shoulder blades and lower backs, raising questions about whether these were caused by archers drawing their bows, mariners pulling on ropes, gunners lifting heavy breech-chambers, or all three.

A selection of the musical instruments found on board.

Such repetitive tasks may not have been conducted in silence. Part of a fiddle was found on board, and this could have been played to keep time while ropes or anchors were hauled in. But music was not reserved for the lower decks. Other instruments include tabor pipes, a shawm – an instrument with a range comparable to a modern clarinet – and a drum. Experimental archaeology has shown that these were tuned to the same key, suggesting they were played together. This raises the possibility that Vice Admiral George Carew had a group of musicians in his retinue. If so, the presence of such high- and low-status instruments reflects the way in which the particular preservation of the Mary Rose provides not only a cross-section through her decks, but also a cross-section of the hierarchy of the community that lived on board.

Another area where this cross-section is apparent is in dining. Surviving dishes range from the fine pewter plates stamped with the Vice Admiral’s initials ‘GC’, to the wooden bowls used by ordinary mariners. These different receptacles held rather different meals. Barrels in the hold still contained the bones from hundreds of portions of beef, pork, and cod. Cut to a standard size, these show that the ordinary crew were not forced to stomach grotty animal parts such as neck. Instead they enjoyed boiled rib of beef, chopped into two-pound portions. Once again, the officers were a cut above: able to dine on venison and plums. Peppercorn could have seasoned their cuisine, although the discovery of a separate cache in a cabin associated with surgeon’s equipment suggests that this valuable commodity was also prized for its medicinal properties. A doctor’s treatise of 1617 celebrates pepper’s properties as an expeller of wind.

The ship’s preservation provided a cross-section of the community that lived on board. This is vividly illustrated by the tableware, with both the wooden bowls used by ordinary mariners and fine pewter plates recovered. Some (inset) were stamped with the initials of Vice Admiral George Carew.

Both officers’ and ordinary crew’s food was prepared in the galley. Situated in the hold, this consisted of two huge brick ovens that supported massive cauldrons on iron bars. A reconstruction has demonstrated that not only could this seemingly crude facility boil the crew’s chunks of meat, it was also capable of producing rather more refined meals. Cooking the venison on a dangle spit, or even in the crew’s broth as a sort of bain-marie would produce fare better suited to an officer’s palate. The position of the galley in the hold also marks out the Mary Rose as a transitional ship. While the ovens served as a convenient form of ballast, they would also warm the food stored in barrels in the hold. Not a serious problem for a vessel mostly engaged in short-range coastal operations, but this would turn the food rancid on an extended voyage. In recognition of this, by the end of the 16th century, ships’ galleys were being built on higher decks.

IMAGE: C Dobbs Experimental archaeology in action. Cooking up a broth for the crew in a reconstruction of the brick galley.

One of the most important finds from the Mary Rose was the master carpenter’s intact cabin. Constructed of partition walls attached to the hull, its door was only open a crack, effectively sealing it for over four centuries. Sadly, this made escape impossible for a small dog – probably the ship’s ratter – trapped near the door of the cabin when the Mary Rose foundered. Other contents of the room highlight the importance of a carpenter in this wooden world. As well as the tools of his trade, there were a fine pewter tankard and plate, a book, and even a backgammon board. He also had the only bed found on board – a luxury that would have eased his additional role of ship’s keeper when the Mary Rose was in dock for winter. The carpenter was not above using this time to his own ends, surreptitiously extending his cabin by a metre, and even installing a small window to light the room.

A newly commissioned reconstruction drawing of the carpenter’s cabin – with the front partition removed – showing the location of the items found inside. The presence of a bed with a straw and fabric mattress may reflect his additional role as ship’s keeper over winter, while the insertion of a window and extension of his cabin by a metre gives a taste of how he spent that time.

New ship on the dock

Around 5% to 10% of the Mary Rose wreck site still remains unexplored. Excavation briefly resumed between 2003 and 2005, when the Royal Navy considered cutting a channel for its new aircraft carriers. While this project proved abortive, the ship’s 10m-long stempost and a large, intact anchor were raised. Many other artefacts are still undergoing conservation, meaning that the Mary Rose project is still very much alive. Next year a state-of-the-art museum dedicated to the ship will open at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard next to Nelson’s HMS Victory. Allowing visitors to experience the Mary Rose and her contents better than ever before, it will display a swathe of never-seen-before artefacts.

Courtesy of Wilkinson Eyre Architects A photomontage of the proposed new museum and the stern of HMS Victory.

While incredibly proud of all these achievements, Christopher Dobbs, of the Mary Rose Trust, believes that one of the greatest legacies of the Mary Rose excavation lies not in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, but in maritime archaeology as a discipline. ‘We trained up 500 divers who went on to work on other projects, with both experience in maritime archaeology and a new attitude to it.’ He explained, ‘Many archaeologists on the diving team became founding members of the Nautical Archaeology Society. This has now trained thousands of people around the world. So it’s not just what we’ve learnt, but the change in attitude and change in culture that the Mary Rose excavation brought. That’s something far harder to achieve.’

One of the Mary Rose’s anchors is lifted during the 2005 excavation. Work on the wreck site resumed briefly when the Royal Navy considered creating a channel for its new carriers.
All images: courtesy the Mary Rose Trust and as indicated 

This article originally appeared in Current Archaeology issue 272

Christopher Dobbs is a Maritime Archaeologist and the Head of Interpretation at the Mary Rose Trust.
For more information, see the Trust website