Tudor seapower: When Britannia first ruled the waves

Thirty years ago, the wreck of the Mary Rose, pride of Henry VIII’s navy, rose from the seabed to the gasps of a live TV audience of millions. Neil Faulkner takes the opportunity to review the rise of English seapower in the early 16th century.

It had not been seen on the surface since Sunday 19 July 1545, when, in action against the French in the Solent, the Mary Rose suddenly capsized and sank. Much of the vessel had rotted away over more than four centuries on the seabed, but what finally appeared on Monday 11 October 1982 was a full third of the ship, mostly on the starboard side, where the timbers had been protected in the deep sands and silts of an ancient sunken river-channel. (Had the Mary Rose gone down a few hundred metres away, on hard gravel, everything would long since have been lost.)

The Mary Rose wreck site has yielded 26,000 artefacts and the skeletal remains of 179 people a combination of evidence that amounts to the most complete picture we have of 16th-century naval warfare and everyday life on shipboard. Here, a cannon is lifted from the seabed.

The recovery of the part-vessel was the beginning of a long process of conservation not yet complete. Waterlogged timbers retain their form but not their substance: having become mainly water, they simply turn to dust if allowed to dry out naturally once exposed to air. Instead, they must be kept damp and slowly transformed by a kind of chemical osmosis, with the water gradually forced out and replaced by chemicals that will preserve the timbers indefinitely – a process that will not be complete in the case of the Mary Rose until about 2015.

About a third of the timbers of the Mary Rose survive, mainly on the starboard side, where they were buried for 450 years in silt and sand on the seabed of The Solent. Conservation – to convert seawater into a chemical preservative – involves keeping the wreck damp for more than 30 years!

Already, though, the ongoing research programme has revealed an extraordinary wealth of information, not only about Tudor warship design and shipbuilding, but about everyday life among Tudor seamen. For, along with the ship, some 26,000 artefacts have been recovered from the wreck site. So, too, have the remains of 179 individuals, with 92 more-or-less complete skeletons, representing about half of the men (and boys) who lost their lives when the ship went down.

The artefacts and the skeletons provide an extraordinary archaeological window on the men who served in the Tudor navy, their daily lives on shipboard, and the workings of a 16th-century man-o’-war – a window on nothing less than the origins of the naval power that would create the British Empire.

The rise of maritime trade

No European is ever far from the sea. The European continent is a projection of the Eurasian landmass formed of fingers and fists of land surrounded by sea and criss-crossed with navigable waterways. The location of Britain – a set of islands with a deeply indented coastline – on the edge of this continent has meant that its maritime character is especially marked. Seafaring, sea-borne commerce and maritime communications have shaped the entire history of the British Isles.

For Britain, growing wealth has always meant growing maritime trade. Both historical and archaeological evidence point to some sort of economic take-off in the Late Medieval period, with a rapid development of shipping, port facilities, and rich merchant communities in towns linked together in a trading system that stretched from Riga in the eastern Baltic to London, Norwich, and Kings Lynn.

By the late 15th century, English mercantile capitalism was achieving critical mass: the wealth of the country’s merchants was beginning to reshape society as a whole and impose new priorities on government.

The focus, moreover, was shifting, from the North Sea trading nexus to the wider Atlantic, where explorers were searching for a maritime passage to the fabled riches of the East. But Spain – the great superpower of 16th-century Europe – had soon established pole position. Cortes conquered the Aztec Empire of Mexico, Pizarro the Inca Empire of Peru, and the result was a vast Spanish Empire – ‘New Spain’ – extending across much of Central America, the Caribbean, and South America.

The Spanish Empire

Spain blocked the routes to the East through the South Atlantic, and explorers searched desperately for a ‘North-West Passage’ or a ‘North-East Passage’ – only to be frustrated again and again by the dead-ends and ice-sheets of the Far North.

Gold and silver, meantime, flowed across the Atlantic in the holds of great royal treasure fleets to enrich the Spanish monarchy – the bullion of the Aztecs from San Juan de Ulua in the Gulf of Mexico, that of the Inca from Nombre de Dios on the Isthmus of Panama. This was not the enterprise of mercantile capitalists. It was systematic, state-controlled plunder to support an absolutist regime, a feudal social order, and the most formidable military machine on the Continent.

Not only that. From 1521 onwards, Spain became Europe’s great pillar of counter-revolution, the main defender of the Catholic Church against the storm of change unleashed by the Protestant Reformation. As revolution and war raged across northern Europe, as Lutheran gentry, Calvinist merchants, and Anabaptist cobblers rose against their Catholic lords, the Spanish monarchy remained a solid bastion of Counter-Reformation and Holy Inquisition. Its lifeblood was American bullion. Its vital artery was the Atlantic crossing. Only thus could Spanish armies hope to hold back the revolutionary tide.

The French Wars

The conflict would culminate in the great military struggles of the last quarter of the 16th century, when the Protestant Reformation, embodied in the revolutionary militias of the Dutch towns and the seadogs of Queen Elizabeth’s fleet, would humble the might of Imperial Spain. The geopolitical fracture-lines would harden through the century and bring matters to this great climax; above all, to that of 1588, when the defeat of the Armada prevented 30,000 veteran Spanish soldiers making landfall in England.

But Tudor naval power pre-dated Good Queen Bess. It was an artefact of her father. And it had been forged to fight not Spain, with whom he was in alliance by marriage, but the ancient enemy: the Kingdom of France.

The worst enemies are usually near neighbours. The English and the French had fought each other repeatedly from 1066, when England acquired a Norman king with territorial interests across The Channel, to 1453, when the Hundred Years’ War finally ended with the liquidation of virtually all English possessions in France (Calais was the sole exception).

When an external enemy was lacking, England’s fractious aristocracy had a tendency to splinter into warring factions. Unless it could be exported, feudal violence was prone to implode and blow the state apart – a lesson well learned by the Tudors, a usurper dynasty that had come to power at the end of the 30-year cycle of internecine bloodletting that we know as the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485).

The Tudor response was fourfold: to build political alliances with the gentry, the merchants, and ‘the middling sort’ against the old aristocracy; to recruit from these groups a new aristocracy of royal servants; to forge an absolutist state with the military power to crush feudal revolt; and to keep attention focused on foreign enemies.

Renaissance princes and powerbrokers The rivalry of Charles V of Spain and Germany and Francis I of France dominated European great-power politics in the first half of the 16th century. Henry VIII aspired to the same stature. The Tudor navy was both a requisite of national security and a symbol of royal prestige. Top left, Francis I, King of France (1515-1547). Top right, Charles I, King of Spain (1516-1556) and, from 1519, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Inset Henry VIII, King of England, Wales, and Ireland (1509-1547).

Henry VIII: Renaissance prince

The second Tudor had the style of a Renaissance prince. His first (and longest-lasting) marriage was to the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon. Throughout his reign he saw Francis I of France – not Charles V (who was both Holy Roman Emperor, the effective ruler of Germany and much of Central Europe, and also, as Charles I, King of Spain) – as his principal rival and enemy.

In a high-profile display of early 16th- century political orthodoxy, he denounced the Protestant Reformation, and was duly acclaimed by the Pope ‘Defender of the Faith’. His court, his pageants, and above all his armed forces were symbols of the absolutist power and civilisation to which he laid claim. The ceremonial at the diplomatic meeting between Henry and Francis at the Field of the Cloth of Gold near Calais in 1520 – held during a peaceful interlude in relations between England and France – can be read as a competitive display of royal power.

This is the context in which the Tudor navy was constructed. Guns and galleons – like nuclear missiles and aircraft-carriers today – were the chess-pieces of state power in the 16th century. They were the means for crushing overmighty subjects and foreign rivals alike. They were also political status-symbols and measures of the military virility of the potentate who deployed them. Henry VIII wanted lots of big ships.

The Mary Rose

The problem was that the biggest ships were not necessarily the best. The problem was also that Europe was on the brink of a revolution in naval warfare – and it was, in a sense, an attempt to straddle the contradiction between the old way of war and the new that sank the Mary Rose.

A unique contemporary image of the Mary Rose, as depicted in the Anthony Roll. Anthony was a clerk of the Ordnance Office. He completed an illuminated munitions inventory of Henry VIII’s navy in 1546 by which time, the Mary Rose was on the seabed!

Henry VII (1485-1509), cautious and parsimonious to the end, as befitted the insecure usurper-king of Bosworth Field, had maintained only a very small royal navy – far too small for his ambitious son, who embarked, immediately upon his succession, on the first of three major shipbuilding programmes carried out in his reign.

Twelve ships were built between 1510 and 1514. This included the massive 1,500-ton Great Henry Grace Dieu, the Gabryell Royall of 700 tons, and, third in size, the Marye Rosse of 600 tons. The former was a prestige vessel that never saw action, but the latter two were genuine warships, and therefore the fighting giants of the early Tudor fleet. A second shipbuilding programme in 1523-1526 added 11 more ships, and a third in 1542-1546 another 20, such that the reign ended with a royal navy of no fewer than 53 ships in total.

This contemporary image of the Ark Royal (built in 1587, and the flagship of Lord High Admiral Howard in the defeat of the Spanish Armada the following year) should be compared with that of the Mary Rose. Note the shrinking size of forecastle and sterncastle, as ship design reflects the revolution in naval tactics – from boarding to gunnery.

The Mary Rose was a carrack, with a ‘waist’ separating the overhanging, castle-like forecastle from the equally castle-like sterncastle or poop. The rig comprised bowsprit, foremast, main mast, main mizzen mast, and Bonaventure mast. Counting all ordnance, she mounted 90 guns in total, and these seem to have been ranged on two decks at the waist and three in forecastle and sterncastle. The crew was around 400 men, but of these only half were mariners, just under half soldiers, and the remainder (20-30) gunners.

Floating castle or mobile gun-platform?

The Mary Rose, in short, was a monster – not just in size, but in conception. What was she intended to do? Capture enemy vessels by boarding them, or sink them by gunnery?

Medieval naval warfare had been little more than an attempt to replicate a land battle at sea, with vessels coming alongside one another, exchanging missile fire, and then fighting it out hand-to-hand. That is the reason for high forecastles and sterncastles; indeed, the etymology gives away the game – the high-build at bow and stern was designed to turn these parts of the ship into ‘castles’, allowing men to tower over their enemies and shoot down on them from above, raking the opposing decks with bows, handguns, and light artillery firing chain, canister, and other forms of anti-personnel projectiles. In this kind of fighting, big ships had the advantage: they were taller, carried more men, and deployed greater low-order firepower.

But naval tactics were changing, and the shift to heavy-calibre gunnery – designed to cripple or sink enemy vessels at a distance – had begun. The Mary Rose therefore carried much heavy armament, and Henry VIII himself is credited with having invented the heavy-calibre broadside. But if a ship was intended to be a mobile gun-platform, it did not require a high-built forecastle and sterncastle, nor a complement that was 50% soldiers, nor a large arsenal of anti-personnel weaponry. Indeed, a top-heavy and overloaded vessel was likely to be a positive liability: slow, sluggish, and unnecessarily vulnerable in squalls and storms.

In fact, at this stage, both the Spanish and the French were ahead, already building more seaworthy galleons that were longer in proportion to their beam, with low poops and no raised forecastles. Not until the 1570s, by which time Elizabethan seadogs like Hawkins and Drake were the models, did the English begin to invest heavily in the new technology of naval warfare.

Reformation England

Henry VIII fought three wars against France – in 1512-1514, in 1522, and in 1543-1545. These three conflicts coincided, of course, with the three booms in naval shipbuilding. Growing tension leading up to the Third French War was also the context for two extraordinary programmes of coastal fort construction – the first beginning in 1539, the second in 1544.

More than 30 fortifications were built. They were essentially tiered artillery platforms, typically comprising a squat round central tower, round projecting bastions, and a circular perimeter wall, all studded with embrasures for cannon.

What gave urgency to the development of both coastal defences and naval power was the English Reformation. The 1530s were nothing less than the first phase of the sequence of revolutionary changes that would culminate in the overthrow of the monarchy in 1649. The Reformation represented a decisive turn away from the old feudal order, a break with the Catholic Church, and a strengthening of the Tudor regime’s alliance with what would now be called ‘the middle-classes’.

With the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-1541), the Tudors passed a point of no return. Up to a third of the land in England was seized by the Crown. Much of this then passed to the new aristocracy of service. State and middle-class henceforward formed an immensely powerful bloc with a fundamental vested interest in defending the Reformation settlement – against feudal Catholic reaction at home, and the major Catholic powers, France and Spain, abroad.

In 1538, the Pope called on all Christians to attack and destroy the English king. The following year, Francis I and Charles V formed an anti-English pact. Four years later, England and France were at war again (though by this time the Franco-Imperial pact had broken down, so Henry was able to pursue his great-power ambitions in alliance with Charles V). The English landed 40,000 men at Calais and succeeded in capturing Boulogne, the old king, unwieldy and disease-ridden, being carried around on a litter while younger men directed the army on his behalf.

The French wanted Boulogne back, and the war became a struggle for naval supremacy in The Channel, culminating in the dramatic entry of a French fleet into The Solent. The battle there was indecisive and the French fleet in due course withdrew. The one notable incident was an accident: the sinking of the Mary Rose.

French troops are landed on the Isle of Wight during the combined naval and land operations in July 1545.

The sinking of the Mary Rose

Contemporary sources disagree about some of the details, but the basic truth of what went wrong seems clear. The testimony of a survivor of the disaster, recorded by Van der Delft, the German Emperor’s ambassador, in a letter dated 24 July 1545, provides our best evidence:

‘The disaster was caused by their not having closed the lowest row of gun-ports on one side of the ship. Having fired the guns on that side, the ship was turning, in order to fire from the other, when the wind caught her sails so strongly as to heel her over, and plunge her open gun-ports beneath the water, which flooded and sank her.’

The Cowdray Engraving shows the English army encamped at Portsmouth, and the French (to the left) and English fleets engaged in The Solent on 19 July 1545. The sinking of the Mary Rose is clearly shown centre-left, where two masts can be seen protruding above the waves, with survivors swimming and small boats coming to the rescue nearby.

Of the 400 or so men on board, only around 35 escaped. The ship seems to have gone down like a stone, with hundreds trapped below decks or by anti-boarding netting and given no time to get clear.

It is easy to image how the order to close the gun-ports might have been forgotten or failed to reach the men on the lower decks in the heat of action. It is easy, too, to imagine how fatal that could prove, especially if the ship were struck by a sudden gust of wind.

But what is also apparent is that the Mary Rose, however impressive she looked, however potent a symbol of Tudor royal power, was a strange hybrid, and that because of this, she was something less than fit for purpose at the dawning of the age of naval gunnery.

All pictures: © Mary Rose Trust and WIPL 

This Article was from issue 25 of Military History Matters