He was not, Jacques Francis insisted as prosecution witnesses tried repeatedly to have his testimony thrown out, a slave. They called him ‘blackamoor’ and ‘infidel-born’, but he called himself famulus rather than servus – a member of the household, a worker alongside free servants.
At this historical distance, it seems a slight distinction – Francis made no claim to being a free man – but what is remarkable is that his dignity, articulacy, and achievements won the argument. No villein’s testimony had been admissable in an English court since feudal times, but in February 1547 the High Court of Admiralty ruled Francis was no villein. His words not only stood but were transcribed – and thus we are able to read them five centuries later.
Francis was born on what is now Arguin Island in Mauritania around 1527. He was probably a teenager when he started work in the salvage crew of the Venetian Piero Paulo Corsi, who clearly valued the young man’s skill as a diver – perhaps acquired searching for pearls off the west African coast. How much help that early experience would have been for working 12m down in the cold waters of the Solent one can only wonder.
For Francis comes to our attention for his role in the early story of the Mary Rose, being responsible for bringing up the first artefacts from Henry VIII’s prized warship. (An earlier salvage crew retrieved only rigging.) In 1546, Corsi and his crew of eight men – among whom Francis was evidently a leader – were employed to raise the immensely expensive heavy cannon from the wreck. We know that they were successful, too, because Francis and Corsi were well paid. The court testimony even offers a glimpse of the salvage crew drinking – at Corsi’s expense – in the Dolphin in Southampton.
Underwater archaeology may be thought a 20th-century pursuit – scuba equipment was only adopted from the 1940s – but the retrieval of artefacts from shipwrecks has a surprisingly long history, even though it was then a task demanding such skill and courage as to seem utterly foolhardy.
No one would describe what Corsi’s crew did as archaeology – they were a commercial salvage operation, not antiquarians – but they were certainly technical innovators. Francis’ deposition describes how Corsi ‘did prepare diverse instruments and things to his costs of 300 crowns’ to raise artefacts. And they stand four-square in a lineage that would run through the raising of the Mary Rose from tenacious Solent mud in 1982 to its preservation in the new Mary Rose Museum, where (COVID-19 permitting) we can see once more what Francis first saw nearly 500 years before.
For details about tickets and other ways to support the museum, see https://maryrose.org.