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Illustration of the Mary Rose

13 facts about the Mary Rose: Henry VIII's favourite warship

Image: The Mary Rose as depicted in the Anthony Roll | Public Domain

The Mary Rose was the pride of King Henry VIII’s naval fleet and is one of the most famous ships in British history. She sank in the Solent in 1545 and was miraculously raised from the depths in 1982. Here, we discover some fascinating facts about this iconic Tudor battleship.

1. She was commissioned to protect England

When Henry VIII came to power in 1509, he inherited a small navy with only a couple of sizeable ships. England was exposed to outside threats and so Henry commissioned two new ships to be built - the Mary Rose and the Peter Pomegranate. The large vessels represented Henry’s ambition for naval expansion and sent a clear message to England’s enemies.

2. Building the Mary Rose was a mammoth task

Construction began on the Mary Rose in early 1510 in Portsmouth. The state-of-the-art warship required a vast amount of timber, said to be around 40 acres’ worth of trees. It was built to accommodate up to 700 sailors, soldiers, gunners, surgeons and cooks. The 600-ton ship launched in July 1511.

3. It was most likely named after the Virgin Mary

Although a popular theory suggests the ship was named after Henry VIII’s favourite sister, Mary Tudor, it was most likely named in honour of the Virgin Mary. No direct evidence supports the sister theory, whilst it was common practice during Tudor times to name ships after saints. Plus, the Virgin Mary was also known as the ‘mystic rose’.

The rose could also be a direct reference to the Tudor rose, the emblem of the House of Tudor.

4. She once won a race

She might have been large and imperious and loaded with heavy guns, but the Mary Rose was also praised as one of the fastest ships in the fleet. This was put to the test in a rather extraordinary race in 1513. Sailing off the coast of Kent, the Mary Rose and several other ships went head-to-head. The Mary Rose took first prize even though her opponents were given head starts.

5. She sailed the seas for over three decades

For over 33 years, the Mary Rose sailed the Seven Seas, during which she saw conflict on numerous occasions. Most of her skirmishes were against the French, her most famous coming at the Battle of St Mathieu in August 1512.

In 1536, she underwent a variety of alterations, including the addition of extra gunports. These improvements might have affected her seaworthiness and led to her demise eight years later.

6. We don’t know why the Mary Rose sank

On 19th July 1545, the Mary Rose sank in the Solent - the strip of water running between the Isle of Wight and mainland England – as she looked to once again face off against an impending French armada.

A variety of theories have been put forward to explain why the pride of the English navy went down that day. Some have suggested a gust of wind caused the ship to take in water from her open gunports. Others have blamed the alterations made to her years before causing her to be overburdened and unseaworthy. Inexperienced or insubordinate crew members have also been suggested as causing the Mary Rose to sink.

Whatever the reason, the Mary Rose went down with over 400 crew onboard and only 34 survived.

7. Attempts were made to raise her straight away

Although history tells us that the Mary Rose didn’t see the light of day again until 1982, we do know that plans to raise her from the depths were hatched shortly after she sank. The plan involved attaching cables to her submerged hull and pulling them taut with a pair of other ships. Needless to say, it didn’t work.

Attempts were made again in 1836. This time pioneering divers were able to recover items from the wreckage but not the whole ship itself.

8. The Mary Rose was raised live on TV

On 11th October 1982, 60 million people around the world watched the wreck of the Mary Rose being raised live on television. Since 1979, the ground-breaking excavation project had seen over 22,000 diving hours being conducted in preparation for raising the wreck. In the end, a purpose-built metal frame was used to lift the Mary Rose out of the water.

9. 19,000 objects have been found

Over 19,000 objects have been recovered from the seabed around where the Mary Rose sank giving us a unique glimpse into Tudor England. Items have included a variety of things such as weapons, cutlery, coins, flasks and even a mitten and a sock. The bones of a dog and a rat have also been found.

10. Her crew was diverse

Modern isotope tests have been conducted on the skeletons of those crewmates who went down with the Mary Rose. The results have shown her crew was made up of a diverse bunch with some heralding from Europe, including Spain and Italy, and others from further ashore including North Africa.

11. The crew kept themselves entertained

As you might imagine, not every day upon the Mary Rose was consumed with battles and fighting, so the crew had understandably taken onboard a variety of things to keep them entertained. Games such as backgammon and dice as well as musical instruments like fiddles, pipes and even an early kind of oboe have all been recovered from the wreckage.

12. Beef was a popular food onboard

Around eight casks of beef bones have been recovered from the Mary Rose. Each one contained about 250 bones. Most likely heavily salted, the meat was probably sourced locally in Portsmouth before being taken onboard the ship. According to the official Mary Rose website: ‘experimental archaeology suggests that each of the bone fragments would have held approximately 1lb (453g) of meat, the quantity rationed for a crew member per day.’

13. The Mary Rose is now in a museum

The famous ship is now on display at the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth.