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The Mary Rose: Tudor battleship

The Embarkation of Henry VIII at Dover, 1540 the vessels depicted in the painting are decorated with wooden panels similar to those of the Mary Rose

It was in July 1545 that one of the most iconic ships in British history, the Mary Rose, met her tragic end in the lapping waves of the Solent. Much like the Titanic, the Mary Rose’s name is synonymous with her sinking, yet the story of the ship’s life is every bit as dramatic as the story of her death. 

Birth of a battleship

When Henry VIII became king in the early 16th Century, he realised his country was in a precarious position. There were dangers posed by both France and Scotland, and the English navy was in pretty poor shape. New warships were needed to protect the nation from invaders, and so construction commenced on an 'Army by Sea'. 

One of the deadly new ships was Peter Pomegranate, its peculiarly cutesy name created in homage to St Peter and to the fruity family emblem of Catherine of Aragon. The eventual fate of Peter Pomegranate is unknown to us, and all the attention has long since been stolen by her larger sister ship: the Mary Rose.

Probably named in honour of the Virgin Mary, the construction of the ship was a mammoth task, requiring around 40 acres’ worth of oak trees. She was launched in July 1511, a vast floating symbol of Henry’s might, bedecked with bronze and wrought-iron guns.

'The noblest ship'

The English were proud of the Mary Rose from the start. In fact, a remarkable race was put on in March 1513 off the coast of Kent to test the capabilities of several ships. The Mary Rose won, despite several rival ships given massive head starts. Was this because the Mary Rose really was the superior vessel, or was the race ‘fixed’ so that the pride of the fleet – the ship personally adored by Henry VIII himself – would get the glory? Either way, Admiral Sir Edward Howard gushed that the Mary Rose was ,the noblest ship of sail… in Christendom'.

This noble ship had capacity for up to 700 sailors, soldiers, gunners, surgeons and cooks. As modern-day excavations have revealed, the crew carried games to play in their spare time, including backgammon sets and dice crafted from bone. Musical instruments such as fiddles, tabor pipes and even an early kind of oboe have also been recovered.

This noble ship had capacity for up to 700 sailors, soldiers, gunners, surgeons and cooks. As modern-day excavations have revealed, the crew carried games to play in their spare time, including backgammon sets and dice crafted from bone. Musical instruments such as fiddles, tabor pipes and even an early kind of oboe have also been recovered.

The crew members themselves were surprisingly diverse. Isotope testing on skeletons in the wreckage revealed some of the men to have hailed from southern Europe – likely Italy or Spain – and another chap who is likely to have been from North Africa. (To find out more about the melting pot nature of Tudor England, check out our Not What You Thought You Knew podcast).

Taking on the enemy

The Mary Rose saw combat in the Italian Wars, a now relatively obscure conflict that spread out to encompass much of Europe. One of the most violent confrontations was the Battle of Saint-Mathieu of August 1512, in which an English fleet, including the Mary Rose, clashed with French-Breton ships near the port city of Brest.

The Mary Rose showed her worth, causing immense damage to one of the enemy fleet’s biggest ships, the Petite Louise. However, tragedy lay in store for the other star ship of the English fleet that day: the Regent. She came up against her French counterpart, the Cordelière, and grappling hooks were thrown between the two ships’ decks to bring them close enough together for the crews to fight. As blood was spilt, the Cordelière suddenly erupted in flames. The fire spread to the Regent and both vessels were destroyed, along with almost everyone on board.

The incident became instantly mythologised in France. The captain of the Cordelière, Hervé de Portzmoguer, was portrayed in such absurdly heroic terms in one French poem, that Thomas More wrote a sly retort to its author, saying: ‘When you represented heroic Hervé fighting indiscriminately with four weapons and a shield… your reader ought to have been informed in advance that Hervé had five hands.’

The sinking of the Mary Rose

The Mary Rose survived numerous skirmishes over the decades, but fate lay in wait on the Solent – the strip of water which runs between the Isle of Wight and mainland England. It was here that, on 19 July 1545, the ship helped defend the nation against an armada deployed by the old enemy: France.

What exactly happened to the Mary Rose has been the source of endless debate. What we do know is that, in the middle of the fighting, the ship floundered and sank, with the loss of hundreds of crew members. Many were horrifically trapped by netting which had been set up along the upper decks to stop enemy sailors leaping on board.

Different reasons for the sinking have been offered. An eyewitness account alleges a gust of wind caused the ship to take in water through her open gunports, causing the vessel to capsize. It’s also been conjectured the ship was carrying too much weight, making her unstable, or that a series of modifications made to the ship had rendered her somehow unseaworthy. 

Raising the Mary Rose

Plans were almost immediately hatched to resurrect the Mary Rose by attaching cables to the submerged hull and then pulling them taut with a pair of other ships. The operation was a failure. A few years later there was a salvage attempt by a team which included a diver from West Africa, Jacques Francis, who’d go down in history as the first black person to give evidence in an English court (in a case unrelated to the Mary Rose).

Centuries after, in 1836, divers once again tried getting to grips with the Mary Rose. One of them was John Deane, credited with inventing the first diving apparatus using the helmet of a medieval suit of armour. Guns and other relics from the Mary Rose were brought up during this operation, though the ship itself lay stubbornly embedded.

It was only thanks to 20th Century ingenuity that the remains of the ship were finally raised from the deep. Thanks to the diligent work of the Mary Rose Trust, with Prince Charles in the role of president, the mission was accomplished on 11 October 1982, when a purpose-built metal frame was used to lift Mary Rose out from the Solent. Some slight damage was done when part of the frame hit the hull ('I was slightly horrified but I thought the best thing to do was to be British and not panic,' Prince Charles later said), but Henry’s cherished ship was back.

She now has pride of place at the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth – a carefully restored chunk of Tudor England which beguiles history loves to this day.