Jul 192015


The Mary Rose was a carrack-type warship of the English Tudor navy of King Henry VIII. After serving for 33 years in several wars against France, Scotland, and Brittany and after being substantially rebuilt in 1536, she saw her last action on 19 July 1545. While leading the attack on the galleys of a French invasion fleet, she sank in the Solent, the straits north of the Isle of Wight.

The wreck of the Mary Rose was rediscovered in 1971. It was salvaged in 1982 by the Mary Rose Trust, in one of the most complex and expensive projects in the history of maritime archaeology. The surviving section of the ship and thousands of recovered artifacts are of immense value as a Tudor-era time capsule. The excavation and salvage of the Mary Rose was a milestone in the field of maritime archaeology. The finds include weapons, sailing equipment, naval supplies and a wide array of objects used by the crew. Many of the artifacts are unique to the Mary Rose and have provided insights into topics ranging from naval warfare to the history of musical instruments. Since the mid-1980s, while undergoing conservation, the remains of the hull have been on display at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. An extensive collection of well-preserved artifacts is on display at the nearby Mary Rose Museum, built to display the reconstructed ship and its contents.


I visited the ship (along with Nelson’s Victory) about 15 years ago and was completely amazed. It was an absolute slice of history. It was like peeking inside a small Tudor village. Even though I am an anthropologist I am not a fan of museums in general, I enjoyed this display because it showed the real context where 16th century people lived, worked, played, and died. Very moving.


The Mary Rose was one of the largest ships in the English navy throughout more than three decades of intermittent war and was one of the earliest examples of a purpose-built sailing warship. She was armed with new types of heavy guns that could fire through her recently invented gun-ports (which may also have been her undoing). After being substantially rebuilt in 1536, she was also one of the earliest ships that could fire a broadside, although the line of battle tactics that employed it had not yet been developed. Several theories have sought to explain the sinking of the Mary Rose, based on historical records, knowledge of 16th-century shipbuilding, and modern experiments. The precise cause of her demise is still unclear, because of conflicting testimonies and a lack of conclusive physical evidence, but it seems likely to me that during battle she listed to starboard and water flooded in through the gun-ports.


In early July 1536 a huge French force under the command of Admiral Claude d’Annebault set sail for England and entered the Solent unopposed with 128 ships on the 16th. The English had around 80 ships with which to oppose the French, including the flagship Mary Rose. But since they had virtually no heavy galleys, the fleet vessels was at its best in sheltered waters like the Solent; the English fleet promptly retreated into Portsmouth harbour when the French arrived.

The English thence became becalmed in port and unable to maneuver. On 19 July 1545, the French galleys advanced on the immobilized English fleet, and initially threatened to destroy an English force of 13 small galleys, or “rowbarges”, the only ships that were able to move against them without a wind. The wind picked up and the sailing ships were able to go on the offensive before the oared vessels were overwhelmed. Two of the largest ships, the Henry Grace Dieu and the Mary Rose, led the attack on the French galleys in the Solent.

Early in the battle something went wrong. While engaging the French galleys the Mary Rose suddenly heeled heavily over to her starboard side and water rushed in through the open gunports. The crew was powerless to correct the sudden imbalance, and could only scramble for the safety of the upper deck as the ship began to sink rapidly. As she heeled over, equipment, ammunition, supplies and storage containers shifted and came loose, adding to the general chaos. The massive port side brick oven in the galley collapsed completely and the huge 360-liter (90 gallon) copper cauldron was thrown on to the orlop deck above. Heavy guns came free and slammed into the opposite side, impeding escape or crushing men beneath them.

For those who were not injured or killed outright by moving objects, there was little time to reach safety, especially for the men who were manning the guns on the main deck or fetching ammunition and supplies in the hold. The companionways that connected the decks with one another would have become bottlenecks for fleeing men, something indicated by the positioning of many of the skeletons recovered from the wreck. What turned the sinking into a major tragedy in terms of lives lost was the anti-boarding netting that covered the upper decks in the waist (the midsection of the ship) and the sterncastle. With the exception of the men who were stationed in the tops in the masts, most of those who managed to get up from below deck were trapped under the netting; they would have been in view of the surface, and their colleagues above, but with little or no chance to break through, and were dragged down with the ship. Out of a crew of at least 400, fewer than 35 escaped, a catastrophic casualty rate of over 90%.

A salvage attempt was ordered by Secretary of State William Paget only days after the sinking, and Charles Brandon, the king’s brother-in-law, took charge of practical details. The operation followed the standard procedure for raising ships in shallow waters: strong cables were attached to the sunken ship and fastened to two empty ships, or hulks. At low tide, the ropes were pulled taut with capstans. When the high tide came in, the hulks rose and with them the wreck. It would then be towed into shallower water and the procedure repeated until the whole ship could be raised completely.

A list of necessary equipment was compiled by 1 August and included, among other things, massive cables, capstans, pulleys, and 40 pounds of tallow for lubrication. The proposed salvage team comprised 30 Venetian mariners and a Venetian carpenter with 60 English sailors to serve them. The two ships to be used as hulks were the Jesus of Lübeck and Samson, each of 700 tons burthen and similar in size to the Mary Rose. Brandon was so confident of success that he reassured the king that it would only be a matter of days before they could raise the Mary Rose. The optimism proved unfounded. Since the ship had settled at a 60-degree angle to starboard much of it was stuck deep into the clay of the seabed. This made it virtually impossible to pass cables under the hull and required far more lifting power than if the ship had settled on a hard seabed. An attempt to secure cables to the main mast appears only to have resulted in its being snapped off. The project was only successful in raising rigging, some guns and other items and around 1549 the effort was abandoned.

During the 16th century a hard layer of compacted clay and crushed shells formed over the ship, stabilizing the site and sealing the Tudor-era deposits. Further layers of soft silt covered the site during the 18th and 19th centuries, but frequent changes in the tidal patterns and currents in the Solent occasionally exposed some of the timbers, leading to its accidental rediscovery in 1836 and aided in locating the wreck in 1971. After the ship had been salvaged it was determined that about 40% of the original structure had survived.

In the summer of 1836, a group of five fishermen caught their nets on timbers protruding from the bottom of the Solent. They contacted a diver to help them remove the hindrance, and on 10 June, Henry Abbinett became the first person to see the Mary Rose in almost 300 years. Later, two other professional divers, John Deane and William Edwards, were employed. Using a recently invented rubber suit and metal diving helmet, Deane and Edwards began to examine the wreck and salvage items from it. Along with an assortment of timbers and wooden objects, including several longbows, they brought up several bronze and iron guns, which were sold to the Board of Ordnance for over £220. The identification of the ship led to significant public interest in the salvage operation, and caused a great demand for the objects which were brought up. Though many of the objects could not be properly conserved at the time and subsequently deteriorated, many were documented with pencil sketches and watercolor drawings which survive to this day. John Deane ceased working on the wreck in 1836, but returned in 1840 with new, more destructive methods. With the help of condemned bomb shells filled with gunpowder acquired from the Ordnance Board he blasted his way into parts of the wreck. Fragments of bombs and traces of blasting craters were found during the modern excavations. Deane then abandoned his efforts .

The modern search for the Mary Rose was initiated by the Southsea branch of the British Sub-Aqua Club in 1965 as part of a project to locate shipwrecks in the Solent. In February 1966 a chart from 1841 was found that marked the positions of the Mary Rose and several other wrecks and a definite location was finally established at a position 3 km (1.9 mi) south of the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour (50°46′N 1°06′W) in water with a depth of 11 m (36 feet) at low tide. Diving on the site began in 1966 and a sonar scan by Harold Edgerton in 1967–68 revealed some type of buried feature. In 1970 a loose timber was located and on 5 May 1971, the first structural details of the buried hull were identified after they were partially uncovered by winter storms.


By 1978 the initial excavation work had uncovered a complete and coherent site with an intact ship structure and the orientation of the hull had been positively identified as being on an almost straight northerly heading with a 60-degree heel to starboard and a slight downward tilt towards the bow. As no records of English shipbuilding techniques used in vessels like the Mary Rose survive, excavation of the ship would allow for a detailed survey of her design and shed new light on the construction of ships of the era. A full excavation also meant removing the protective layers of silt that prevented the remaining ship structure from being destroyed through biological decay and the scouring of the currents; the operation had to be completed within a predetermined timespan of a few years or it risked irreversible damage. It was also considered desirable to recover and preserve the remains of the hull if possible. For the first time, the project was faced with the practical difficulties of actually raising, conserving and preparing the hull for public display. The project went from a team of only twelve volunteers working four months a year to over 50 individuals working almost around the clock nine months a year. In addition there were over 500 volunteer divers and a laboratory staff of about 70 that ran the shore base and conservation facilities.[105] During the four diving seasons from 1979 to 1982 over 22,000 diving hours were spent on the site. Raising the Mary Rose meant overcoming a number of delicate problems that had never been encountered before. Many suggestions for salvage were discarded, including the construction of a cofferdam around the wreck site, filling the ship with small buoyant objects (such as ping pong balls) or even pumping brine into the seabed and freezing it so that it would float and take the hull with it. After lengthy discussions it was decided in February 1980 that the hull would first be emptied of all its contents and strengthened with steel braces and frames. It would then be lifted to the surface with floating sheerlegs attached to nylon strops passing under the hull and transferred to a cradle. It was also decided that the ship would be recovered before the end of the diving season in 1982. If the wreck stayed uncovered any longer it risked irreversible damage from biological decay and tidal scouring.


As one of the most ambitious and expensive projects in the history of maritime archaeology, the Mary Rose project broke new ground within this field in the UK. Besides becoming one of the first wrecks to be protected under the new Protection of Wrecks Act in 1973 it also created several new precedents. It was the first time that a British privately funded project was able to apply modern scientific standards fully and without having to auction off part of the findings to finance its activities; where previous projects often had to settle for just a partial recovery of finds, everything found in connection with the Mary Rose was recovered and recorded. The salvage made it possible to establish the first historic shipwreck museum in the UK to receive government accreditation and funding. The excavation of the Mary Rose wrecksite proved that it was possible to achieve a level of exactness in underwater excavations comparable to those on dry land.


Throughout the 1970s, the Mary Rose was meticulously surveyed, excavated and recorded with the latest methods within the field of maritime archaeology. Working in an underwater environment meant that principles of land-based archaeology did not always apply. Over 26,000 artifacts and pieces of timber were salvaged along with remains of about half the crew members. The faces of some crew members have been reconstructed. Analysis of the crew skeletons shows many had suffered malnutrition, and had evidence of rickets, scurvy, and other deficiency diseases was found.


Crew members also developed arthritis through the stresses on their joints from heavy lifting and maritime life generally, and suffered bone fractures. As the ship was intended to function as a floating, self-contained community, it was stocked with food and drink that could sustain its inhabitants for extended periods of time. The casks used for storage on the Mary Rose have been compared with those from a wreck of a trade vessel from the 1560s and have revealed that they were of better quality, more robust and reliable, an indication that supplies for the Tudor navy were given high priority, and their requirements set a high standard for cask manufacturing at the time. As a miniature society at sea, the wreck of the Mary Rose held personal objects belonging to individual crew members. This included clothing, games, various items for spiritual or recreation use, or objects related to mundane everyday tasks such as personal hygiene, fishing and sewing. The master carpenter’s chest, for example, contained a backgammon set, a book, three plates, a sundial, and a tankard, goods suggesting he was relatively wealthy.


The ship carried several skilled craftsmen and was equipped for handling both routine maintenance and repairing extensive battle damage. In and around one of the cabins on the main deck under the sterncastle, archaeologists found a “collection of woodworking tools … unprecedented in its range and size”, consisting of eight chests of carpentry tools. Along with loose mallets and tar pots used for caulking, this variety of tools belonged to one or several of the carpenters employed on the Mary Rose.


Many of the cannons and other weapons from the Mary Rose have provided invaluable physical evidence about 16th-century weapon technology. The surviving gunshields are almost all from the Mary Rose, and the four small cast iron hailshot pieces are the only known examples of this type of weapon.


Animal remains have been found in the wreck of the Mary Rose. These include the skeletons of a rat, a frog and a dog. The dog, a mongrel between eighteen months and two years in age, was found near the hatch to the ship’s carpenter’s cabin and is thought to have been brought aboard as a ratter. Nine barrels have been found to contain bones of cattle, indicating that they contained pieces of beef butchered and stored as ship’s rations. In addition, the bones of pigs and fish, stored in baskets, have also been found.

mr13  mr19

Two fiddles, a bow, a still shawm or doucaine, three three-hole pipes, and a tabor drum with a drumstick were found throughout the wreck. These would have been used for the personal enjoyment of the crew and to provide a rhythm to work on the rigging and turning the capstans on the upper decks. The tabor drum is the earliest known example of its kind and the drumstick of a previously unknown design. The tabor pipes are considerably longer than any known examples from the period. Their discovery proved that contemporary illustrations, previously viewed with some suspicion, were in fact accurate depictions of the instruments. Before the discovery of the Mary Rose shawm, an early predecessor to the oboe, instrument historians had been puzzled by reference to “still shawms”, or “soft” shawms, that were said to have a sound that was less shrill than earlier shawms. The still shawm disappeared from the musical scene some time in the 16th century, and the instrument found on the Mary Rose is the only surviving example. A reproduction has been made and played. Combined with a pipe and tabor, it provides a bass part for dance music.

A small note here about the use of the word “fiddle” in case my violinist friends protest. Nowadays the words “violin” and “fiddle” are used to denote genres of music, hence the instruments themselves. “Fiddle” is used for folk music and “violin” for classical music. In Tudor England “fydell” was used commonly, and the Mary Rose instruments are quite different from contemporary viols in shape, size and construction. Only a few other fiddle-type instruments from the 16th century exist, but none of them of the type found on the Mary Rose. Reproductions of both fiddles have been made, though less is known of their design than the shawm since the necks and strings are missing.

In the remains of a small cabin in the bow of the ship and in a few other locations around the wreck was found the earliest dated set of navigation instruments in Europe found so far: compasses, divider calipers, a stick used for charting, protractors, sounding leads, tide calculators and a logreel, an instrument for calculating speed. Several of these objects are not only unique in having such an early, definite dating, but also because they pre-date written records of their use; protractors would have reasonably been used to measure distance on maps, but sea charts are not known to have been used by English navigators during the first half of the 16th century, compasses were not depicted on English ships until the 1560s, and the first mention of a logreel is from 1574.


The cabin located on the main deck underneath the sterncastle is thought to have belonged to the barber-surgeon. He was a trained professional who saw to the health and welfare of the crew and acted as the medical expert on board. The most important of these finds were found in an intact wooden chest which contained over 60 objects relating to the barber-surgeon’s medical practice: the wooden handles of a complete set of surgical tools and several shaving razors (although none of the steel blades had survived), a copper syringe for wound irrigation and treatment of gonorrhoea, and even a skillfully crafted feeding bottle for feeding incapacitated patients. More objects were found around the cabin, such as earscoops, shaving bowls and combs. With this wide selection of tools and medicaments the barber-surgeon, along with one or more assistants, could set bone fractures, perform amputations and deal with other acute injuries, treat a number of diseases and provide crew members with a minimal standard of personal hygiene.


The conditions of the crews’ skeletons found indicate that their diet was much the same as that of later centuries for sailors, namely, salted meat and dried legumes. I’ve given recipes for these before, so here is a recipe for ox kidneys (a favorite of mine) from a cookbook contemporary with the Mary Rose: A proper new Booke of Cookery. Declaring what maner of meates be best in season for al times of the yeere, and how they ought to be dressed, & served at the Table, both for fleshe dayes and Fish daies. with a new addition, very necessary for al them that delight in Cookery. This is a book of recipes written for women running their own households by an unknown author. The text was published in London and survives in three editions: 1545 (held at the University of Glasgow), 1557-1558 (held at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge) and two later editions, one of 1575 (held in the British Library). It is a relatively small volume, beginning with a list of meats and their seasons, followed by a listing of dinners and suggested dishes for service for both flesh and fish days. After this comes a list of 49 recipes mostly covering meat dishes and pies, though there are a small number of dessert dishes. You can find a transcription here: http://www.medievalcookery.com/notes/pnboc1575.txt


I have chosen a recipe for vautes, a kidney-stuffed pancake of sorts. As was common in Tudor cookery this is a meat dish loaded with dried fruits (progenitor of modern mince pies). The recipe is easy enough to follow, although I have not tried it.

To make Vautes.

Take the kidney of Veale, and par-boyle it till it be tender, then take and chop it small with the yolkes of three or fouer Egges, than season it with dates small cut, small raysins, ginger, Suger, Cinnamon, saffron, and a litle salt, and for the paste to lay it in, take a dosyn of Egges both the white and the yolkes, and beate them well altogether then take butter and put into a fryinge pan and frye them as thinne as a Pan-cake, then lay your stuffe therin, and so frye them together in a panne, and cast suger and ginger upon it, and so serve it forth.

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