Unearthing History’s Secrets: The Resurrection of Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s Ill-Fated Warship

Mary Rose shipwreck

In the year 1545, France assembled a formidable fleet with the intention of invading the southern coast of England. However, this was during the reign of King Henry VIII, a stout and spirited ruler, who commanded a powerful fleet that included his beloved and heavily armed ship, Mary Rose. The imminent Battle of the Solent, off the coast of Portsmouth, was crucial in keeping the French at bay.

Though King Henry VIII emerged victorious from the battle, his ship, the Mary Rose, was lost. Today, visitors can learn the story of how the ship sank within minutes, the lives lost, and how, 437 years later, it was recovered from the Solent seabed, at an exceptional attraction in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

Originally launched in 1511 as a troop carrier, the Mary Rose was transformed into a fearsome warship, brimming with cannons. Out of the more than 500 men aboard when it sank on 19 July 1545, only 35 survived. The visitor attraction offers a world-class tour, with moving, serious, and insightful displays, as well as occasional entertaining elements (such as a hologram of a laughing Henry VIII, complete with a ballooning belly, greeting visitors at the ticket desk).

Throughout the tour, the Mary Rose remains a focal point, with three floors of intelligently and engagingly presented relics and artifacts surrounding her. Visitors can pass between display rooms via walkways overlooking the ship.

As the ship sank on its starboard side, the port side gradually succumbed to erosion, fungi, and marine life. The display presents the ship as if resting on the seabed, with its surviving half resembling a broken rib cage, with rafters, curved edges, and beams protruding in various directions. Fractured gun bays on the upper castle deck angle skywards, creating an imposing sight. It all appears so precarious that a gentle touch could send this life-sized maritime Jenga tumbling down.

Appreciating the dimensions of the Mary Rose can be challenging, as she was originally just 11 meters wide, making it seem almost impossible that 500 men, along with provisions for two weeks and weapons for major conflicts, were accommodated onboard.

The museum’s displays are captivating throughout, with virtually every cabinet deserving inspection. Highlights include a magnificent cannon adorned with Tudor roses and a fleur-de-lys, a wooden figurehead featuring the Mary Rose emblem, and the only surviving 16th-century crow’s nest, resembling an upturned tipi.

The exhibition also showcases various weapons, such as bronze and wrought-iron guns, grapefruit-sized lead shots, fearsome pikes and bills, and longbows made from yew staves. Additionally, visitors can find the skeleton of the ship’s dog, Hatch, responsible for catching rats onboard.

The human aspect of the tragedy is the most poignant, and the museum’s curators have excelled in presenting the lives of the crew through their clothing, teeth, bones, and belongings. The crew’s hardships, including scurvy, rickets, and fractures, are evident, with personal stories that evoke empathy. For instance, the master gunner suffered from painful abscesses, and a carpenter who died in his late 30s was 1.72 meters tall and suffered from early arthritis.

The museum also delves into the crew’s origins, as evidenced by oxygen values in teeth samples. One example is a Spanish carpenter whose tools are disconcertingly similar to the knives and trepanning implements displayed in the surgeon’s glass case. Potions in the surgeon’s chest suggest the crew commonly suffered from headaches, coughs, and trapped wind.

The reason for the Mary Rose’s sinking remains unclear. Historians dismiss the notion that the ship was too top-heavy due to an excess of guns and soldiers. Instead, a more plausible theory, supported by an escapee’s account, proposes that a sudden gust of wind destabilized the ship while its gunports were open, causing it to flood and sink into the pits of an aggressive sea.

The museum also recounts the ship’s recovery, from its initial identification in 1836 by pioneering divers to the first discovery of timbers in 1971. In 1982, the wreck was carefully raised from the water and secured within a large lifted frame. There’s even contemporary footage capturing the unnerving moment when parts of the wreck slipped back into the sea with a clunk-kerplunk sound.

At the Dockyard, another significant attraction is HMS Victory, Admiral Nelson’s flagship, where he was mortally wounded during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. In contrast to the immersive experience of the Mary Rose, touring HMS Victory can be less captivating, which speaks volumes about the exceptional quality of the Mary Rose exhibit.

To gain valuable insights during the visit to HMS Victory, it’s advisable to use the audio tour, although friendly guides are available to provide interesting titbits, such as the spot where Nelson was hit by a musket ball. Nelson’s bed chamber, adorned in blue and gold, reflects the man’s stature and status, as does his commode, humorously referred to as the ultimate loo with a view, located next to his spacious day study at the stern of the ship.

One striking feature noticed by visitors is the low ceilings throughout HMS Victory, averaging just 1.5 meters from the floor to the rafters on each deck. In the hold, where the weight of decks and cannons above further compresses the already oppressive headspace, visitors often find themselves resembling bandy-legged sailors. One can only imagine the discomfort faced by the ship’s carpenter, who stood an impressive 6 feet 7 inches tall.

The Portsmouth Historic Dockyard offers additional attractions, including the opportunity to explore traditional boat-building techniques and visit the Explosion Museum of Naval Firepower. A short ferry ride takes visitors to the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, where they can walk the length of a WWII submarine.

However, the Mary Rose should undoubtedly be the first stop. More than a mere ship, she is a remarkable time capsule that provides insight into the values and priorities of Tudor times, offering glimpses into the lives of those who once sailed on her.

For visitors planning their trip, Portsmouth is approximately 75 miles (120 km) from London, accessible by car via the A3 in just over 2 hours. Train connections from London, the West Country, and the Midlands are also available.

For accommodations, the Adventure Prospect cottage presents a historic retreat, accommodating four people in a restored munitions workers’ house dating back to 1898. Located at the water’s edge in Priddy’s Hard, Gosport, the cottage boasts an open kitchen and offers spectacular views of the harbor, including the ships of the Dockyard. Prices start at £150 per night, with a minimum stay of two nights required.

Further information

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

This article has been rewritten based on the primary source from Discover Britain Magazine

JC. Princen

“Success is best when it's shared.”

Recommended Articles

1 Comment

  1. I will remember when I am successful that I have studied on this web, thank you warm greetings sddaily

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *