Monday, July 19, 2021

A Watery Grave and a Resurrection for the Mary Rose

The Mary Rose as depicted in the Anthony Roll, a survey of all of King Henry VII's ships, after her 1636 reconstruction with he distinct carrack profile of high castles fore and aft. Although the number of guns and gun ports is not entirely accurate, the picture is overall an good illustration of the ship.

In 1536 the Mary Rose already had 26 years of service which made her old for a heavy warship in an era when worms, barnacles, and dry rot took a toll on hulls, keels, and decking in addition to the great hazards of foundering in heavy weather, running aground, or being sunk or captured in combat.  But she was the core of English King Henry VIII’s small personal navy and for many of her years his heaviest ship laden with a huge complement of cannon.  She had survived combat, mostly against the French in the naval adventures that the Tudor monarch had been able to undertake against his much more formidable Continental enemies.

But she had been in idle reserve for years when she was hauled to dry dock almost completely rebuilt that year with a treasury newly swollen by the King’s seizure and closure of the monasteries. Records of her original conformation and of the reconstruction are sketchy but naval historians and archeologists believe she was probably re-planked with fresh heavy oak from the hull to the decks.  In the process at least one additional deck was added giving her a total of four, the distinctive high fore and aft castles of a carrack raised even more.  She was one of the first war ships outfitted with a new innovation—gun ports—that added two more levels of artillery platforms to the open deck.  In the new form she carried between 78 and 91 guns, although some were light deck swivel guns meant for anti-personnel use.  That was an enormous wallop, although the in-line battle formations that made the use of broadsides so deadly had not yet been developed.  She would have to try to deploy those guns in virtual free-for-all close quarter melees.  In the process of this her tonnage increased about 500 to between 700 and 900 and her complement of crew, soldiers, and gunners swollen considerably.

Henry must have been pleased.  He made Mary Rose the flagship of his navy and set her off in service of his dream of restoring England to major power status.

At the turn of the 16th Century, England, having lost all but a toehold of its French holdings and having been embroiled for years in the dynastic War of the Roses had been reduced to being a peripheral European power.  Mighty France was in the ascendency, Spain was newly unified and had begun to fatten from the plunder of gold and silver from the New World, and its Hapsburg dynasty also had control of the seafaring Low Countries. 

The English were far from the world dominant sea power they would become.  Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty at the end of the War of the Roses was able to maintain only a small personal navy—five or six reasonably heavy ships.  In time of war merchant vessels were hastily and sometimes unsuitably adapted as war ships and small fleets light galleys—the staple of naval warfare since Roman times were slapped together.  Most fighting would be done within sight of shore—often in support of raids, invasions, and land campaigns. 

Open water fleet confrontations were rare, but with the rapid development of global empires would become more important.  Most open ocean combat was commerce raiding and conducted by privateers.

Henry VIII as we are not used to seeing him--a just crowned 20 year old King who took special interest in the construction of new warships.

At the end of his reign Henry VII had a very small personal navy and only two sizable warships.  Circumstantial evidence indicates that he ordered the construction of the Mary Rose and a slightly smaller companion Peter Pomegranate to join his carracks Regent and Sovereign. Because the old growth giant oaks necessary for the two new ships had to be gathered from forest remnants across England, construction was not begun until just after young Henry VIII, then just 20 years old, assumed the throne.

The ambitious young monarch with big plans evidently took a personal interest in the construction.  He also probably selected her name, either for his favorite sister Mary and the Tudor Rose or for the Virgin Mary as symbolized by a rose.  Perhaps the name even had a double meaning.

Her keel was laid in Portsmouth in 1510 and she was launched in July 1511 and then towed to London and fitted with rigging and decking and supplied with armaments.  No known plans or pictures from life are known from this period and there is some controversy as to her exact conformation, but she drew about 500 tons.  The shape of the hull was a tumblehome form and reflected the use of the ship as a platform for heavy guns. Above the waterline, the hull gradually narrowed to compensate for the weight of the guns and to make boarding more difficult. 

The open deck between the fore and aft castles was meant to accommodate not only artillery, but scores of yeomen longbowmen who could rain death into the rigging and onto the decks of opposing warships.  There would also need to be room for compliments of heavy bruisers capable of wielding cutlasses in boarding parties.   These troops—and additional soldiers if she was on an invasion or raiding mission usually outnumbered the sailing crew and gunners. 

When Mary Rose set sail on her first combat cruise in 1512 she carried 206 sailors; 120 gunners; 22 sailing officers, surgeons, pursers, quartermasters, and the like; and 411 soldiers of all types.  That was a mighty crowded ship.

That year Henry VIII had made an alliance with the Spanish against the French after his marriage to Catherine of Aragon for the War of the League of Cambrai.  Her first action was as Admiral Sir Edward Howard’s flagship in action against a combined French and Breton fleet in the English Channel.  In action in support of a landing of Spanish troops further south, Howard’s fleet captured 12 Breton ships and conducted landings and raids along the Breton coast.  Her first action was a victory.

The Cordelière and Regent locked in a mutual death grip after a powder magazine explosion on the French ship set both a blaze from a contemporary illustration to a French poem about the battle.

Later that year she got to use her heavy guns against a superior fleet for the first time at the Battle of Saint-Mathieu off the coast of Brest.  Mary Rose reportedly led the charge into a large French/Breton fleet which was disorganized.  In a confused melee fight the English got the upper hand.  The battle is best remembered because the Breton flagship Cordelière and was boarded by the Regent, a newer English ship drawing 1,000 tons.  In the confusing fight the powder magazine of the Cordelière blew up setting fire to the Regent and sinking her.  Only about 180 and of the English ship’s crew and a handful of Bretons survived.  The High Admiral of France and the Steward of the town of Morlaix were among the hundreds killed.  Admiral Howard burned 27 French ships, captured another five and landed forces near Brest to raid and take prisoners.   More damage might have been done but Channel storms caused the English fleet to return to England for repairs.

The war dragged on another two years.  In 1512 Admiral Howard was killed after leading a boarding party against a pesky galley and the fleet returned to England in disarray.  By 1514 the war ended with a new peace between the old rivals and the marriage of Henry’s sister Mary to French King Louis XII.

Mary Rose other English carracks were taken out of ordinary and spruced to escort Henry VIII to his rendezvous with the French King Francis I at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in June 1520.  From the 1540 painting  The Embarkation of Henry VIII at Dover.

With the outbreak of peace Mary Rose and most other English war ships were laid up in ordinary—docked with a skeleton crew of a dozen or so and minimally maintained until 1522 with one short exception—she and other reserve ships were called into service and decorated lavishly to escort Henry to France for his meeting with new French King Francis I at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in June 1520. Their menacing magnificence was meant as a warning to the French king.

Peace could never last too long between the old rivals.  In 1522 Henry allied himself with Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the Papal States for a war on the Mediterranean power Venice and France.  England planned an invasion of France while French armies, the Austrians and Papal states slugged it out in Italy.  Mary Rose escorted an invasion fleet which captured the Breton port of Morlaix.  She returned to England without serious naval combat.  Most of the rest of the war was conducted on land in France, with the English managing to briefly threaten Paris.  The Scots joined the war on the French side and Mary Rose spent most of the rest of the war patrolling the Channel to deter French counter-raids and harass the Scots.

Meanwhile the French were defeated in Italy at the Battle of Pavia where Francis was captured by armies personally led by Charles V.  in 1525.  That ended Charles’s interest in the war and Henry was forced to withdraw empty handed from France.

Mary Rose returned to ordinary and kept in reserve until 1545.  It was during this period that she was “made new” along with most of the other capital ships of the small Navy under the stewardship of the King’s favorite at the time, Thomas Cromwell.  Despite the enlargement and reconstruction, she returned to ordinary for another nine years after work was completed.

Henry VIII complex marriage arrangements had made the former pious Defender of the Faith abandon Catholicism and awkwardly back into Protestantism.  His divorce from Catherine of Aragon who could not produce a male heir precipitated the change.  It also cut him off from his former alliance with Spain.  His very profitable—for him—seizure of the monasteries earned the further wrath of another former ally, the Pope.  Henry and England were diplomatically marginalized and the likely target for a Catholic crusade led by mighty France.

Once again Henry accepted an alliance with Charles V and agreed to cooperate on invasions of France from opposite directions.  Mary Rose was called to escort the invasion force that managed to capture Boulogne at great cost in September 1544.  But Charles made a separate peace with France and left his ally high, dry, and dangerously exposed.  The French were now able to concentrate their power against the English.

Galleys swarm carracks who can't bring their broadsides to bear against the fast, maneuverable gunboats. 

In July a huge force under the command of Admiral Claude d’Annebault set sail for England from Havre de Grâce with 128 ships including a large number of nimble Mediterranean galleys and an army of 30,000 or so.  The English could muster only 80 ships, most of them hastily converted merchantmen and about 18,000 troops.  After a brief attempt at a counter raid the English retreated to Portsmouth.  The French advanced into the Solent, the strait that separates the Isle of Wight from the mainland. They landed troops on the Isle and advanced on Portsmouth where the English capital ships were becalmed and unable to maneuver.

Henry VIII dined on board Great Harry, the flagship of Admiral John Dudley on the evening of July 18 and then retired to land to watch the battle unfold.  The French attacked with their galleys aiming to swarm and destroy the helpless warships.  The English had only a dozen galleys of their own, which they sent out on a virtual suicide mission to stop the attack.  Then, almost miraculously, the wind suddenly rose.  Led by the venerable Mary Rose, flagship of Vice Admiral George Carew, the English charged the attacking galleys scattering them.  They were driving to the French capital ships in the Solent when Mary Rose in the van suddenly foundered and sank taking over 400 of her crew and soldiers to their deaths.

Mary Rose heels over and founders in this 19th Century painting of the disaster.

The French thought that their galleys had managed to get close enough to sink her, but there is no evidence of that.  No one knows exactly how she came to suddenly disastrously take water.  The leading theory is that the inexperienced gun crews—there were hardly any other kind after all of the years of peace— left the lowest tier of gun ports open after a salvo allowing them to be swamped with water as she heeled over in a mild wind to make a turn. Henry watched unbelieving from shore.

Despite the loss, the English charge disrupted and scattered the French fleet.  Meanwhile multiple landings on the Isle of Wight were repulsed in bitter fighting.  They took especially heavy casualties in an assault on the newly built fortress at Bonchurch which was defended by local militia.

His invasion in disarray and his own flagship leaking heavily and in danger of sinking out from under him, Admiral d’Annebault abandoned his attack and sailed back to France.  England had almost miraculously been saved.

The mysterious fate of the gallant Mary Rose quickly became the stuff of legend and of ballads. 

Her loss and the close call encouraged Henry VIII to modernize his navy.  While still in the King’s Service the fleet was reorganized into the Navy Royal and expanded to 58 vessels by the time of Henry’s death in 1547.  His immediate successors, the boy king Edward VI and Queen Mary let the fleet deteriorate again to a mere coastal defense force.  Elizabeth I is usually credited with the determination to make England a world dominate naval power, but she had to rely on privateers and pirates like John Hawkins and Francis Drake to beat back the next great invasion threat—the Spanish Armada.  It was not until Restoration of Charles II in 1660 that the modern Royal Navy was officially created.

The dive team that discovered Mary Rose--Lt. Comander Alan Bax at center.

As for Mary Rose, she lay unmolested below the Solent for centuries until her wreckage was discovered in 1971 after years of searching by teams led by historian, journalist, and amateur diver Alexander McKee and a group led by Lieutenant-Commander Alan Bax of the Royal Navy, sponsored by the Committee for Nautical Archaeology in London.  The two teams had originally been fierce rivals with different theories of how she was lost and where exactly she might lay, but eventually combined efforts. She was found buried in silt 1.9 miles south of the entrance to Portsmouth harbor at a depth of just 36 feet at low tide.

The location had to be kept a secret because under British law at the time she could be freely plundered by looters and treasure hunters.  As a thin legal fiction, the discovery teams leased the seabed from Portsmouth harbor to afford questionable protection.  In 1973 Parliament finally passed the Protection of Wrecks Act that the Mary Rose was declared to be of national historic interest and enjoyed full legal protection from any disturbance by commercial salvage teams.  Even then there were years of lingering litigation and “personal items” retrieved from the wreck like chests, clothing remnants, cooking utensils, and some tools were claimed as fair game by salvagers and were in danger of being seized and auctioned off if raised from the wreck. 

It took years for a Mary Rose Committee with representatives from the National Maritime Museum, the Royal Navy, the BBC, and local Portsmouth organizations to raise money, mostly from private donors, to begin serious attempts to save and raise the ship.  The Committee became a registered charity in 1974, the same year it got official Royal patronage from Prince Charles, who made dives to the site. 

By 1978 initial excavation was complete revealing a remarkably intact hull.  Now that the hull was exposed, preservationists had to act quickly before biological decay and the scouring of the currents destroyed the wreckage. 

The cost of raising her would be enormous so a new organization, The Mary Rose Trust was created to raise funds and oversee the operations.  In 1979 the salvage vessel Sleipner was purchased for the operation and diving grew to 50 man teams working nine months a year with scores of additional volunteer divers.  From 1979 to 1982 over 22,000 diving hours were spent on the site, amounting to 11.8 man-years.

Raising Mary Rose.

On the morning of October 11, 1982 just before foul weather would delay the project another year and after years of technological challenges, fits and starts, and sometimes dissention on the team, the operation to raise the wreck finally began.  A special frame that had been built to encase and stabilize the wreck was slowly jacked up on four legs straddling the wreck site to pull her off the seabed. The massive crane of the barge Tog Mor was lifted the frame and hull on to the specially designed cradle which was padded with water-filled bags.  Then with Prince Charles, BBC crew, and scores of excited witnesses the final lift began with the wreck breaking water at 9:02.  Despite one leg of the frame buckling and a corner of the frame slipping nearly 3 feet, the hull was lifted successfully out with minimal damage. 

The hull was brought to the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard by where Admiral Horatio Nelson’s flagship Victory was preserved.  Decades of meticulous preservation work was completed in carefully climate controlled environments, much of the time with the wreck and work observable to the public behind glass.  Special care also had to be taken with hundreds of artifacts from the wreck which went on display in the nearby Mary Rose Museum. 

Viewing Mary Rose behind glass at the new Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth.

The new Mary Rose Museum was designed by architects Wilkinson Eyre, Perkins+Wil and carefully built over and around not only the wreck but the historic dry dock at a cost of £35 million.  It opened to the public on May 31, 2013.  More than 50 million visitors have already toured the facility and in 2017 year it was voted the most popular tourist attraction in Europe.

Preservation of the hull is finally nearly complete.  It is slowly being dried under careful conditions.  But right now visitors can see the resurrected Mary Rose.

No comments:

Post a Comment