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