The Mary Rose: The Tudor knowledge raised with a Shipwreck

On 11th October 1982, King Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose, was raised from the ocean bed after 437 years beneath the sea.

Originally due to join the English forces against the French on 19th July 1545, her campaign ended almost before it had begun. As she left Portsmouth harbour a freak gust of wind tilted her onto her side and she filled with water at a terrifying speed. Even though the ship had travelled less than a mile, only 30 of the 415 men on board survived. Trapped by the netting that had been put up to prevent the French from boarding the ship during battle, nearly everyone drowned, including the Vice Admiral, Sir George Carew and her captain Roger Grenville. King Henry VIII gave orders for the Mary Rose to be raised straight away, but all attempts failed. Another attempt was made to liberate her from the ocean in the nineteenth century, but it wasn’t until the twentieth century that historians were successful in their quest.

In 1967 the Mary Rose Committee was formed. This group recognised the cultural, military and historic importance of the ship and it was decided to excavate the hull completely, to attempt to recover her for conservation and permanent display. In 1971, with very little money and a team of volunteers, the shipwreck excavation began; continuing until 1978.
Straight away the underwater archaeologists began to uncover information about Tudor life on the ship. They discovered the bow was preserved just as it had been in 1545 when it settled on the seabed, with artefacts, personal possessions and ship’s stores all intact. Far more was learned about the Tudor way of life once the ship was raised in 1982. The procedure, which was difficult and delicate, was achieved by attaching a vast metal cradle lined with air bags beneath the hull, which was slowly and gently raised to the surface. It was another 30 years however, before the timbers of the ship were preserved well enough to be displayed to the public.

The Mary Rose is a time capsule of Tudor life. The historian David Starkey referred to it as, “Britain’s Pompeii.” Not only can we learn about the ship’s construction, but we can gain a real insight into the daily lives of the sailors on board, but about the men themselves. Maritime archaeologist Alex Hildred explains, “…men and boys – whose ages range from 12 to 40 – were found on board… (giving) a really good glimpse of Tudor males at a moment in time… They were pretty well fed once they were on the ship – we know that from the diet. But there had been severe famines in the 1520s, so some of their bones have got evidence of vitamin deficiency, such as rickets or sometimes scurvy from the fact that they suffered as children. They’ve also got a lot of healed fractures – which is what you’d expect on a warship – a number of broken noses, one arrow wound and some arthritis. These guys were used to lifting heavy things.”

The Mary Rose also provides us with a perfect snapshot of the tools used by many of the tradesmen of the time; such as carpenters, cobblers and cooks. Nearly all of the items from the sailors’ working lives and their personal possessions, including gaming dice and other recreational activities, have been captured within the wreck.

The tragedy of the Mary Rose was a major blow for King Henry VIII’s war effort and the local population of Portsmouth. Today, however, it provides us with a window to the past, and a unique historical catalogue of Tudor life.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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