Sunday, 2 April 2017

Portsmouth 2017 - The Mary Rose

The Mary Rose, King Henry VIII's Flagship, 1545 - Geoff Hunt PPRSMA
Royal Society of Marine Artists/Geoff Hunt PPRSMA

It was back in April last year that I posted about our trip to Portmouth Historic Dockyard and the fantastic range of displays that covers the long and fascinating history of the Royal Navy.

At the time we were hard pushed to get round everything and indeed one of the major attractions, namely the Mary Rose display, was not yet open due to the new building built to display the now dry remains of the wreck not being ready for public access.

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard 2016

Thus we made plans to make a return visit within the twelve months our family ticket lasted to give us access to those displays not seen on our first visit.

Mary Rose

So last month we headed back to Portsmouth and headed straight for the Mary Rose, a ship that we had not visited for many years, the late nineties in fact when both the boys were little; and eager to see the results of the conservation project that had the timbers sprayed for many years in preservatives to eventually allow them to be seen today dry but in a carefully controlled atmosphere within the multi million pound purpose built display hall pictured in the post from last year.

The Mary Rose Museum

The loss of the Mary Rose 1545, seen by Henry VIII on horseback in front of Southsea Castle, Cowdray engraving, courtesy of Kester Keighley
I think the story of the Mary Rose is certainly well known to most British people who have become familiar with the project to preserve the remains of the warship since its raising from the bottom of the River Solent back on October 11th 1982.

The Mary Rose, named after Henry VIII favourite sister Mary Tudor and later Queen of France, was built in Portsmouth between 1509-10 and in 1514 was described as carrying seven heavy bronze and thirty four heavy iron guns designed to take advantage of the new idea of cutting holes in the hull with lids for them to fire out of and allowing multiple guns to be lined up along the deck.

In 1512 during the First French War 1512-1514, she took part in the Battle of Saint-Mathieu with a French and Breton fleet near Brest, thought to be the first naval battle when ships fired at each other through cannon ports.

The destruction of the French Cordeliere and English Regent at the Battle of Saint Mathieu 1512 - Pierre Julien Gilbert
Battle of Saint-Mathieu 1512

Admiral Sir Edward Howard who had the Mary Rose as his flagship during the battle wrote a letter to the King describing the qualities of the great ship

"your good ship, the flower I trow of all ships that ever sailed"

By 1545 and the Mary Rose's second and final engagement she had been developed into a very powerful Man of War if the Anthony Inventory of 1546 is a guide, with some of the earliest modern cast bronze guns made in London for the King being recovered from the wreck.

Three principle types of gun carried on the Mary Rose
The Anthony Inventory of 1546 of guns and ammunition carried on the Mary Rose
And so it was that in 1545 and the Third French War 1542-1546 which saw England at odds with the rest of Europe (sounds vaguely familiar!) following Henry's dissolution of the Catholic church and its infrastructure, that a large French invasion fleet arrived off the mouth of the River Solent on the 16th July 1545 with 128 ships in preparation for a landing of 50,000 French and allied troops.

The English fleet of 80 ships including the Mary Rose remained in harbour having very few galleys under command; vessels that were much better suited to operating within confined and sheltered waters such as the Solent.

Battle of the Solent 1545

On the 19th of July with the great English sailing ships becalmed in harbour, the French galleys made an attack designed to take out the few English galleys that might have intercepted their landing operation, only to find the wind suddenly start to rise just at the same time allowing the English fleet lead by the Mary Rose and the Henry Grace a Dieu to sail out to give battle.

Mary Rose Sinking, the last terrifying minutes of the great ship - Geoff Hunt PPRSMA
One of the thirty five or so survivors recorded what happened, several years later, as the two lead English ships attacked the leading enemy galleys, describing how the Mary Rose had fired the guns from one side of the ship and turned to fire again, but dipped her open gun ports below the water and sank immediately.

The King witnessed the sinking together with his troops gathered close to Southsea Castle and captured in the Cowdray engraving above and one can only imagine the shock as the ship heeled over taking 400 of her crew down with her inside the hull or trapped on deck behind the rigged anti boarding nets.

Despite the loss, the English fleet managed to disrupt the enemy landing and desultory fighting went on around the Solent and the nearby shore until the French withdrew on the 22nd July unable to supply their fleet and with sickness among their crews and damaged ships in need of repair.

In spite of Tudor and later 19th century efforts at salvaging the wreck, the Mary Rose lay on her side in forty feet of water for 437 years until her raising in October 1982. The part of the hull embedded in the muddy bottom of the Solent survived the centuries of tide and current, gradually entombing the remains of crew and contents until their re-discovery, and this time capsule is the Mary Rose exhibtion today at the historic dockyard close to where the ship was laid down back in 1509.

The amazingly well preserved hull section forms the centrepiece of the display
The side of the hull that survived the centuries is now in a preserved dry state seen above in an environmentally controlled display hall with air lock doors and a lighting display that allows for clips of re-enactors in period dress to be projected into the crew areas illustrating what they might have been doing on the day of battle.

On the other side of the walkway gallery, the opposite side of the hull, seen in the pictures below, is recreated with cannon salvaged from the wreck, arrayed through recreated gun ports to complete the illusion of the complete ship.

One of the great bronze cannon points menacingly out from its recreated gun port
An iron breech loading gun mounted on a wheeled carriage salvaged from the wreck

The great bronze cannon on their wooden carriages appear strikingly modern and not unlike those aboard the Victory, close by, and yet these were the first of their kind in naval gunnery and an illustration of the effort and treasure Henry lavished on his Royal Navy; and would go on to serve his daughter, Queen Elizabeth, well when England was threatened with a much larger invasion threat from the Spanish Armada in 1588, something we all know well in Devon.

The recreated gun deck with the tools and ammunition seen about the guns

The Mary Rose was, like all fighting ships, not just a weapon of war but also a home to the crew that served aboard her and lived within the confines of the ship between times of battle.

When the wreck was salvaged the possessions of the crew together with their remains provided an amazing insight to the Tudor Royal Navy and the period as a whole and it is perhaps this aspect that makes this exhibition so special.

From the remains of the ships dog, nicknamed 'Hatch' after being found close to the sliding door of a cabin, to the personal items of clothing and jewellery, the remains of crew members identified through the items found with them or in the part of the ship they were found, and with their character brought to life with the facial reconstructions of their skulls; the last moments of the Mary Rose are brought to life in a vivid way that informs but also serves as a great memorial to the 400 crewmen who lost their lives on the 19th July 1545.

The remains of 'Hatch' an eighteen month old long legged terrier with DNA
closely related to a 'Jack Russell'

As a gamer, I can appreciate any game to help pass the time with friends.
This, oakwood inlaid with spruce, backgammon set was found folded within a cabin
together with eight poplar counters and a dice shaker.

These beautifully carved wooden linstocks all produced in a time when
standardised military kit was still a novelty

The Tudor world was one of predominantly wood and leather objects, items that rarely survive on land archaeological sites,
but such items that makes the Mary Rose such a treasure trove.

As mentioned the display sets out to show how the ship was worked and the people who did that work and where on the ship they might have been stationed as she went into action.

The complete skeleton of an archer has revealed the unique aspects of these fighting men and the effects of their skill at arms had on their bodies.

This is a big man and his bones reveal large depressions on them that suggest his muscles and especially his arm muscles were well developed and powerful.

In addition his shoulder blades revealed a condition known as 'acromiale' where the acromion or the prominent bone at the top of the shoulder blade has not fused, a process that normally occurs between the age of 18-25, but can be prevented by regular strain.

A lot of the skeletons aboard the Mary Rose revealed this condition particularly on the left side where an archer would exert the most force when drawing the longbow with his right arm.

The reconstruction of the archer reveals what an imposing warrior he and his comrades were and as well as delivering the most formidable shooting capability before the development of hand guns would have been very capable of giving a good account of themselves in hand to hand combat.

The weapon that dominated the European battlefields through the mid and late middle-ages was the English longbow a force multiplier par excellence as Crecy, Agincourt and Towton can clearly demonstrate, and was still a formidable ship borne armament as well as arming the troops carried on Henry's ships for land operations.

As well as arrows and bows galore, the standard side arm or 'bollock' knife was also ubiquitous and can be seen in the picture below alongside the personal items decorated in that quaint military fashion that still pertains today of putting your name on anything that belongs to you and you would like to keep.

The reconstructions of the crew members really keep the human loss of life front and centre of this exhibition and rightly so.

As wargamers we, through our combat charts and game mechanisms together with the wider reading most of us do, get a better understanding than most of the capabilities of the weaponry that characterised a particular era in history and the casualties that could be inflicted. However we play games where no one gets killed and family and friends don't suffer the grief of the loss of their loved ones and these personalised displays serve as a vivid reminder of the lives lost when people go to war.

The weaponry recovered from the wreck is perhaps one of the most informing parts of the exhibition as these boarding pikes, swords, knives and bows, not to mention the cannon and swivel guns show the state of the profession of arms in 1545 as this ship went into action.

A multitude of boarding pikes and halberds, very useful when the fighting gets 'close and personal'

This is no reconstruction, but an actual leather scabbard, belt and hangers for an officers sword

The only officers basket hilted sword to survive the wreck was found buried beneath the ship and is of English origin

The Mary Rose revealed the secrets of English longbow construction and use, with the design of the bow relying on the strength and spring of English yew wood. The slightly curved example shows a bow that had an owner, whereas the new cut and turned examples still in the store boxes are straight and unused.

Made from a single stave of yew wood, an skilled archer could shoot between twelve and twenty arrows a minute and the Mary Rose was provisioned with 250 longbows within five chests.

The opportunity for any red-blooded Englishman to make up for not having stood with Henry V on St Crispin's Day is presented by being able to test the long forgotten but remembered skill with the longbow that comes with playing cricket and understanding the difference between lager and real ale.

Modesty and a certain rustiness with the old longbow forbids a picture of your humble author drawing a steady bead on the approaching foe, so Will provides a much better example of a 21st century English long-bowman.

And finally I thought I would finish this post about a ship that says as much about the King that had her constructed as it does about the naval and military architecture of the day

King Henry VIII 1491 - 1547
King Henry VIII had a dramatic effect on the country he ruled and his legacy, certainly in England and Wales lasts to this day.

The recent events of the UK and the announcement of our leaving the European Union has lead to the government turning to a legal instrument designed by and called the 'Henry VIII clauses' to bring forward the 'Great Repeal Bill' designed to repatriate European law to UK law, last used by the King to facilitate his changes to the church and state in 1539 giving him the power to legislate by proclamation, an idea contentious even today.

King Henry would have faced opposition at home to his plans just as the current debates today illustrate although with slightly less head chopping, but the need to assert the right to rule and to make it known was as important then as it is today.

In addition England was starting to look to assert its position in Europe as a military power more than capable of developing the latest weaponry that would defend the King's assertion of power. A clear illustration of these two driving forces in Tudor England can be seen on the barrel of the gun pictured below.

The gun was a forward firing demi-culverin positioned on the front of the sterncastle and was so positioned to fire over the front forecastle. It can be seen on a replica acrylic carriage designed to show the position of iron parts discovered with the barrel on the wreck.
The forward firing demi-culverin on the top deck of the sterncastle
positioned to fire forward over the forecastle. 
This gun known as a 'bastard -gun' because the length and bore are not standard for this type of gun shows by the Latin and English inscriptions an insight into the King's assertion to rule without interference from the Catholic church and the extent of that rule together with a growing confidence in the assertion of the power of English arms.

The Power and the Glory
The Latin script plate seen positioned below the Tudor Rose on the top of the barrel is a statement of Henry's ownership of the gun and his new position as head of state and the church.

"Henry the Eighth, by the Grace of God, King of England and France, Defender of the Faith, Lord of Ireland and on earth the Supreme Head of the English Church"

So now you know who is in charge.

Made in England
Earlier guns were cast for Henry VIII by foreign gunfounders, but the inscription proudly stresses that this gun was made by Englishmen, Robert and John Owen from London.

"Robert and John Owen brethryn borne in the cyte of London the sonnes of an Inglissh made thys bastard anno dni 1537"

Now that's what you call a trade mark!

On stepping out from the Mary Rose I grabbed a shot of one of her modern day replacements, although part of a much reduced fleet, the traditions of courage and service continue.

Our trip to Portsmouth will continue with a look at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum across the water in Gosport, an old lady from WWI and the Gallipoli Campaign HMS M33 and the Roman Fortress later Castle at Portchester, part of the Saxon Shore defences interspersed with the next Spanish infantry unit the Second Battalion, Murcia Regiment for Talavera.


  1. Nice JJ. The Mary Rose has always fascinated me.

    The reconstructions of the archers and their bows make you realise what men our ancestors were. The over developed musculature due to constant (and compulsory) practice at the butts from an early age needed to use the raw power of the war bow. I believe some of the longbows recovered from the Mary Rose have draw weights estimated in the 180 - 185 lb range. Given that modern longbows rarely exceed 100 lb draw, it shows the the strength and technique required to use a 185 lb bow. As contempories are quoted as saying, "the French draw their bows, the English bend them".


    1. Thanks Vince, yes that 'longbow' simulator really made you appreciate the power required to make those things bend and the likely result of being on the wrong end of the arrows they delivered.

      The whole exhibition is an amazing experience and highly reccomended.

  2. A well written piece. Thanks very much.

    1. Thank you Robbie, glad you enjoyed the read.

  3. Great piece, I took my daughter just before it was closed down for renovations,she found it fascinating. It's's a really good museum.
    Best Iain

    1. Thank you Iain, yes we took Tom and Will years ago when they were boys and so the return visit with them was great fun. The whole experience is much better since the sprays were turned off in 2013 and the ship has been dried out enabling a much better viewing of the wreck itself.

  4. An outstanding report that is only excelled by the photos. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    1. Hi Rod, thank you, that's very kind. The exhibition is not the easiest venue to take pictures in as the lighting is kept low, probably purposefully so to preserve the exhibits, and as mentioned in the post, the projection of the crew reenactment on to the ship's hull.