An on board society: The Mary Rose

In 1963, historian and amateur diver Alexander McKee began searching for wrecks of historic ships in the Solent. He soon began focusing on one in particular that he judged to be ‘the most important shipwreck in North Western Europe’. This was the Tudor warship Mary Rose.

Built in Portsmouth, England, for Henry VIII in 1510, Mary Rose soon saw action in naval engagements against the French in 1512 and seems to have been highly successful. She was reportedly unusually fast and manoeuvrable for a vessel of some 600 tons. But the importance of Mary Rose lies in much more than historical association. This ship represented fundamental changes in the processes of design and construction of large ships that were occurring throughout Northern Europe at this time. The reasons for these changes reach deep into society in which medieval Europe was becoming modern.

As states like France, Scotland, Spain, England, Denmark and Sweden became increasingly competitive at sea, ships became increasingly important economically, militarily and politically. Technologically the principle changes were the adoption of a method of construction known as ‘carvel’ (believed to derive from the Portuguese ship type ‘caravella’) and the steady increase in the number and size of guns carried aboard. Carvel technology proved more suitable for building large ships and their frame-orientated hulls were less compromised when built with a series of lidded gunports near the water. These gunports enabled the ship to carry a far greater weight of ordnance lower in the ship for greater stability.

Later in life, after being repeatedly repaired and rebuilt as all wooden ships are, Mary Rose was heavier and carried an even a greater weight of heavy guns. This had certainly made her less stable and on July 19th in 1545, fighting against an invading French fleet in the Solent, she heeled too far, took water in through the gunports and capsized. Strenuous attempts to salvage the ship failed and she was abandoned.

The site was lost from memory until discovered by the pioneer divers John and Charles Deane in 1836. During the next four years they recovered various materials including some of the great guns, longbows and other items. But after they finished their operations the site was once more forgotten – until Alexander McKee started his search.

Having little to go on, at first the search seemed hopeless. The first break was locating the charts left by the Deanes, now in Portsmouth Museum. Their operations seemed to have been exactly where a contemporary painting of the battle of the Solent showed the sunken Mary Rose to be. He concentrated his search in this area but the seabed was flat and featureless and the visibility often less than a metre.

McKee then had another piece of luck. He read that Professor Harold Edgerton from MIT was to demonstrate his new sidescan and sub-bottom sonar systems for potential customers in the UK. He wrote to Edgerton and suggested that a specific area of the Solent might be an interesting location to test the new equipment. Remarkably, during 1967 and ‘68 both Edgerton’s sonars did indeed detect anomalies that later proved to be the wreck of Mary Rose.

From 1971 when the first timbers were seen, the project embarked on eleven years of underwater excavation and recording. McKee quickly realised that he needed an archaeologist to direct the work and so Margaret Rule, then Director of the Fishbourne Palace Museum, joined the team and learnt to dive. By 1975, the young Keith Muckelroy had become her Deputy Director and the first deep trenches down to the keel had been dug. By 1978, trenches at the bow and stern had demonstrated that what was left of Mary Rose survived as one coherent unit. This would not only make total excavation worthwhile as much of the contents would be in situ but make the salvage of the hull possible as well. To that end the Mary Rose Trust was formed in 1979 its aims being to recover the hull and its contents and preserve them for all time.

There followed another four years of almost full time excavation that steadily transformed our understanding of life at sea in the early 16th century. Many of the astonishingly well-preserved objects lay where they had been stored or used, revealing how an early Tudor warship was organised and used both as a weapon and as a symbol of royal power. But if archaeology is fundamentally about people, then one of the most fascinating aspects of Mary Rose is the glimpse we get of her on-board society of more than 400 people.

We see where particular members of the crew such as mariners, gunners, navigators, carpenters and cooks, worked, ate, slept and fought. We also see how they were fed according to their professional and social status, as well as how their illnesses and injuries were treated by the barber-surgeon. In the process many of our prior expectations were proved wrong. Everything from the hull form and construction of the ship to the personal possessions of the crew revealed new information, not just about life at sea but of the period in general. This is because Mary Rose was in use at a time when specialisation of equipment for use at sea was in its infancy. In later periods almost everything was ‘navy issue’ including domestic items.

While some items on Mary Rose bore a broad arrow or Henry’s initials HR (Henricus Rex), denoting that they were purchased with his money, many more were the same as those that would have been found ashore: clothing, musical instruments, books, sun dials, tankards, combs, games such as backgammon and dice, knives, fishing equipment and even Rosaries. It is precisely because so many of these humble, personal objects no longer survive elsewhere that the Mary Rose collection is so important in providing us with an unparalleled view of Tudor life. At the same time it is in the timbers, the navigation instruments, the weapons and the rig of Mary Rose that we see a key stage in the development of the ocean-going ships that were to become so important in an increasingly global world.

As the excavation drew to a close towards the end of 1981, the decision was made to press ahead with the recovery of the ship. The salvage method involved drilling the hull at specific locations to install bolt packs that would both reinforce the hull and provide lifting points. Tunnels were dug under the ship to install the backing plates and the bolts were then connected by wires to a steel lifting frame placed on the seabed over the ship. Hydraulic jacks were then attached to the lifting frame, raising it millimetre by millimetre, the ship suspended beneath it on the wires. A huge crane ‘Tog Mor’ was then used to transfer the hull into a steel cradle. On October 11th 1982, the whole assemblage, weighing 600 tons was raised into the air, placed on a barge and towed into Portsmouth harbour. In all nearly 30,000 dives had been carried out involving nearly 600 people, the largest ever underwater excavation.

A new phase now began in earnest in which the ship needed to be stabilised and conserved while a museum was constructed to present the ship, its contents and its story to the public. Active conservation treatment involved spraying the ship with polyethylene glycol, so the first museum which opened in 1984 was in a nearby building. The long term aim was one day to re-unite the ship and her contents and this was finally achieved in 2013 with the opening of an impressive new museum constructed around the ship itself. When visiting the Mary Rose museum you are only a stone’s throw from where she was originally built.

Jon Adams

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