Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Mary Rose

by Judith Arnopp

The Mary Rose
Portsmouth 19th July 1545

It is a bright July morning, the sort of morning that can only promise victory. In the air the sound of jingling horse harness, pennants snapping in the sharp Solent breeze, and from far off comes a shouted command from the royal fleet. King Henry VIII and his entourage stand watching on the green English hillside as the Tudor ships prepare to do battle against the much larger invading French fleet.  Slowly, led by the Great Harry and the Mary Rose, the royal ships manoeuvre into battle position and the first guns begin to sound.  

The Mary Rose fires first from the starboard side. On the hillside the watching women flinch and cover their ears and the King and his friend, Charles Brandon, smile indulgently at their womanly ways. The king looks out to sea again as the pride of his navy slowly turns to offer broadside attack.

A sudden gust of wind, seemingly from nowhere, lifts the King’s cloak, making him shudder.“Someone walking over my grave,” he says as he pulls it closer to his body. He glances at his wife, Catherine, and misses the moment when the Mary Rose first falters. 

When he looks again the action is stilled, the great ship momentarily balanced on the cusp of fate. The king, sensing danger, holds his breath, sends up a prayer.  But, in a heartbeat, the ship is heeling over, her open gun ports filling with water.  On the snapping breeze the screams of the stricken men are borne toward the royal party and the old king watches transfixed as the massive cannon break free, bursting through the sides of the ship, surging into the waves.  The tilting deck is a chaos of fleeing men. They are screaming, leaping from assured death to certain drowning and, as they run, they cast off their clothing, kick off their shoes in the futile hope that they will float when once the swelling sea engulfs them.

The end is quick. Henry can scarce believe what has happened. He sits amazed while around him on the hillside, women are weeping, wailing, praying. Charles Brandon and Anthony Browne are shouting, waving their arms, fighting to mount terrified horses, although there is nothing to be done. It is far too late to prevent disaster.  Henry knows it in his heart.  Now, the only visible sign of the pride of his navy are the top of the masts, the mainsail foundering in the waves like a great fish of jelly.  Just a few survivors are clinging to the fighting tops, while all around in the balmy sea, the remnants of his fighting crew are flotsam.


On July 19th 1545, with the loss of more than 400 lives, the royal flagship The Mary Rose sank beneath the waves, settled into the silt of the Solent, and became history. Four hundred years later, in 1982, when archaeologists successfully raised her from the seabed, I was watching. I may have been glued to the television screen seventy miles away from Portsmouth but, in my heart, I was there with the team, experiencing one of the most profound moments of my life.

In the intervening years I have visited the museum several times and closely followed the Mary Rose Trust in its unstinting efforts to salvage not just the wreck, but the thousands of artefacts found alongside it.  For the past nineteen years the timbers of the wreck have been constantly sprayed with polyethylene glycol to preserve and reinforce the structure, but now the time has come to turn off the spray and begin drying her out. It is also time for the wreck and its artefacts to be brought back together and housed in one fabulous exhibition.

The Mary Rose is the only 16th century warship on display anywhere in the world. She offers an invaluable resource for historians, illustrating in minute detail, life as it was on a Tudor warship. Artefacts that, in normal circumstances would have been lost to us have been preserved for five hundred years in the Solent silt. They can now be viewed in situ in a new museum which opened in Portsmouth in May 2013. Visitors to the museum are able to walk along a central gangway and view the original wreck on one side while, on the other side, see a reconstruction of how experts believe the interior of the Mary Rose may have looked on the day she sank.

Henry VIII’s obsessive war with France left England a legacy of isolation in Europe, religious conflict, inflation, national penury and social upheaval, and what little gains he did make were short lived. In the 1550’s Boulogne was given back to France, and in 1558 Calais, England’s last possession on the continent, was lost.

Today, in hindsight, we can see the loss of the Mary Rose as the one positive outcome of his war with France. What was undoubtedly a tragedy and a huge blow to Henry VIII has now become a gift to us as a nation, and every single person who went down with her that day did not die in vain. They are not forgotten. The wreck of the Mary Rose provides precious insight into life on a Tudor warship, an aspect of 16th century life that would otherwise be completely closed.

It is not just the salvaged cannon or the armour and weapons that are invaluable, it is the small, everyday things. They have become the greatest treasures. There is no thrill on this earth like looking at a handful of dice last thrown by a sailor in 1545, or a leather shoe last worn by a man defending our shores from French invasion five hundred years ago, or a nit comb still thick with 16th century lice. To me, and other peculiar people like me, those things are rarer, and more thrilling, than the crown jewels.

The Mary Rose Trust requires constant funding to maintain the upkeep of the wreck and the museum so donations are always welcome. Should you ever have the opportunity to visit the Mary Rose exhibition in Portsmouth you should let nothing stand in your way.

The link to information and tickets is here.

Judith Arnopp is the author of historical fiction set in the medieval and Tudor period. For more information on her work please visit her webpage. http://www.juditharnopp.com

Pictures from Wikimedia commons


  1. So interesting! It really is the little things that are so fascinating. I get started thinking--wonder if they can extract human DNA from the lice in that comb? Match it with a living relative? Wouldn't that be something!
    In writing my historical fiction, I love to home in on the little things. The things not written in history books--the women spinning and weaving, cooking.

  2. I am glad you enjoyed the post Michele. It was a really moving experience. I haven't been to the new exhibition but when I saw it years ago it made such an impact - the small articles more than the hull itself. An interesting thought about the DNA :)

  3. Thank you for personalizing this for the followers of the blog. I have been intrigued by the Mary Rose long before she was lifted from the sea.

  4. Interesting post. I recently had the opportunity to go aboard a replica of the Nina (one of the Columbus ships), and that was quite an experience. But I think seeing actual fragments and artifacts salvaged from the real Mary Rose would be even more moving. Like Michele, I wonder if some DNA could be extracted from some of the artifacts like the comb.

  5. Hi Linda and Elizabeth, thank you for commenting. The quantity of artefacts salvaged never ceases to amaze me. The condition of some of them is astounding, as if the ship sank yesterday. DNA analysis would depend upon whether it is lice or nits (spent eggs) clogging the combs I would think.

  6. Great post Judith. It's hard to believe The Mary Rose has waited all those years to reveal her secrets. Also amazing to think what could still be lying undiscovered somewhere!


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