‘All Tudor Life is There’. The Mary Rose Reborn.


The Mary Rose and I go way back.

Like many people of my generation, my first experience of the Tudor warship came on a school trip. It’s the first school trip that stuck in my mind – taking the coach from Mudeford Junior School in Dorset, down the M27 to Portsmouth Historic Dockyards. In fact, I really remember three things from that trip: the route the coach took (I was obsessed with roads), a rather disturbingly precise description of how Admiral Nelson was killed by a French sniper, and the Mary Rose.

Unfortunately, that last bit is not the whole truth, for what I really remember about the Mary Rose, was the disappointment. For, to a schoolboy who’d just enjoyed the glories of HMS Victory – a complete, fully-armed, sail-ship straight out of the days of piracy on the high seas – the Mary Rose was frankly a bit dull. It was, to be honest, a misty shell of a hull, looking like little more than a few planks of soggy wood in a shed.

It’s like the ship was perennially unlucky. According to (inaccurate) popular myth, she capsized on her maiden voyage, much to the embarrassment of Henry VIII. Having sat at the bottom of Portsmouth Harbour for centuries, she was then dragged up in the early 1980s, and then forced to sit there, in a warehouse. And if that was not enough, she was stuck next to HMS Victory – one of the great celebrities of the heritage world – perpetually in her shadow.

Of course, her story is much more interesting than that. She is, let’s not forget, the only sixteenth-century warship on display anywhere in the world. Given how critical a period this was in maritime history, that in itself is enough to recommend her as one of our great historical treasures.

In fact, her pivotal place in the history of naval warfare is now abundantly clear. Launched in 1511, she was one of the first carvel rather than clinker-built ships. This meant that the planks of her hull were linked at the edges rather than overlapping, so that she could support a greater variety of sail riggings. It also made the introduction of gun-ports more feasible, and modern scholars speculate that she may even have been the first English ship to fire a broadside.

The Mary Rose, from the Anthony Roll.
The Mary Rose, from the Anthony Roll.

In doing so, she signalled the future – a future that looked forward to Nelson and Trafalgar. But her weapons were also rooted in the past. She was armed not just with modern breech-loading cannons, guns that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Victory, but also older guns, made of wrought iron strips, not dissimilar to those deployed in sieges in the Hundred Years War. Some of the marines on board were armed with gunpowder weapons, but many more fought with longbows. Though she was capable of firing broadsides in the manner of later naval warfare, she was also kitted to fight in the old style, where ships would ram into each other, launch boarding parties, and fight hand-to-hand.

In was in response to this threat of being boarded that ships like the Mary Rose were fitted out with a net across the across its upper deck. But this had tragic consequences when the worst happened.

On the 18th of July, a French invasion fleet – larger than the Spanish Armada – lay off Portsmouth. Outnumbered, and watched by their King Henry VIII, the English fleet sailed out of the town and engaged; the following day, the Mary Rose – probably turning after firing – caught a breeze, heeled, and took water through her open gunports. She sank so quickly that her crew, caught under the protective net, drowned. Out of some 400-500 souls, just 35-40 survived.

It is the story of these men that forms the centrepiece of the new Mary Rose museum, which opens tomorrow. I had the great fortune to review the new museum a couple of weeks ago for BBC Radio 3. I was, I have to say, pretty nervous about the experience: the Mary Rose had already disappointed me once in my life, and this time I was returning as someone who dedicated my professional life to the historical culture that produced her. If these truly were the most famous remnants of the Tudor period, it really mattered whether or not she was presented well. Badly executed, and the new museum had the potential to turn a new generation of schoolchildren away from my period of history.

The Battle of the Solent, 1545. The Cowdray Engraving.
The Battle of the Solent, 1545. The Cowdray Engraving.

Thankfully, the museum dispelled my fears triumphantly. You approach it through the dockyards themselves, past HMS Warrior, past a sign informing you of the terror threat level (an unusual experience in a history museum), and past – of course – Victory: still the prima donna of the maritime heritage world. The building, once you enter it, is cleverly designed so that you walk down corridors that mirror the surviving hull, allowing you not only to see where things would have been placed, but also to experience something of the dank and cramped conditions on board. The idea, say the curators, is to create an ‘immersive’ experience for visitors.

But it’s the stuff which is the real star of the show. The site has yielded some 19,000 items, from the expected cannons and weaponry to the wonderfully mundane. Some 331 shoes have been pulled out of the mud; there is some wonderful wooden and pewter crockery; book covers, rosary beads, an early backgammon board, and musical instruments have also been recovered, showing something of the cultural life of those on board. And then there are the skeletons, many showing signs of injury and illness. Some of them are complete, like that of an archer, 5 feet 10 and built like a bollard. A dog’s skeleton, thought to belong to the ship’s carpenter – for it was found wedged in his door – survives intact. She was two years old, and was probably employed as an on-board rat-catcher.

The preservation is quite astonishing. The cook’s table still has the cleaver marks of his knife on it; pots containing pepper and eucalyptus oil still smelt strong when archaeologists reopened them after centuries in the mud. Some of the combs were found with real Tudor nits.

It’s also a really humane collection: full of insights into the lives of the real people who lived, fought, and in most cases died on the ship. Astonishingly, the team behind the new Mary Rose museum have created something that transcends the partial remains of the ship itself, and presents one of the most impressive social history collections I’ve seen.

‘England’s Pompeii’, is how Dr David Starkey describes the museum. ‘All Tudor life is there’, he says. It’s a nice soundbite, and the comparison with Pompeii is a more sensible than it sounds: the Mary Rose museum really is a moment frozen in time. We know, for example, what was in the carpenter’s cabin because his door happened to be almost shut when the ship went down. Of course, ‘all Tudor life’ is too strong: as far as we know there were no women on board. But as far as social history goes, at this distance in time, this is about as good as it gets.

You can hear my review of the museum, and all about my favourite artefact, on BBC Radio 3’s Night Waves, here.

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