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Mary Rose

Related subjects Air & Sea transport

The Mary Rose was an English Tudor carrack warship and one of the first to be able to fire a full broadside of cannons. The Mary Rose was well equipped with 78 guns (91 after an upgrade in 1536). Built in Portsmouth, England ( 1509– 1510) she was thought to be named after King Henry VIII's sister Mary and the rose, the Tudor emblem. She was one of the earliest purpose-built warships to serve in the English Navy; it is thought that she never served as a merchant ship. She displaced 500 tons (700 tons after 1536), was 38.5 m long and 11.7 m beam and her crew consisted of 200 sailors, 185 soldiers, and 30 gunners. Although she was the pride of the English fleet, she was sunk in the Solent, and it is thought she sank during an engagement with the French fleet on July 19, 1545. The exact cause of her sinking has not been definitely determined but is thought to be because of instability. The surviving section of the ship was raised in 1982 and is now on display in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard along with an extensive collection of well preserved artifacts.


She served as the flagship of Admiral Sir Edward Howard in the Italian Wars and was frequently engaged. On 10 August 1512 she was the flagship of an English fleet of 50 ships that attacked the French at Brest in Brittany. The Mary Rose attacked the French Marie la Cordelière, the flagship of Admiral Ren de Clermont; in the battle the Marie la Cordelière was crippled and the Mary Rose was damaged and ran aground. The Marie la Cordelière then came under fire from the Mary James, the Sovereign, and the Regent, eventually blowing up with the loss of more than a thousand men. Thirty-two French ships were taken or destroyed in the battle.

After the death of Edward Howard in 1513, the Mary Rose became the flagship of Lord High Admiral Sir Thomas Howard.

In 1528 and again in 1536 the Mary Rose was rebuilt, having her displacement increased from 500 to 700 tons and now mounting 91 guns. The refits are thought to have added an extra deck, making her top-heavy and liable to roll in heavy seas.


  In 1545, King Francis I of France launched an invasion of England with 30,000 soldiers in more than 200 ships. Against this invasion fleet—larger than the Spanish Armada forty-three years later—the English had about 80 ships and 12,000 soldiers, with the Mary Rose the flagship of Vice Admiral Sir George Carew. In early July the French entered the Solent channel, between Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. On July 19, 1545 (see Battle of the Solent) the English came out of Portsmouth and engaged the French at long range, little damage being done on either side. The next day was calm, and the French employed their galleys against the immobile English vessels. Toward evening a breeze sprang up and as Mary Rose advanced to battle she capsized and sank with the loss of all but 35 of her crew. There were sources that said that the ship had fired from the portside and made a sharp turn so it could fire from the starboard side. The turn was so sharp that the ship keeled over to one side but at the same time the gun ports were open so that water rushed in and the ship sank. Sources also suggest that the Mary Rose had the gunports too low to the waterline, increasing the risk of an influx of water. Furthermore, the ship was carrying a large number of soldiers on her upper decks, with the possible result of further raising her centre of gravity and making her even more unstable. As was common in warships of the time, the upper decks were covered with netting to prevent soldiers from enemy ships from boarding. When the Mary Rose sank, this netting prevented many from escaping in time and contributed to the high percentage of casualties. Furthermore many sailors could not swim, as having a reputation for superstition, they regarded this as tempting fate. Losses were therefore particularly severe.


Researchers for a television programme used an exact scale model of the Mary Rose to investigate the causes suggested for her sinking. Metal weights were used to simulate the presence of troops on the upper decks. Initial tests showed that the Mary Rose was able to make the turn described by eyewitnesses without capsizing. In later tests, a fan was used to create a breeze similar to the one reported to have suddenly sprung up on the day of the sinking as the real Mary Rose went to make the turn. As the model went to make the turn, the breeze in the upper works of the ship forced the ship to turn at a more acute angle than before, forcing her lower gun ports below the waterline. Water entered the ship, increasing the degree of the list, and causing the rate of flooding to increase. The ship quickly keeled over and capsized, sinking completely within a few seconds.The sequence of events closely followed what eyewitnesses had reported had occurred, particularly the suddenness with which the ship sank. The researchers concluded that numerous causes had contributed to making the Mary Rose unstable and top heavy, such as:

  • The 1528 and 1536 refits, which had installed heavy cannon higher up in the structure of the ship than had originally been planned.
  • The presence of large numbers of troops on the upper decks, preparing to fight the French forces.
  • The development of larger bronze cannons through the period of her time in service, which ended up being fitted to a ship not designed to carry them.
  • The design of many warships in the period, which had a tendency towards being top heavy, as mathematical observations concerning centres of gravity and displacement were not thoroughly understood. Eventually the decisions regarding a ship's design came down to the experience of the shipwright, and miscalculations were not uncommon.

In addition to these weaknesses, the gun ports were cut too low in the ship's side, perhaps in an attempt to fit more cannon and create a more powerful warship.These ports should have been closed as the ship went to make the turn, but for some reason, possibly a breakdown in communication, or an oversight by the sailors, they were not. Despite all these factors combining to create a hazardous situation, the experiment showed that the Mary Rose's sinking was not inevitable. The sudden gust of wind that caught the ship at the crucial point of her turn was the final fatal contribution to the sinking.


The loss of one of the most powerful Tudor warships afloat caused considerable consternation, particularly as it sank within sight of King Henry VIII who was watching from Southsea Castle nearby. The fact that it sank was particularly unusual for the time. The most common cause of the loss of a warship was through fire. The lack of powerful cannon and the robustness of wooden ships made it difficult for ships to be damaged sufficiently in engagements for them to sink. There was also no immediate explanation for the sinking, such as a violent storm, or foundering on rocks.The loss of the Mary Rose therefore entered the public consciousness and was remembered, whereas most ship losses over the period were not.

Modern work on the wreck


On June 16, 1836 the Mary Rose was found when a fishing net caught on the wreck, and diver John Deane recovered timbers, guns, longbows, and other items. But the location was forgotten after Deane stopped work on the site in 1840.

Alexander McKee started a new search in 1965, and in 1967 Professor Harold Edgerton found an acoustic anomaly by using side-scan sonar. In 1971 a springtide, combined with a severe gale, uncovered a layer of sediment, leaving several structural timbers clearly visible. In the years that followed, it became clear that the wreck lay on her starboard side, at an angle of 60°.

On 5 February 1974 the Mary Rose wreck became the second wrecksite (along with others) to be protected under the Protection of Wrecks Act. The wrecksite remains protected today even after the lifting of the majority of the remaining ship timbers.

Excavation and raising

In 1979 the Mary Rose Trust was formed and an archeological team under the direction of Dr. Margaret Rule, CBE, began work to excavate the wreck. First, the wreck was lifted by means of a lifting frame. After that, the wreck, still under water, could be lifted onto a support cradle. On October 11, 1982 the wreck was lifted from the water and put upright in a dry dock with a temperature of 2–6 °C and a relative humidity of 95%.


In 1994 work started on a three-stage conservation process using low-molecular-weight polyethylene glycol (a wax, essentially). The second stage consists of spraying the wreck with a high-molecular-weight polyethylene glycol; these first two stages will take at least twenty years to complete. In the third stage, the wreck will be slowly dried. This preservation technique is the same as that begun in 1961 for the Vasa, a Swedish ship of the line which capsized in 1628 and is now on display in Stockholm. The Vasa is virtually intact while the Mary Rose is an almost perfect longitudinal vertical cross-section, due to marine worms such as the shipworm Teredo navalis destroying the port side above the seabed.

The expertise and facilities developed for the preservation of the Mary Rose has benefited many other archaeological projects. Experts from the Mary Rose Trust helped conserve the Dover Bronze Age Boat and the timbers from Seahenge.


Along with remains of around half the crew, a great number of artifacts were uncovered during excavation, including navigational and medical equipment, carpentry tools, guns, longbows, arrows with traces of copper-rich binding glue still remaining on the tips, cooking and eating utensils, lanterns, backgammon boards, playing dice, logs for the galley's ovens, and even a well-preserved shawm, a long lost predecessor of the oboe, from which a fully functioning model has since been replicated.


These artifacts, and the wreck itself, are displayed at the Mary Rose museum located on the Royal Naval base in Portsmouth, England. A £20 million appeal for funds for The Final Voyage - the co-location of the hull of the Mary Rose with her artifacts in a new museum - was launched locally in Portsmouth on the evening of 10th March 2006. Leading local businesses, members of Portsmouth City Council and the Lord Mayor attended presentations in the current museum. Intended to attract 500,000 visitors and opening by 2012 (with active conservation of the hull intended to be complete in 2009), this new co-located museum will create a world-leading museum in Portsmouth for the Mary Rose and the Tudor Navy, an international centre for maritime archaeology and provide better facilities for education and outreach. This was denied a Heritage Lottery Fund grant in 2006 .

Further excavation

On 11 October 2005, the 23rd anniversary of the original wreck lift, the anchor and parts of her bow were raised from the sea-bed in a delicate operation sponsored by the Ministry of Defence. These parts will also eventually go on display.

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