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The sinking and raising of the Mary Rose


The Mary Rose was one of King Henry VIII’s favourite warships until she sank during an engagement with the French fleet on 19 July 1545. Her rediscovery and raising were seminal events in the history of nautical archaeology. 

The Sinking

England in 1544: Henry the VIII has been on the throne since 1509. From a most promising beginning as an intelligent, handsome, accomplished and poetic eighteen year old, he has deteriorated over the years into a middle-aged, louche, despotic and irresponsible monarch of unsavoury habits. He has also persistently squandered the considerable wealth left to him by his father, Henry VII, bankrupting the country. By punitive taxation and the suppression and sale of the monasteries a few years ago, he has temporarily re-filled his coffers. Why does the king require such a constant supply of money? There are two main reasons: firstly, to finance his extravagant lifestyle and, secondly, to wage his wars.

From the time he came to the throne, Henry VIII has been determined to try to revive the fortunes of England in France by regaining all the lands won by Edward III and Henry V and subsequently lost by succeeding kings. In this early part of the 16th century, Western Europe is dominated by France on the one hand and by the Holy Roman Empire, which rules most of Germany, the Low Countries and Italy, on the other. Henry has chosen to fight France because of its proximity and his own claims to the French throne, and has allied himself with France’s enemies. The first of Henry’s French wars was that of 1512–1513, and now there is the present campaign, which seems set to continue. Throughout his reign, the two major enemies of England have been Scotland and France, who have formed an alliance, and there have been persistent problems for the king with both. In order to try and destroy this alliance His Majesty had agreed to a joint invasion of France with Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. The Emperor, however, has now made his own separate peace with the French, leaving the English king to fight the war alone. From the English point of view, the best result of this first year has been the successful siege and naval blockade of Boulogne between July and September, but this is having costly results for the navy since, after its capture, Boulogne has had to be supplied by the English. This is always a tricky operation, both in terms of French attack (since the English enclave is surrounded by the enemy) and the weather in the ‘Narrow Seas’ (the English Channel) which is unpredictable.

It is now 1545 and the campaign continues. Francis I, King of France,has gathered together a large fleet during the early part of the year and, by June, this is moored at the various ports on the Seine estuary, under the command of Claude d’Annebault, Admiral of France. Estimates of the size of the fleet vary between 123 and 300 vessels of which a number are sailing warships of different kinds. The French intention seems to be to try to recapture Boulogne but, because the army does not appear to be ready, Francis has decided instead to attack England directly. The fleet sails on the 12th of July and, on the 16th, arrives in the Solent. Meanwhile the English, aware of French intentions, have been making what preparations they can, with full-scale mobilisation between February and April, so that by early June Lord Lisle (the Lord Admiral) has 160 ships and 12,000 men at sea. Clearly, there is going to be a naval battle, with the French in the Solent and the English fleet in Portsmouth harbour, trapped by adverse winds.

It is the morning of Sunday, the 19th of July, and D’Annebault’s navy is advancing up the Solent towards Spit Sand in three squadrons, with 26 galleys in front firing their single guns. There is little wind and the only English vessels that can engage the French at this stage are a small number of galleys, galleases and rowbarges. Now, the wind has got up and the main English fleet is able to move out of Portsmouth harbour and into the Solent to engage the main French fleet. The French galleys retreat and the battle proper begins. The English fleet is led out of harbour by the great ships Henry Gràce a Dieu and the Mary Rose. It is getting towards evening and the Mary Rose is turning on to the other tack, probably to present her broadside. But she seems to have been caught by a freak gust of wind and she is heeling to starboard, filling through her open lower gun ports and sinking. Although there are at least 415 men on board, only about 30 have survived; the rest are trapped by anti-boarding netting and have drowned, including the Vice Admiral for that engagement and her commander, Sir George Carew, and her captain Roger Grenville, father of the famous Richard who, in the next reign, will distinguish himself in command of the Revenge. It is a major disaster for England and of great propaganda benefit to the French.

The Raising

The public nature of this sinking, only about a mile off shore and in full view of the King, his army and what must have been many onlookers will have heightened the tragedy. Not only was she one of Henry’s prize ships, she was also the vessel in which his newly-appointed Vice Admiral was sailing. Obviously, it was necessary to attempt to raise her as soon as possible, a task that was overseen by the Lord Admiral, Viscount Lisle, and the military commander Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. As early as the 31st of July, Suffolk wrote to Sir William Paget that he:

“Will with speed set men to the weighing (raising) of the Mary Rose.”

On the 1st of August, Paget sent Suffolk a list of:

“things necessary for the recovery with the help of God of the Mary Rose

and, in a later letter that same day he:

“Trusts that by Monday or Tuesday the Mary Rose shall be weighed up and saved”.

Plans to raise the ship progressed and it appears that the decision to use two hulks, which first would be emptied, was the King’s. The hulks were the Sampson (whose captain, Francis Finglos, had been taken ‘sore sick’) and the Jesus. The method was to moor these hulks on either side of the Mary Rose:

“and to her masts there is tied 3 cables with other ingens (sic) to weigh her up, and on every side of her a hulk to set her upright”.

The cables would be wound tight at low tide and the empty ships would rise with the rising tide, taking the Mary Rose with them. The Mary Rose’s sails, yards and rigging had already been removed and taken ashore and it was intended that the ship should be raised on the 6th August. However, the Lord Admiral was still hoping for this to happen on the 7th of August or the following day and, on the 9th, Lisle and St. John wrote to Paget that:

“This day the Italians who had the weighing of the Mary Roos (sic) signify that, by the method they have followed they cannot recover her and have broken her foremast.” The Italians then asked for six more days to try and drag the vessel into “shallow ground”.

All attempts to raise the Mary Rose immediately after she sank came to nothing. The main reasons for failure were likely to have been twofold, since salvage of ships was often undertaken with success at this time. First, the mainmast had been pulled out of its step, thus removing the main point of attachment for cables and, second, the ship sank so quickly that she became deeply embedded in the soft upper sediments of the Solent, with her keel resting on the heavy clay layer two to three metres below, thus becoming effectively stuck. Further attempts to raise the ship in the sixteenth century were abandoned and, gradually, the exposed port side became eroded, collapsing into the hull and surrounding scour pits. Gravel, shells and other debris settled over the wreck to form a hard, compact seabed and she was forgotten. Periodically, storms would remove part of this seabed, exposing the tops of some of the timbers, which entangled the nets of local fishermen. Then, the timbers would be covered again until the next exposure.

John and Charles Deane were brothers and marine salvage engineers who devised a successful underwater breathing apparatus. In 1836 they were invited to investigate an area of the seabed at Spithead where fishermen’s lines were frequently caught. When they dived on the area, the Deanes found a large bronze demi-cannon and old timbers exposed on the seabed. A later dive yielded three more guns from the same wreck area and it was decided, by a committee set up by the Board of Ordnance, that the wreck from which the guns had come must be that of the Mary Rose. During the next four years the Deanes recovered a variety of artefacts from the site, including several human skulls, and it is now clear that what they were finding came from the exposed and collapsed port side of the ship. The matter might have rested there had it not been for the vision of Alexander McKee, an amateur diver and journalist, who founded Project Solent Ships in 1965 in order to search for and record wrecks in the Solent.

There are many wrecks around the coasts of Great Britain. They are in a varied state of preservation, according to the conditions of their burial and the nature of the particular seabed sediments. Project Solent Ships was intended to examine several wrecks from the sixteenth century onwards. The small group of people involved with this intermittent project included Margaret Rule as the professional archaeologist. She would eventually become the project leader in the work on the Mary Rose. Initially, however, the ship had to be found and this proved to be difficult, since the hull was totally buried. Eventually, in 1967, the wreck was found using a dual channel side-scanner and sonar. The side scan showed, by use of acoustic signals, anomalies on the seabed surface and the sonar profiled the buried subsurface. An anomaly was revealed, roughly in the area where the ship later proved to be resting, below the sediments on the seabed. The wreck itself was not found by excavation until 1971, and then volunteers, with limited funds and equipment, excavated on the site until 1978. Protection of the area was afforded by the Historic Wreck Act, which was passed by Parliament in 1973. In 1978, the excavation uncovered an area at the bow of the ship which was preserved just as it had been in 1545 when it settled on the seabed, with artefacts, personal possessions and ship’s stores all intact. The Mary Rose Committee, which had been formed in 1967, recognised the cultural, military and historic importance of the ship and it was decided to excavate the hull completely and attempt to recover her for conservation and permanent display.

The problems that the original salvors encountered in trying to lift the Mary Rose from the seabed were finally overcome by the use of a specially designed lifting frame. Divers drilled the empty hull and bolted steel hawsers into it. The hawsers were attached to a steel frame which covered the area of the ship and which had a telescopic leg at each corner. A cradle, which was the same shape as the hull, was made, lined with air bags, and then lowered to the seabed at the side of the wreck. The intention was to lower the legs on the frame until it was stable on the bottom, winch the legs up until the wreck became unstuck, place it in the air-bag lined cradle and winch the whole lot up to the surface. At the surface, there would be a barge on which the hull in its cradle could be placed and then the entire structure towed back into Portsmouth harbour. As is often the case the weather also played its part and, on the proposed day of lifting, it was appalling. However, using the above techniques, the Mary Rose was successfully lifted from the seabed on October the 11th, 1982, and broke the surface once again. Modern technology had succeeded where the sixteenth century Italian salvage experts could not.

Extracted from The Men of the Mary Rose by A. J. Strickland

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