The Mary Rose

By Andy
Home > Articles > The Mary Rose

A young boy, in pyjamas, sits on an old thread bare sofa eating toast, it is 09:03am October 11th 1982 and rather unusually for this time in the morning there is actually something to watch on television. But this isn't some cartoon, some piece of television drivel this is the event of the century. This is his generations moon landing, something so momentous and special that it will live in the mind for many years to come. Because at 09:03 am on that morning he sets eyes on something that, other than a relatively small team of divers, people have not seen in nearly 500 years, this is the Mary Rose, something with huge historic importance and also a huge culmination of many years effort and genius to raise it from it's watery grave. Of course that young boy was me and I sat transfixed as the yellow lifting cradle emerged from the water followed by the remains of the Mary Rose itself, a huge part of our national heritage pulled from the water by a futuristic giant set of yellow fingers. However this single event, watched by millions, was only a small part of the work done before and after at the Mary Rose site which gave us an absolutely invaluable window on a period in our history. 

The vast majority of Mary Rose was originally built between 1510 and 1511 in Portsmouth, before being taken to London where the decking, rigging and armaments were fitted. The vessel had four levels, the hold at the very bottom used as a galley, storage area and area to store the ballast to aid in the stability of the vessel. Above the hold was the orlop which was also used to store equipment, as with the hold this was divided in to sections. Next was the main deck which housed the vessels main guns, these could be used via the gun ports, of which there were 7 on each side. Also to the stern and bow of main deck were cabins used by the barber-surgeon, pilot, carpenter and possibly by various other officers and the master gunner. Above the main deck was the upper deck, the waist of which was to all intents and purposes open, but did have netting and walkway suspended above it. This open part of the ship was the main area for fighting and housed a mix of heavy and light guns The walkway spanned the two castles at the stern and bow of the ship, these castles would have had further decks, how many is unclear as this part of the ship had not survived in the water after the ship sank, however using picture sources, gun inventories and knowledge of other contemporary ships it is likely to have had three decks on both castles. While none of the sails have survived again evidence suggests that there would have been nine or ten flown from four masts and a bowsprit.

Mary Rose Cannons

The Mary Rose was a warship and was not equipped to undertake long sea voyages, what room there was on board was used to pack as many weapons on as possible. Even without the physical evidence the picture of the vessels armaments was fairly well know as there are two surviving documents, an inventory from 1541 and the Anthony Roll Inventory from 1546. This was the dawn of hand held guns and the armaments were a mix of old and new, cannons of various sizes such as cannons, demi cannons, culveryns, sakers and falcons, hand weapons such as bollock daggers, pikes and bills, muskets and shieldguns and mass of yew bows and arrows (more, in fact much more on these later). This huge number of weapons required just as much manpower to use it and the crew would number around 400, made up of approximately 185 soldiers, 200 mariners 30 gunners and various other officers. 

All of these weapons of course were not for show and the Mary Rose was involved in a number of significant sea battles. Her first action was as Sir Edward Howards flagship in the First French war as part of a fleet taking part in a joint operation with the Spanish against the French, the 18 vessels were to engage the French fleet in the English Channel while the Spanish attacked in the Bay of Biscay. The English ships captured 12 vessels before embarking on a raiding trip to Brittany where they destroyed a number of settlements. A stop off in Southampton in June was quickly followed by the Battle of St. Mathieu in which the English ships led by the Mary Rose bombarded the French causing them to retreat, however the Cordeliere from the French port of Brest stayed to fight resulting in one of the ships powder magazine exploding and setting light to herself and the British ship Regent. The fleet went on to capture and burn a number of French ships, but was then forced back to Cornwall by storms before their attack of Brest was complete. 

In the following year, 1513, the Mary Rose was once again involved in a attempt to take Brest, however the attempt failed when Sir Howard's ill fated raid ended in him being separated from his troops and getting killed. The fleet which was of course now without an admiral and low on supplies returned to Plymouth. Adverse weather stopped the fleet from completing a planned attack on Britanny and the ship didn't see significant action for the rest of the First French war which ended in late 1514. 

The Mary Rose spent the next few years, between 1514 and 1522, out of military action as the end of the First French war had reduced the need for fighting vessels. She was used in 1520 to protect Henry VIII's fleet on route to France for the meeting at the Field of the Cloth of Gold with the French king Francis I, the meeting clearly didn't go as well as it could have gone as a second French war broke out just two years later in 1522. The Mary Rose saw only limited action in this second French war, mainly as protection for troop transport ships and the war ended in 1525.

We next see the Mary Rose in historical records in 1528 when she and a number of other vessels were sent to Portsmouth for a major refit. What this entailed exactly is unclear as the reference to this in a document by Thomas Cromwell states the vessel was to be 'made new'. 

Mary Rose 

It wasn't long before Henry VIII was again at war with France, in May 1545 the French had amassed a fleet at the Seine estuary which set sail for England, arriving in the Solent, the strait between the Isle of Wight and the mainland, in July of the same year. The Mary Rose was part of a force of 80 ships, however rather than tackle the French fleet in the Solent they retreated in to Portsmouth harbour. An initial exchanged took place on the 18th July, but it wasn't until the following day that the Mary Rose took part in her final action, the battle of the Solent. The English fleet was immobilised by a lack of breeze, the French used their galleys, but in the evening the wind arrived and allowed the Mary Rose and Henry Grace Dieu to attack. What happened next is open to a large about of speculation, for what ever reason the Mary Rose began to take on water, possibly as a result of open gun ports and a manoeuvre which resulted in the vessel leaning. Because of the covering of rope on the open deck structure even those capable of accessing the deck were unable to escape and there were less than 35 survivors from a crew of over 400. 

Most people would consider that the end of the story until the rediscovery in 1971, but that is not the case. As soon as the ship went down attempts were made to recover as much of her as possible. William Paget the secretary of state ordered a salvage attempt just a few days after the sinking, it wasn't unusual to attempt such a feat even in the 16th century as two empty ships could be used to raise such a vast vessel in stages. In the case of the Mary Rose the two ships used were the Jesus (of Lubeck) and Samson and a team of Venetian mariners and a Venetian carpenter were drafted in as they were experts in the process. However the Mary Rose had rested at an angle and had become stuck in clay meaning the process of placing cables under the vessel was impossible. The mariners attempted to attach the cables to the main mast but his broke off in the process and the attempt to raise the ship had failed. The project was successful in salvaging some guns, rigging and few other items but nothing more, further salvage operations took place in 1547 and 1549 where more guns were recovered. Eventually the wreck was covered in silt and seaweed leaving half of it exposed which due to the effects of sand and silt carried by the currents the more exposed half deteriorated and eventually collapsed. The remaining side of the ship was eventually covered in layers of sediment, protecting the wreck and it's contents. 

The wreck was rediscovered again in 1836 by a group of fishermen, whose nets had snagged on the wooden beams of the wreck which had become exposed. They called in a diver, Henry Abbinett who helped free the nets and became the first person to see the ship for close to 300 years. John Deane, the inventor of one of the first practical diving helmets searched the site along with William Edwards and they recovered a number of items including guns which identified the wreck as the Mary Rose. Further dives were made in 1840 where he used bomb shells to gain access to the inside of the ship, however significant damage wasn't caused and the wreck was once again lost.

....and so we come full circle to me sitting in front of that TV watching as the Mary Rose broke through the waves for the first time in nearly 500 years. Of course the raising was only a very small part of a monumental effort undertaken in the previous 20 years, but we will leave that story until later.

Hold on you say what has this got to do with archery.... well dear readers, along with the cannons, wood plates, surgeons equipment, bollock knives and the other 19,000 items recovered from the Mary Rose the most significant find in archery archaeological history was discovered, a number of longbows were found scattered across the ship but more importantly were chests full of longbows. These were almost perfectly stored and they have survived in breath taking condition and form the best records we have of what longbows were like when they were an active weapon of war. Steve and I were privileged enough to be invited to see and handle the bows, but of course there is far too much to say about them here, so you will have to wait until next month to read all about them. 

Maryrose 500 Appeal

While many of the artefacts mentioned in this article are on display in the Mary Rose museum, which is over 300 metres from the ship herself, there is space to display just 6% of all the 19,000 Tudor items recovered with the wreck.

The Mary Rose Trust, the charity charged with the Tudor flagship’s preservation, is building a purpose built new Mary Rose Museum which will exhibit over 60% of the recovered artefacts directly alongside the ship and secure the future of the Mary Rose and her contents for generations to come. 

The Trust’s Mary Rose 500 public appeal is an important part of the final funding drive towards the £35 million needed to complete this historic project and is seeking 500 individuals, schools, businesses and organisations to symbolically become the ‘new crew’ of the Tudor warship. Each new crew member is asked to raise £500 towards the Mary Rose 500 appeal’s £250,000 target. To join the Mary Rose’s ‘new crew’ or for further information visit  



Steve and Andy

Steve Nicholson and Andy Gilfrin, are real archers interested in the best archery suppliers have to offer. In our search for the very best bow, arrows and equipment we have shot, used and worn pretty much everything on offer.

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