Why Did Henry VIII’s Mary Rose Sink?

Peter Marsden

5 mins

12 Mar 2020

Henry VIII’s great warship the Mary Rose was discovered in 1971 and raised in 1982 in one of the most complex maritime salvage projects in history.

Identifying bodies and completing a revised reconstruction has produced crucial new information about the ship’s complement and Tudor seafaring life.

Identifying the bodies

It has long been known that the men were at “action stations” in the final moments before they drowned. But among the new discoveries is the realisation that some were “deckmen” in the crew, which explains why they were on the lower decks.

Although mainly in their 20s, they were in such poor health that they were not required to climb the rigging. They suffered from arthritis, back pain and other conditions, and yet they continued working.

The remains of the Mary Rose’s hull. All deck levels can be made out clearly, including the minor remnants of the sterncastle deck (Credit: Mary Rose Trust).

The skeletons of the cooks lay beside the two ovens in the hold and in the newly identified servery on the orlop deck above.

The gunners were big men with strong muscles, whose remains lay beside their guns on the main gun deck.

The soldiers with their military weapons were on the upper gun deck beneath the sterncastle, while waiting to board the enemy vessel.

Those who were missing were probably the survivors – the “topmen” who were in better health as they had to set the sails and fire arrows and guns down onto the enemy.

The captain and the purser

George Carew

Portrait of George Carew by Hans Holbein, c. 1545 (Credit: Public domain).

Surprisingly, the skeleton of Sir George Carew – the Vice-Admiral in charge of the northern squadron of warships of the English fleet and Captain of the Mary Rose – might also have been found in the debris of the collapsed sterncastle.

The body of a man wearing a silk costume with red buttons was excavated; dress laws then stated that only noble families could wear such finery.

One day he might be identified by comparing his DNA with that of the modern Carew family – rather as Richard III was identified when his skeleton was found in Leicester.

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A decade ago, it was thought that the purser belonged to a skeleton found lying on the orlop deck just below the waterline, near some gold and silver coins.

However researchers were puzzled by his very poor health and that he was also surrounded by a scatter of carpentry tools.

He is now believed to have been a carpenter put there at a battle station to repair enemy shot holes at the waterline of the hull, as was done in later warships.

The gold coins are thought to have originally been stored in a wooden chest with personal possessions, so must have been private moneys.

Battle of the Solent

These new findings help to demonstrate that Lord Admiral Lisle, Sir John Dudley, tightly controlled the entire English fleet against the much larger enemy of over 300 ships.

The men positioned at actions stations on the Mary Rose shows the careful discipline that led the French to return home days later, unable to seize the Isle of Wight as a bargaining counter for the return of Boulogne which Henry had captured in 1544.

Battle of the Solent

The Cowdray Engraving depicting the Battle of the Solent. The main and foremasts of the recently sunken Mary Rose are in the middle; bodies, debris and rigging float in the water and men are clinging to the fighting tops, 1778 (Credit: James Basire).

Lisle then attacked the French port of Treport in retribution, massacring many of its innocent inhabitants.

Understandably, the French thought that they had sunk the Mary Rose through gunfire. However contemporary English reports show that instead a strong gust of wind had heeled her over so that she flooded through her open gunports.

‘Modern Admiralty Tide Tables’ and contemporary letters now enable us to put that event at about 7pm.

An extra deck

Most importantly, the skeletons show that the ship must have had an extra deck. Its absence in the reconstruction 10 years ago created huge problems, as there was not enough room to accommodate everyone.

The existence of an extra deck now exactly matches the only contemporary picture of the ship and demonstrates that the vessel was much closer to being unstable than we thought.

That instability can also be better quantified as we can now reconstruct the approximate sizes of her 4 masts and the horizontal “yards” on them from which the sails were hung – even though they were missing.

The shipwrights who rebuilt her had apparently used proportions based on the shape of her hull. This exactly fits the diameter of the main mast whose size is known from its socket in the bottom of the ship.

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Mistakes in modification

Mistakes were certainly made when converting the Mary Rose about 1536 from her original built of 1512, when she held weapons that only killed men.

She was given heavy ship-smashing guns whose extra weight also reduced her stability and which, when added to her high castles, shows that a strong wind could easily heel her over.

And yet a letter, probably from 1545, shows that Henry VIII wanted to put even more guns in her, even though this would make her yet more top heavy.

Having financed her construction from the sale of monasteries, the king was omnipotent  – and no one was prepared to disagree.

Understandably, no enquiry into her loss was undertaken as this would implicate Henry as the man who sank the Mary Rose.

The introduction of the galleon

The Battle of Trafalgar

HMS Victory in ‘The Battle of Trafalgar’ by J. M. W. Turner, 1822 (Credit: National Maritime Museum).

Henry died soon after the sinking of Mary Rose, when it was realised that a new type of stable warship was needed to carry heavy guns.

The answer was the galleon – its slim shape and low castles made possible long ocean voyages, such as that by Francis Drake in the 1570s, and enabled England to fight off the Spanish Armada when it attempted an invasion in 1588.

Appropriately, HMS Victory – preserved in the next dock to the Mary Rose – is essentially a galleon of about 1800. These two ships therefore reflect the early history of the permanent Royal Navy.

Significantly, they lie within shouting distance of modern warships in Portsmouth Dockyard that carry the latest weapons of war – missiles that can hit a target hundreds of miles away.

Dr Peter Marsden is the professional archaeologist and historian who led the research of the ship Mary Rose and her history for the Mary Rose Trust. He is the author of the new book on the latest discoveries, 1545: Who sank the Mary Rose? by Seaforth Publishing.

Who Sank the Mary Rose

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