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The Sinking of the Mary Rose

60 second histories
by: Squaducation date: 19 Jul

19th July 1545  -   When Henry VIII came to the throne he inherited a smallish navy from his father, Henry VII, who had started the process of rebuilding. With a population of around 4 million and an agricultural policy that required the prosperous wool trade to achieve economic viability, Henry had to ensure that he kept the channel open. Calais was still in English hands, the sole remnant of English land after the Hundred Years War, and Henry had designs to rekindle the golden age of Henry II and Richard I when much of France was part of the Anjevin Empire of English kings. The French and Spanish were vying for control in Europe and Henry cleverly built up alliances. He himself was married to the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon and his favourite sister, Mary, married the elderly King of France, Louis XII.


Henry therefore had to build up both his navy and his coastal defences. He improved some of the forts along the south coast or built new ones to create a chain running all along the coast. However he lacked the ordnance needed to supplement both his fleet and forts. He had to kick start the gun founding industry in the same way that his brother-in-law had done in Scotland. He appointed his father’s gunfounder, Humphrey Walker, and imported other master craftsmen from abroad – notably Peter Gaude from France and Francesco Arcanis. Such was Henry’s desire to build ordnance that it was reported in Venice that the price of tin had rapidly increased due to Henry buying enough of it to make 100 cannon. Cannon foundries were built, notably in Calais and London.


One of the problems that faced a navy in the early sixteenth century was how to get large cannon low enough down in the hold without causing a ship to be unstable. The answer came with a new method of designing the way that the structure was built. Instead of having overlapping, or clinker, planking, where it was impossible to have gunports low enough down and make them watertight, ships were now built with carvel planking where the planks were smooth. It was then possible to create holes in the lower part of the hull and fit watertight doors making it easier to hit an opposition boat lower with the resultant possibility of sinking it. Earlier boats had the guns in the waist of the ship or the castles at the front and rear. Ships had two purposes – military or trade and they would be converted to enable them to do both. The need for bigger guns meant that they had to go lower to be able to accommodate the soldiers needed on board.


The Mary Rose was built in Portsmouth, a small but thriving industrial port, in 1511. It was built with the clinker planking style, which is surprising as another ship of the time, the Sovereign, had a refit in 1509 in the new smooth, carvel style. It first saw battle in 1512 when the English combined with the Spanish to attack the French, both in the channel and the Bay of Biscay. Lord High Admiral Sir Edward Howard, picked her as his flagship. In 1513 Howard made a daring raid on French galleys, again using the Mary Rose as his flagship. He even managed to board one of the French ships, but lost his life in the process. Later that year the ship was used to transport English soldiers to Newcastle and then sail to Northumberland as the Scots had joined forces with the French and Henry sent his forces north. James IV of Scotland was defeated and killed at Flodden. The war with the French finished with a peace treaty and the marriage of Henry’s sister to Louis XII.


By 1522 the English were at war with the French again. The Mary Rose escorted troops to France where the port of Morlaix was captured and she then returned to Dartmouth. This episode finished in 1525 when the French king was captured at the battle of Pavia and the Mary Rose was put in reserve. In 1535/36 she was refitted and it seems redesigned using carvel planking. She was also equipped with guns lower in the hold. The finance needed for the refurbishment of these ships and the building of new ones came from the money Henry made when he dissolved the monasteries after his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and his split from the Pope which left him more isolated than ever in Europe.


The threat from Spain never really materialised but in 1545 a French fleet had gathered in the Seine estuary with the intention of landing troops in England. Henry called the English fleet to gather at Portsmouth under Viscount Lisle. Henry’s 100 ships and 12,000 men seemed quite insubstantial compared to the French 225 ships and nearly 30,000 men. On 16th July the French sailed into the waters of the Solent. On the first day of the battle, July 18th, the English had sailed just out of the harbour and turned south with Spit Sand to the starboard and Horse Sand to the port. The buoys showing the path into the harbour had been removed by the English to confuse the enemy. Henry had dined with Admiral Lisle on the flagship, Henry Grace à Dieu, and was keen to see the action.


On the 19th the French changed tactics. The French general D’Annebault’s version of the events said, “It was ordered that at daybreak the galleys should advance upon the British whilst at anchor, and by firing at them with all the fury, provoke them into engagement and then retreating endeavour to draw them out of their hold towards the main battle.” The French did indeed attack with fury and the flagship came under attack by the mobile French galleys. Seeing this the Mary Rose hoisted her main sail in order to help. As it did so, an eye witness reported that a gust of wind blew up, and caught the Mary Rose as it was turning causing it to heel. Its gun ports would have been open at this stage and it seems that this sudden turn caught them unaware and water started to pour in through the holes as the desperately tried to shut the doors and pull the guns back. The water gave the ship extra weight and unbalanced it causing the heel to become a capsize. The ship went down very quickly and the cries of the drowning crew, it is said, could be heard back on land. On board were 185 soldiers, 200 mariners and 30 gunners. Only about 25-30 survived. Sir George Carew, the Vice-Admiral on board was one of those who perished alongside the master gunner, Roger Grenville.


The rest of the battle was quite inconclusive. The French fleet withdrew to the Isle of Wight where they set fire to some houses killing some of the population before the local militia came to the rescue. The French never attempted a full landing here and sailed back across the channel.


For 437 years the Mary Rose remained buried under the silt of the channel despite attempts on 1st August 1545 to salvage it. The Mary Rose museum in Portsmouth houses many of the artefacts recovered after the ship was raised in 1982. The chests of both Carew and Grenville have been discovered. Grenville’s include 3 plates, a tankard, sundial, book and a backgammon set. The remains of the crew show that the ages were between 12 and 40 although most were late teens and early twenties. Although most were well fed, some of the bones show healed breaks, arthritis, rickets, scurvy and vitamin deficiencies. Archaeologists have also found the skeleton of a dog. So far 19,000 artefacts have been recovered and it has taken over 30 years to excavate with more to come.


The BBC website has a very good interactive site for further finding out about the finds and the ship. You can find this at

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