The Mary Rose

Granted, the topic of this blog might be more suitable for a magazine on early modern warfare. Still, the term ‘medieval’ has only relatively recently been assigned to a period in history by a few influential historians; and let’s be honest, I doubt that anyone living in the 1540’s thought of his own age as being much different than the period around, say, the 1480s (except for Englishmen living around the battlefields of the War of the Roses, of course). 

In addition, we haven’t launched a magazine about early modern warfare yet, so the Medieval version will have to do.

That said, let us return to the year 1545. On 19 July of that year, the British warship The Mary Rose, became involved in the Battle of the Solent, during which an English fleet clashed with a number of French galleys, on their way to Britain for one of the many thwarted invasions of the Island. The battle itself ultimately was inconclusive, but not for the crew of the Mary Rose. Early on during the battle, the ship heeled heavily over to the starboard side, causing water to rush into the gunports, finally resulting in the sinking of the ship. Those working below deck usually didn’t have much chance to survive a sinking ship anyway, but the anti-boarding netting which covered the upper decks –such a clever solution when being attacked – made it impossible for anyone in the midsection or the sterncastle to flee the ship. In the end, only 30 or so of the 400 crewmen survived the ordeal (a casualty rate of over 90 percent). Quite a disaster for families and friends of the crew, and probably not a cause for celebration for the English navy either. The ship was built only 35 years before, and included some 78-96 guns of varying caliber and range, several of which could be fired from gunports cut in the hull of the ship, enabling broadsides-fire (i.e. coordinated volleys of all guns on one side of the ship) – at least in theory; in reality, such tactics were still largely ineffective during the 16th century due to (amongst other things) the unreliability of gunpowder weapons at the time.

All in all, a rather fearsome ship, I’d say. In 1512, when the Mary Rose was the flag ship of the admiral, its captain even called it “The noblest ship of sail”, though I can imagine many captains saying the same thing about their own ship. Still, it would have been an impressive sight, possibly only topped by the sight of it sinking during battle. 

However, what makes the ship even more important for us military-minded historians who tend to jump up and down their chairs every time a sword, harness, or warship appears on the television and (more recently) on the internet is the fact that, disastrous while the sinking undeniably was, it provided us (the same jumping historians) with a neatly preserved treasure cove of military material, from fire-arms to swords to storage containers, as well as an insight into life aboard a warship in the early modern period. Again, ships attacking each other with blazing cannons isn’t exactly what people nowadays would associate with the Middle Ages, but we should not forget that, while the Mary Rose was a product of a more modern age, many of the tactics used at sea were still largely similar to tactics used in late medieval times; ships were taken out of the equation by boarding, and battles were often fought on deck, using bows, swords, pikes, and perhaps a gun here and there. The many weapons found in the wreck of the Mary Rose include some 250 famous English longbows, and many pikes, bills and swords. Compare this with the fact that only a handful of handguns (complete or in part) were found, and it is easy to conclude that battles in the first half of the sixteenth century were still, in part at least, fought in a more ‘medieval’ manner.

Whether the items found were medieval or not, I think that all of us would agree that they belong in a fitting museum, which would guide a visitor through the history of that period, and show people aspects of life aboard an English warship. And of course (why else would I write this blog?), such a museum exists. In fact, the official opening is today. Venetians attempted, unsuccessfully, to raise the wreck in the 16th century, after which it was undisturbed for a few hundred years. Serious excavations started in the 1970s, during which more than 19.000 artifacts were brought to the surface. Finally, in 1982, archaeologists managed to raise the wreck of the hull, which must have been just as impressive a sight as the ship itself.  

Now, more than 30 years after the ship was raised from the depths, it has received it’s place of honour. The Mary Rose Museum was built as part of the Historic Dockyards museum in Portsmouth, only yards from where the ship was built over 500 years ago, and ‘only’ took £35m to built. In the museum, visitors can see many of the 19.000 items found, as well as the remains of the hull of the ship, probably the main attraction for many a visitor, though I can imagine many enthusiasts already bouncing up and down by the prospect of the artifacts only, with the hull being just the cherry on top. As I said, the museum can be visited starting today, so if some of you are still in doubt about where to spend your next summer vacation, here’s your solution!

Last but not least: an added bonus for those of you who share their healthy obsession with history with an interest in what the future might bring us (and not just the trekkies), the futuristic-looking museum is shaped like a UFO! So make sure you live long and prosperous enough to visit the museum while it’s still around.

Here are some additional newsitems and interesting links about the (opening of) the museum:

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