The Wreck of the Mary Rose

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Podcast Transcript

In the year 1511, King Henry VIII of England launched what was to be his flagship, The Mary Rose. 

For 33 years, the Mary Rose was the pride of the English fleet, serving in conflicts against the Scottish and the French.

Then in 1545, for reasons still not understood, it sank. 

However, it was discovered in the late 60s and the secrets it revealed changed our knowledge of Tudor England.

Learn more about the wreck of the Mary Rose and how a 425-year-old wooden ship was salvaged, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

We tend to think of Britain as a historical seafaring power. To be sure, they were, but they weren’t always the masters of the sea. There was a time when they were a rather middling European power stuck on an island off the coast of continental Europe.

During the reign of Henry VIII, England hadn’t yet become the naval power that we think of it as today. They had no colonies at this point, and they didn’t even have a powerful navy. 

Henry V a century earlier had wanted to build a much more powerful navy, but the 100-Year War and the subsequent civil war, the War of the Roses, put that idea on hold. 

From 1422 to 1509, only six ships which built for the English crown, which sounds surprising for an island nation, but it’s true. 

When Henry VIII became king and ascended to the throne in 1509 he had only two ships in his fleet which could be considered serious ocean-going vessels: The Regent and the Sovereign.

Both the Regent and the Sovereign were a type of ship known as a carrack. A carrack was the successor to the cog and preceded the galleon. 

These were ships with three and sometimes four masts, usually with a square The largest ship that Columbus sailed on his first voyage, the Santa Maria, was a carrack. 

In the early 16th century, the carrack was the state of the art in shipbuilding. In an attempt to modernize the English fleet, Henry VIII ordered two new carracks. They were to be named the Peter Pomegranate and the Mary Rose. 

The Mary Rose was constructed in Portsmouth, England and it took about 18 months to build. Construction began in January 1510 and it was launched in July 1511. 

The name Mary Rose is believed to be a reference to his sister Mary, and the Rose is in reference to the rose which is the emblem of House Tudor. 

While England would become much more adept at shipbuilding later on, at this time they didn’t have the experience that countries like Portugal had. Construction of the Mary Rose was a huge undertaking. It required 600 large oak trees, which at that time, were now quite rare. Timber had to be brought in from all over southern England. 

When it launched, it was around 500 to 600 tons and it had a keel length of 32 meters or 105 feet.

Both in the front and the back of the ship was what were known as forecastles. If you have ever seen an image of an old tymey ship, you’ve probably seen something like a carrack. 

The Mary Rose saw service right away. It saw action against the French. It transported troops to fight against Scotland

For 25 years the ship was in operation and it was finally retrofitted in 1536 to support more and larger cannons and it went back into service against the French. 

On July 18, 1545, the Mary Rose fought the French in the Battle of the Solent. The Solent is the name of the strait between the southern coast of England and the Isle of Wight. It is about 20 miles or 32 kilometers long and about 5 miles or 8 kilometers wide. 

During the battle, the Mary Rose sunk to the bottom of the Solent.  It was estimated that as many as 400 men may have been on board.

I realize that is sort of anti-climatic, but no one really knows why the Mary Rose sunk. There was one anonymous account from a Flemish sailor that said the ship sunk after firing a round of cannons on one side, and when the ship turned around, it hit a gust of wind which tilted the ship which caused it to take on water in its open gun ports, and then it sank. 

Other theories state that the Mary Rose was rendered unseaworthy when it was refitted in 1536. A documentary produced in the year 2000 created a model of the Mary Rose and found that it actually would sink when confronted with conditions similar to what it might have encountered as described by the anonymous Flemish sailor. 

Regardless of why it sank, however, it sank, and this is where the story starts. 

The wreck wasn’t in that deep of water. There were attempts to raise it within days that were unsuccessful, and further attempts to raise in 1547 and 1549.  Salvaging the ship was never successful and the only thing they were able to recover was a few cannons. 

It sat at the bottom of the Solent strait for over 400 years. Over time, the wooden ship began to fall apart, became covered with silt and it was it lost and forgotten. 

However, because the water was so shallow, when currents would change, it would sometimes appear. 

In 1836, some fishermen had their nets caught on exposed timbers from the ship. They discovered the wreck which hadn’t been seen in 300 years. 

Divers were sent down using state-of-the-art 1836 diving technology and managed to recover a few artifacts, including some longbows and cannons. When the ship was identified, it briefly caught the public’s attention, but it was then forgotten again and covered with silt. 

In the 1960s, a SCUBA diving club in southern England set out to look for wrecks in the strait and in particular the Mary Rose. They used 19th-century charts and in 1968 they found a large buried object with an underwater sonar. 

In 1970, some timbers once again appeared and in 1971, parts of the hull appeared after a storm. Having confirmed that it was the Mary Rose, a very slow process began to excavate the ship. 

Over the next 10 years, a volunteer group of over 600 divers made 27,831 dives and recovered over 26,000 artifacts. 

If you remember back to my episode on the longbow, one of the most significant discoveries that came from the Mary Rose were 172 of the 250 longbows which were on the ship. 

The longbows discovered on the Mary Rose completely changed what we knew about longbows. They had a far heavier draw weight than historians thought longbows from the time had. 

They also found evidence of food, which gave an insight into how ships of the time were provisioned. They found barrels of beef, pork, and cod. Evidence of plumbs, peas, and peppercorns was also found. 

They also found full skeletons of a dog, a rat, and a frog which must have been alive when the ship sank.

Likewise, the remains of 179 people were discovered, with almost complete skeletons of 92 people. Almost all of them were young men, with the youngest being between 11 and 13. 

Also among the thousands of artifacts found were a backgammon board, dice, tools, plates, surgical equipment, and many other things. 

As for the ship itself, the port side of the ship was destroyed, but the starboard side of the ship which was buried was remarkably well preserved for 400-year-old wood. 

By 1982, the decision was made to attempt to raise the actual hull of the ship itself. 

The only other sunken ship which was this old that had ever been raised with the Vasa in Sweden, on which I previously did an episode. 

The Vasa, which was raised from 1959 to 1961, was in much better condition than the Mary Rose, and it was sitting upright when it was discovered. 

The Mary Rose couldn’t just be lifted out of the water. If too much stress was placed on the wood, the entire thing would just fall apart, because much of it was still in the mud. 

There was a great deal of debate as to how the ship should be lifted out of the water as nothing like this had ever really been done before. 

In the end, a large steel cradle was created which went underneath the ship with airbags to cushion the hull once it was out of the water. 

After months of planning and preparation, on October 11, 1982, amidst great fanfare and a live television broadcast, and in the presence of Prince Charles, the Mary Rose was lifted out of the water. 

It was put on a barge and taken to a facility nearby in Portsmouth, England. 

Getting the ship out of the water intact solved one major problem, but then it introduced another. Having been submerged in water for over 400 years, if the wood was just left alone, it would dry out and probably disintegrate. 

Preserving the hull of the ship turned out to be more difficult and expensive than just raising it out of the water. 

Water had to be sprayed on the wooden hull to keep it moist for years. The temperature it was stored at was also kept very cold, just above freezing. 

The position of the hull was kept at the same angle from which it was recovered and slowly rotated over several years to a point where it was almost vertical. 

From 1994 to 2003, the process of spraying the ship with polyethylene glycol began. This was also done on the Vasa wreck, and it is done to replace the water inside the wood.  From 2003 to 2010 another layer of heaver polyethylene glycol was added, and from 2010 to 2016, a slow controlled drying of the ship was conducted. 

The entire process of preserving the wood from the hull of the Mary Rose has been very slowly underway ever since it was raised almost 40 years ago. 

Today the Mary Rose is on display in Portsmouth, England in the Mary Rose Museum, an entire dedicated to the ship and the artifacts which were found. 

Normally, this is the part of the episode where I give a brief story of a first-hand experience I had visiting a place. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve been to Portsmouth, and I really actually like Portsmouth, but I never visited the Mary Rose. 

I was there as part of a trip visiting sites related to D-Day and World War II, so I never bothered to visit many of the other historic attractions in the city. However, I can guarantee you that on my next trip to England, I’m taking a train to Portsmouth to visit the Mary Rose. 

The Mary Rose was an incredible discovery, and its salvage and recovery are one of the greatest feats of underwater archeology in history. The number and quality, of the items found on the Mary Rose, provide a unique insight into life on an early 16th-century ship. 

Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast. 

The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener PeterPrincipal,  over at Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write, 

This Podcast Makes Me a Trivia God!

For most of my adult life my knowledge has been described as 50 miles wide and two inches deep. And now I have found the podcast that expands my mind to 1000 miles wide and ten feet deep!

That has served to make my most treasured skill the one that allows me to win random bar-based Trivia Nights (damning with faint praise).

Everything Everywhere Daily is perfectly suited to the way I learn, and I am extremely grateful that I have found it.

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Thank you, PeterPrincipal! Just doing some back-of-the-envelope math calculations, at 50 miles by 2 inches, your prior knowledge would have an area of 44,000 square feet of knowledge. 

Now, with 1000 miles by 10 feet of knowledge, your knowledge area is now 52.8 million square feet.

That means I have increased your knowledge by 1,200 fold. 

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