Why the Mary Rose was so important to Henry VIII
The Mary Rose has often been touted as the beloved ship of Henry VIII, but where does this idea come from? Speaking on our upcoming podcast series The Mary Rose: Secrets of a Tudor Warship, Tracy Borman explains why the 16th-century warship was so favoured by the monarch and how the ship got its name…
The Mary Rose was Henry VIII’s pride and joy. Though the great warship is perhaps most famous for its sinking in 1545, the vessel had a long life that lasted for most of Henry’s dramatic rule. The Mary Rose was one of the first ships Henry commissioned as king in 1510, and he had been influential in its design and building.
From the very start of his reign, Henry had harboured warlike intentions. He wanted to send a message to his European rivals, and so commissioned two huge ships.
That in itself was significant. Previous English kings who had wanted to wage war overseas would have had to requisition merchant vessels or those of their subjects. It was Henry who started the concept of a navy – and his first two ships, the Mary Rose and the Peter Pomegranate, were pivotal in that.
Why was the ship called the Mary Rose?
It’s thought that Henry had named the Mary Rose after his younger sister, Mary Tudor, though there’s little evidence to support this. It is more likely this ship was named after a saint.
However, both the badges of the Mary Rose and its sister ship the Peter Pomegranate did have a special meaning to the monarch. As the rose was the emblem of the Tudor dynasty and the pomegranate was a symbol of Spain, these badges celebrated the marriage between Henry and his new wife, Catherine of Aragon, who had only been wed the previous year, in 1509.
This wasn’t the only personal connection for Henry. Later, he also came to have a close relationship with the men associated with the ship, and in particular its commander, the Vice-Admiral, Sir George Carew.
Coming from a powerful noble family, Carew was a favourite within Henry’s court. They had dined together the night before the fateful battle of the Solent in July 1545, the encounter in which Henry’s beloved ship sank, when Carew was appointed as Vice Admiral of the fleet and given command of the Mary Rose.
Henry was at Southsea Castle with Carew’s distraught wife as he watched the Mary Rose sink. He was seen to put his arms around her, to try to console her in her grief. “I think this is when we get a rare glimpse into the softer side of Henry VIII,” suggests historian and Tudor expert Dr Tracy Borman, “because his first thought was not only the loss of his pride and joy, but comforting Carew’s widow.”
As the representation of his ambition and his first marriage, as well as his personal connection to the men on-board, the 16th-century ship seems to have remained close to Henry’s heart throughout his reign. “The Mary Rose really came to epitomise Henry,” says Borman. “She represented all his hopes and dreams for being king of England, and it was as if these hopes lay in tatters after she sunk to the bottom of the sea.”
Tracy Borman is a best-selling author and historian, specialising in the Tudor period, and is joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces. She was talking to Emily Briffett, HistoryExtra podcast editorial assistant, for our podcast series The Mary Rose: Secrets of a Tudor Warship. Words by Emily Briffett.
Emily is HistoryExtra’s podcast editorial assistant. Before joining the BBC History team in 2021, Emily graduated with an MA in Public History from Royal Holloway, University of London