Raising the Mary Rose: the quest to save Henry VIII's lost warship
Forty years ago, in 1982, the Tudor warship was raised from the seabed after a long and impressive team effort. In our new podcast series, The Mary Rose: Secrets of a Tudor Warship, Emily Briffett delves into the how the ship was discovered and salvaged with the help of experts
On 11 October 1982, the fragile wooden frame of the Mary Rose emerged from the murky waters off the coast of Portsmouth, Hampshire. It was a momentous occasion, broadcast globally and met with cheers from excited bystanders watching along the city walls. A relic of the past was being dredged from the depths. This daring feat was the culmination of over 17 years of hard work by a huge team of divers, archaeologists and scientists. But how did they manage to rescue this long-lost ship from the seafloor?
While many people remember the raising in the 1980s, attempts to recover the ship have a much longer history, stretching back to the 16th century. In 1546, a team led by the Italian salvage operator Piero Corsi (and including an African diver called Jacques Francis) retrieved several items from the wreck. Other early efforts to raise the boat stalled when several masts broke, and the rescuers failed to pull the ship upright.
On 10 June 1836, the Mary Rose was found once again by Henry Abbinett, who came across an old timber and a gun when he was investigating snagged fishermen’s nets. Only a few days later two divers, John Deane and William Edwards, were hired to find out more. They dug holes and used shells as explosive charges to penetrate the silt, marketing any objects they found to museums or auctioning them. When the salvage costs outweighed their income from it, they abandoned the project.
Finding the Mary Rose
The modern search for the Mary Rose began with Alexander McKee and Project Solent Ships in 1965. “I believe he had childhood dreams that he'd find the Tudor warship,” explains Christopher Dobbs, who participated in the dive to salvage the wreck. “The idea of finding a specific wreck in the middle of the seabed was rather preposterous, but I think the project was him disguising the fact that he was secretly looking for the Mary Rose.”
Raising the Mary Rose: key dates in the warship's resurrection
19 July 1545 | The Mary Rose sinks at the battle of the Solent
3-9 August 1545 | Southampton-based Venetian salvage operators Petre de Andreas and Symone de Maryne attempt to raise the Mary Rose
8 December 1545 | Petre de Andreas and Symone de Maryne are told their services are no longer required
1546-1552 | Piero Corsi and his team raise several items from the wreck
10 June 1836 | Henry Abbinett discovers timber and gun
June 1836 | John Deane and William Edwards hired to investigate
21 August 1836 | John Deane announces he has rediscovered the Mary Rose
1965 | The modern search for the Mary Rose begins with Alexander McKee and Project Solent Ships
1966 | Divers from Southsea Sub-Aqua Club and Southampton Sub-Aqua Club discover the potential resting place
5 May 1971 | Diver Percy Ackland discovers three timbers of the Mary Rose
1979 | The Mary Rose Trust is established
March 1979 | Salvage vessel Sleipner is moored on wreck site, quickening the process
End of 1981 | Archaeological excavation of objects complete
11 October 1982 | The Mary Rose is raised
Using members of Southsea Sub-Aqua Club and Southampton Sub-Aqua Club, the team worked persistently in hopes of discovering the ship; they self-funded and hired fishing boats. When they eventually discovered the potential resting place in 1966, it was still under metres of mud. Even when Harold ‘Doc’ Edgerton from Massachusetts Institute of Technology located anomalies on the seabed with sonar, McKee and the team still couldn't see it. “It was like looking for a needle in a haystack, but on the seabed, underwater,” explains Dobbs.
Finally, in the winter of 1970–71, several timbers were exposed, revealing the Mary Rose itself for the first time in more than 400 years. Whilst there was no name emblazoned on the side of the ship clearly stating this was the Mary Rose, the ages of the bronze gun found in the 19th century by Henry Abbinett and other guns found in the 1970s, confirmed that this was indeed Henry’s great warship.
Excavating the Mary Rose
After they’d found the Mary Rose, the next challenge was what to do next? “Fortunately, McKee was extremely responsible,” says Dobbs. “Instead of digging for treasure straight away, he engaged archaeologist, Dr Margaret Rule, who helped them work to the best principles.” They gradually exposed the whole of the outside, ensuring its stability and proving they had discovered the substantial remains of a Tudor warship.
The team then decided to have two meetings - one with surveyors, architects and salvage teams to work out if the Mary Rose could be raised and the other with historians, archaeologists, religious leaders and heritage managers to answer whether it should be raised. Both answered yes.
In our new HistoryExtra podcast series, we’ll be marking the 40th anniversary of the raising of the Mary Rose by delving back into its fascinating history, and uncovering the secrets this Tudor shipwreck has kept hidden for more than four centuries…
The Mary Rose Trust was formed in early 1979, with the aim of raising the ship so it could be displayed in Portsmouth “for the education and benefit of the nation”.
Excavations soon began, digging in the dark through the modern layers of silt right back to those from the 16th century, using new techniques invented by the underwater archaeologists. “Part of the fun of working as an underwater archaeologist in the 1970s and 1980s, was that we were inventing techniques as we went along,” explains Dobbs. Using a trapeze, the divers could hang on to a gas pipe system, so they could support themselves and float above the site. “On land sites you have to kneel or lie uncomfortably on scaffolds, but we were completely weightless.”
Raising the Mary Rose
By the end of 1981, the Mary Rose was practically empty. The next challenge was raising the shipwreck, a conundrum solved by civil engineer John Grace. An underwater lifting frame was placed over the wreck, supported bon four legs, placed in holes dug into the seabed. Tunnels were dug under the hull, enabling the divers to attach bolts to backing plates below and attach wires to the lifting frame.
- Read more | From Terror to Titanic: 7 famous shipwrecks
Before the wreck was transferred underwater to an enormous cradle, it was lifted very slowly, so that the first few inches of the raising were done over days rather than seconds. This enabled the suction effect of the mud underneath to be broken – and for the ship to be raised fully. “It was like when a child steps in a muddy puddle,” says Dobbs, “the silty water squirms around their boot causing it to get stuck and left behind.”
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Even 40 years on, the moment the Mary Rose came to the surface stands out in Dobbs’s memory, like for many of those involved. “What many people remember was watching it on live television, when the media and the BBC were hyping it up. But I think that’s actually when we realised what we’d achieved. It’s that proof of the public reaction that says what an amazing adventure and feat of human endeavour it was. It really was a ‘good news’ story.”
Preserving the Mary Rose
When the Mary Rose left the water, the ship was placed onto a tow barge and taken to Dry Dock No 3 at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard – where it has remained up until this day.
As soon as it was excavated, it was a race against time to ensure that no irreparable damage was caused. “If absolutely nothing had been done, we would have a very different ship today. Timbers would have cracked, twisted, warped and shrunk, affecting the entire structure of the wreck,” explains Professor Eleanor Schofield, Deputy Chief Executive at the Mary Rose Trust and the person responsible for the conservation of the ship and her artefacts.
Whilst the timbers were in an incredible condition for their age, in places where wood had been lost, the gaps were swelled up by water. For fear of damage, the Mary Rose therefore could not be left to just dry out. Until the next steps could be decided, the wreck was sprayed with cold water, preventing any bacterial activity and keeping it in a stable state.
Drawing from research from around the world, the team decided that the Mary Rose needed an agent to replace the water. This meant that when it was dried out, there would still be something to support the structure of the wood. The Mary Rose was then sprayed with the chemical polyethylene glycol over 19 years, starting with smaller molecules that could penetrate deep into its timbers, end ending with larger molecules that sealed the more degraded surface. It was only after this long programme that the ship could be dried – a process that started in 2013.
But it wasn’t only the ship that was raised in the 20th century – more than 19,000 objects found within the wreck were also raised, and these had to be cared for too. With such a diverse range of materials, plenty of different treatments were required, though most started with a water wash to get rid of the sea salt. “Initially, some of the treatments that were needed were quite obvious,” says Schofield, “but as time has progressed, we now understand more of what's within each material so need to do further analysis and conservation.”
After 437 years on the seabed, the care of the Tudor ship is crucial. “It's so important for us to look after the Mary Rose and its collection,” comments Schofield, “and it's a real privilege to do what I do. They hold such rich stories and there's still so much more we can learn.”
Henry VIII’s beloved warship is now the centrepiece of the Mary Rose Museum at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard in Hampshire.
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