This article first appeared in the July 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
How do you solve a problem like the Mary Rose? The problem looks something like this: you have in your possession about a third of a 500-year-old Tudor warship that was raised out of the sea 31 years ago. It is the approximate size of a large barn. Needless to say it is the only Tudor warship that survives anywhere in the world. The hull has been sprayed with a magic chemical for the past 30 years that will preserve the wood, but the wood is so old that it has lost its structural integrity. The remains of the hull are in a dry-dock, covered by a tent, and cannot be moved.
You also have the artefacts that were raised with the hull, and you even know exactly where they were found in relation to the ship’s timbers. This is exciting because it allows you to understand the geography of the doomed ship; you can build up a sense of who was in which cabin and what their role may have been. Unfortunately, the number of finds that the ship yields is simply overwhelming. We are not talking about a handful of artefacts here – the marine archaeologists who raised the Mary Rose also liberated 19,000 objects with her.
How, then, do you re-unite the ship, which cannot support its own weight, with its contents? And how do you allow thousands of people to visit this extraordinary resource? And how do you do it without damaging the ship’s remains or any of the artefacts?
This is the problem that has finally been solved – and the solution is stunning. In June the new £35m Mary Rose museum opened, showcasing 30 years of research and innovation in science, history and archaeology. It is testament to the pioneers who found the remains of the warship in the mud of the Solent; to the archaeologists and volunteers who were responsible for the largest underwater excavation ever undertaken; to the academics who have studied those remains; to the conservators who have ensured that everything that was raised still survives in impeccable condition; and to the architects and builders who produced the most wonderful building for her to live in, a building that has been dedicated to the lives of the men who died in her when she sank on 19 July 1545.
This is what happened. Henry VIII, his army and his fleet were at Portsmouth, and had taken up a defensive position against a formidable French fleet – larger than the Spanish Armada of 1588 – which was at anchor off the Isle of Wight. The French launched an attack, aiming for Henry’s flagship, the Henry Grace à Dieu. The Mary Rose, still a prestige ship though now some 34 years old and considerably smaller than Henry’s flagship, immediately changed course to go to the flagship’s aid. But as she turned she started to lean. Water began to pour into her lowest gun deck ports and soon that water became a savage torrent.
This was no gentle sinking. The Mary Rose went down as if she had sailed off the edge of a waterfall and – propelled by the weight of her hull, 600 crew, stores, cargo, ballast and guns – hit the seabed with such force that her keel came to rest three metres below the estuarine mud of the Solent floor. Only 25 of her crew escaped. Luckily for the English, the French did not take any advantage of the ship’s loss, and the threat of invasion soon lifted.
The nation was shocked by the sinking, and efforts were immediately made to raise the ship. It was an exercise in futility – the soft mud that preserved the Mary Rose’s moment of sinking was already claiming her as its own.
Some innovative divers – no less than John and Charles Deane, the brothers who invented the diving suit – found her again almost 300 years later, in 1836, and raised a few guns. Yet it wasn’t until the 1980s – when the Mary Rose emerged from its watery grave amid a massive public wave of archaeological fever – that the greatest minds in the world of conservation and archaeology were faced with the question of what on earth to do next. The answer was to provide impeccable care for a unique artefact. Conservation solutions have been invented to preserve the ship while academics from around the world have come to identify objects. The Solent mud not only preserved the ship and her contents but it did so in such quantity that the discoveries have transformed our understanding of life in Tudor England, not just life on a Tudor warship.
There are nit combs complete with nits; 655 items of clothing including a leather jerkin, hats, woolly socks and 500 shoes; games boards and their gaming pieces; a barber-surgeon’s kit full of pots containing residues of their original ointments that still give off an odour; and a carpenter’s kit. At the base of the ship were two huge brick-built ovens with copper-alloy cauldrons, surrounded by casks, chests and prepared logs for fuel. Nearby was a basket of plums and another of fish.
The investigation has uncovered more than 60 serving bowls, half of which were marked with initials or knife cuts, presumably to indicate ownership, or perhaps the manufacturer. There were 179 skulls, 68 with matching jaws. It is possible that two of those skulls were children’s. The ship has also given up crates packed with longbows, 130 complete with arrows in smaller cases at their side and wrist guards for the archers. This is still the only physical evidence for archery in England in this period and, as such, has transformed our understanding of warfare in the period.
The remains of several musical instruments were found, immediately changing what we thought we knew about Tudor music. Among them was an oboe-like instrument called the ‘Still Shawm’. It is the only example of its kind in the world and, until it emerged from the Solent, was not believed to have existed for another 50 years.
Since the 1980s most of these extraordinary artefacts have been kept apart from the hull in which they were found – allowing both to be preserved and studied – but now they have been re-united, and in such a clever way. The ship and the artefacts are housed in a magnificent timber-clad building, built over an ancient dry dock. The building is painted black to echo traditional English boat sheds and is built in a teasing elliptical shape. Outside you are intrigued; inside you are astonished.
Almost half of the starboard side of the original hull now stands upright in a dry dock only metres from where it was first built in 1510. The new museum has been built over it, and this is where the real magic starts. Opposite the original hull, you’ll find a full-size mirror image, containing the original artefacts exactly where they are believed to have been sited in the moments before the ship sank. This is now the world’s largest climate-controlled exhibition space. Everything that you see in the museum is original – except the acrylic supports that cradle the artefacts.
You then get to walk along the deck of this shadow ship, following the contours of each deck. You can go down to the cargo decks, up to the gun decks or right to the top, the open-air castle deck. Each deck mirrors the real thing. The lowest decks are crowded and low-ceilinged, while the castle deck is much more airy.
As you peer through the glass at the objects, the original hull lurks behind you. At any stage you can turn to orientate yourself: “Ah yes, I am so far from the bow, so far from the stern, I am two decks down.” And even this extraordinary experience will improve: hundreds more artefacts will find their way into the exhibition in the coming years. Moreover, once the final stage of the hull’s preservation is complete – the ‘drying’ to remove the 100 tonnes of water that is now logged in the wood – then, finally, the walls and windows between the viewing platform and the hull will be removed and there will be nothing but air between the visitor and the hull of a Tudor warship.
The rest of the museum is dedicated to interpreting the objects that you have just seen in situ, and here, once again, the designers and curators have excelled. Seven artefacts are accessible to all, for you to touch, feel or smell, a full sensory confrontation with history that you simply do not expect to be able to enjoy.
The skeletons of seven of the Mary Rose’s crew have been analysed and their faces brought back to life. We do not know their names because the crew list only recorded numbers, but we know what they looked like and, based on the objects discovered near their skeletons, we know what they owned. We can see their unique features, we can marvel at the wonder of modern science and we can shiver at the physical state of these men. One has an arrow wound, others deformities from too much longbow practice, and the cook had a bad back from too much bending over his cooking pot and chopping board. Most striking of all is how many men, aged only between 20 and 30, had lost large numbers of teeth and had deep abscesses in their place. Eating must have been torture, though the large number of fish bones discovered in the galley area suggest that the food, at least, would sometimes have been soft. I have never been made to feel so conscious of my own gnashers and so grateful to the inventor of toothpaste.
Clicking your teeth you eventually leave this remarkable time capsule reeling with the historical punches, desperate to go back to check, just one more time, that it was all actually real.
Dr Sam Willis is a maritime historian and archaeologist. He is the author of In the Hour of Victory: The Royal Navy at War in the Age of Nelson (Atlantic, 2013)