Keel Over

On July 19, 1545, Henry VIII had a pretty bad day: his flagship, the Mary Rose, keeled over and sank in the Channel during the Battle of the Solent, taking with her almost 400 men.

The Mary Rose was one of the first big ships Henry VIII commissioned, only a few months after his reign began in 1509. She, along with several other large ships Henry had built, formed the nucleus of the first modern Royal Navy. She was launched in July 1511 and towed to London to be fitted out with rigging, decks, and armaments. Modern historians estimate that as many as 600 large oaks gave their lives so the Mary Rose could be built.

She saw action for the first time in 1512, during a joint naval operation with the Spanish against the French. She was kept busy for the next two years, until England and France became friends again following the marriage of Henry’s younger sister, Mary, to Louis XII. She wasn’t used much for warfare for a while after that, but in 1536 (right about the time Henry was dissolving the monasteries and beheading Anne Boleyn), the ship was substantially rebuilt. Her tonnage was increased from 500 to 700, and an extra tier of broadside guns was added to her. There’s some speculation that the alterations made her too heavy to actually be seaworthy.

By the 1540s, England was at war with France again, and in May 1545, The French assembled a large fleet with the intention of landing troops on English soil. They sailed into the Solent on July 16 and were met by about 80 English ships, including the Mary Rose. Nobody’s sure exactly what happened to the Mary Rose the day of the battle, but according to contemporary accounts, the Mary Rose suddenly heeled heavily over to the starboard side and water gushed in through her open gunports. She began to sink rapidly. Fewer than 35 members of her crew of 400 escaped.

An attempt to salvage the wreck was made only days after the sinking, and it was overseen by none other than Charles Brandon. It, obviously, was unsuccessful. The wreck lay half buried in clay in the Solent until the 19th century, when a group of fishermen caught their nets on it and hired a diver to remove the hindrance. He became the first person to see Mary Rose up close in nearly 300 years. Two other divers started examining the wreck and salvaging items, including longbows, timbers, and bronze and iron guns. The guns, which were inscribed with the ship’s name, helped identify the wreck, which led to significant public interest and a demand for items from the ship. A diver named John Deane went down to the wreck in 1840 and used bombs to blast his way into parts of the ship. Even with this abuse, she managed not to completely disintegrate.

The Southsea branch of the British Sub-Acqua mounted a search for the ship starting in 1965. Using dives and sonar, they found the ship in May 1971, after the mostly buried hull was partially uncovered by winter storms. To protect the wreck from scavengers, the Mary Rose Committee was formed, which leased the seabed where the wreck lay from Portsmouth. With the passing of the Protection of Wrecks Act in 1973, the wreck was declared to be of national historical interest and was afforded further protection.

Initial excavation work carried out throughout the 1970’s revealed a nearly intact ship structure that would give historians an idea of what Tudor shipbuilding entailed. Raising the hull and preserving it for display, however, would prove difficult and costly, so the Mary Rose Trust was created to drum up funds. The funds were found, and a plan was put in place to raise what remained of the wreck. After three seasons of archaeological work, salvage of the hull began. The Mary Rose was raised on October 11, 1982, observed by Prince Charles and other curious spectators.

Over 26,000 artifacts and the remains of half the crew were recovered from the wreck and were given the full archaeological preservation treatment. Preserving the salvaged hull of the Mary Rose proved more difficult. The hull had to be regularly sprayed down with filtered, recycled cold water to keep it from drying out, warping, and cracking. In the 1990s, a three-phase plan to treat the hull with polyethylene glycol was put into place. Phase one lasted from 1994 to 2003, phase two was completed in 2010, and phase three is expected to be completed in 2015. The ship can be seen by visitors, protected by a glass barrier, and many of the recovered artifacts are on display at the Mary Rose Museum nearby. A larger, permanent museum where the hull will be put on display is expected to open in 2012.

 



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