Who sank King Henry VIII’s warship Mary Rose in 1545?

Talk on Mary Rose by Peter Marsden. (CAHMS event)

l to r: Adele Cox, Sandra Cooper, Peter Marsden and David Dornom after the talk.

When: to October  2015
Where:Boniface Centre, Church Lane, Crediton, EX17 2AH
Who:Peter Marsden

The October meeting in the Boniface Centre saw Peter Marsden, a professional archaeologist from Bovey Tracey, who has been intimately involved with the restoration of the Mary Rose, talk on the subject “Who sank the Mary Rose?”

Mr. Marsden began by setting the scene, with the newly protestant Henry VIII arraigned against the Catholic Charles V of Spain (also the holy roman emperor) and the Catholic Francis 1st of France, and also Suleiman the Magnificent who headed the Ottoman Empire that had aspirations to control the Mediterranean.

Thus Henry needed a large, modern navy and one of his first acts when he became King in 1509 was to order the construction of the Mary Rose and her sister ship the Peter Pomegranate. These were known as caraques and had high “castles” at the bow and stern and carried many guns. In 1544 Henry decided to seize Boulogne and unsurprisingly Francis 1st was enraged at this action, and assembled a huge armada (far bigger than the infamous Spanish Armada) with tens of thousands of soldiers.

The armada crossed the channel to Portsmouth, and on July 19th 1545 the English fleet set out to confront the French. At lunch just before the battle, the Captain of the Mary Rose – Sir George Carew who lived in Exeter at Polsloe Priory was promoted by Henry to Vice Admiral. Perhaps surprisingly, in Tudor times the ship’s captain was not a naval man, and the master was in command.

It was when the Mary Rose was battling with a French ship that she turned away, was caught by a gust of wind that heeled her over to such a degree that  water flooded in through the lowest gun ports that were only 16” above the waterline, and the Mary Rose sank with the loss of more than 400 lives and barely 40 saved.

It was in the 1960’s that Alex McKee a local man and amateur diver, assembled a team of divers and they located the Mary Rose, and eventually she was raised in 1982. There then commenced the painstaking process of restoring the salvaged timbers, continually spraying them with chilled water to disperse the centuries of accumulated salts and prevent mould building up. Many artefacts and the remains of the crew were found buried in the mud that encased the ship. An examination of the crews’ teeth showed that 50% of them came from southern Europe.

Henry was keenly interested in ship design and in 1536 he modernised the Mary Rose, and against the advice of his shipwrights he ordered additional heavy guns to be fitted in the bow. Necessary structural alterations weakened the bow structure, and the additional weight high up increased the ship’s centre of gravity and also lowered the waterline closer to the lowest gun ports. To make matters worse, the gun ports were not opened and closed by the gunners but by sailors on the main deck 3 levels up, which in the heat of battle seems a very silly idea.

Thus Henry’s changes severely compromised the Mary Rose’s stability and seaworthiness, which is why she heeled over and sank in circumstances that should have been no threat to her. Henry being Henry there was nobody to challenge him. The answer to the question therefore is that Henry sank the Mary Rose and perhaps that is why there was no inquiry to her loss.

Thanks are due to Peter Marsden for a most interesting talk.