As a visitor to the Mary Rose Museum it would be hard not to notice the Cowdray Engraving that dominates the first gallery that you enter, staff and volunteers talk about it and you can even buy merchandise in our shop featuring its design!
But what’s it all about? Where did it come from and why is it so important to us here at the Mary Rose?
The Cowdray Engraving is a copy of a contemporary painting commissioned by Sir Anthony Browne sometime between 1545-1548.Browne lived at Cowdray house in Midhurst, West Sussex, which is where the image now gets its name from.
Sometimes known as the Encampment of the English forces near Portsmouth, it was one of a series of 5 paintings for Sir Anthony’s dining room showing various scenes from his life including this, the Battle of the Solent where the Mary Rose sank. He was the master of the Kings horses and is shown at the centre of the painting on a white horse right next to Henry VIII and Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, who was Commander of the Land Forces.
The other paintings depicted the departure of King Henry VIII from Calais, the encampment of the King at Marquison, the siege of Boulogne all of which took place in July 1544 and the riding of Edward VI from the Tower of London to Westminster for his coronation in February 1547. Interestingly it is these events in 1544 that led to the Battle of the Solent the following July.
The originals were painted on wooden panels and were around 6ft wide, unfortunately they were lost when Cowdray House burnt down in 1793 leaving just ruins as we see today. But luckily in the 1770’s the Society of Antiquities became interested in the paintings and commissioned James Basire to make engravings of them on copper plates and the Sherwin brothers to make a watercolour copy. This is why we now refer to it as the Cowdray engraving and notes taken about the colours used have enabled the image we now have to be produced. Between 1772 and 1778 Basire had a young apprentice who most likely also helped with these engravings, his name was William Blake.
The paintings were probably originally intended to aid Sir Anthony’s storytelling at dinner but it now aids the telling of our own story, the sinking of the Mary Rose and the events of the Battle of the Solent!
The picture shows the 225-strong French fleet anchored off the Isle of Wight, a group of their galleys having broken away and firing at the 104-ships of the English fleet, The Mary Rose is shown sunk in the middle of the picture. Some ships are shown with billowing sails and it was reported at the time by a survivor that the wind caught the sails, as the ship was turning to fire, forcing the open gun ports beneath the waves. Indeed the picture also shows the rescue operation but sadly only 35 people survived out of 500 on board. It has therefore been useful in confirming various aspects of the disaster with other documents written at the time.
However the painting not only shows the events of The Battle of the Solent but also aspects of everyday Tudor life and clothing right across all social classes. Examples of this include people having a picnic or cooking their meal, men doffing their caps to each other and there is even a couple embracing down at Eastney re-doubt, one of the smaller fortifications depicted.
It is also useful in that it shows the layout of Portsmouth as it was in 1545 with the round tower, the square tower and the newly built Southsea castle, all of which are still there today.
There are also many depictions of day to day items and weaponry which can be verified as correct when compared to our own collection of over 20,000 Tudor objects and which visitors can then go on to see in the museum. Some interesting examples include musical instruments, wicker flasks, flagons, and wooden shovels.
Copies of the Cowdray engraving are available via the Mary Rose Shop