The History of the Mary Rose - 1511-1545
The Mary Rose - 34 years of service
There’s a common misconception that the Mary Rose sank on her maiden voyage. In fact, she was a successful warship, in the service of Henry VIII for 34 years, almost the entire duration of his reign, and fought in three wars.
When Henry VIII became king in 1509 he only had a handful of warships at his disposal – usually, in times of war, merchant vessels would be loaded with guns and used. However, with threats both from the Scots to the north and the French to the south, Henry knew he needed a standing navy, available at a moment’s notice. Thus, he got to work building his ‘Army by Sea’, starting with two carracks, the Peter Pomegranate and her larger sister ship, the Mary Rose
Although a request for payment for two ships, ”the one ship to be of the burthen of 400 tons and the other ship to be of the burthen of 300 tons” was made on 25th January 1510, the earliest reference to the Mary Rose by name appears in a record of a payment made by Henry VIII for bringing the ship from Portsmouth to the River Thames.
While it is often claimed that the Mary Rose was named after Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister, there is no evidence for this. It’s more likely the ship was named after the Virgin Mary, who was also known at the time as “The Mystic Rose”. You can find out more about this here
Henry VIII’s Lord High Admiral was the 35-year-old Sir Edward Howard, who chose the newly built Mary Rose as his flagship. He had 18 ships in his fleet carrying over 5,000 men. Howard’s expedition led to the capture of 12 Breton ships and a four-day raiding tour of Brittany, where the English fought local forces and burnt a number of villages.
The fleet returned to Southampton and was visited by Henry VIII before setting sail again for Brest. The English ships met a French-Breton fleet at the battle of St Mathieu, battering them with heavy gunfire. English troops boarded the Breton flagship, the Cordeliere, which caught fire and sank. Over 600 Breton sailors were killed in the battle, and English sailors raided more towns near Brest until storms forced the fleet back to England.”
In 1513 the Mary Rose took part in a race against other ships in the English fleet, and was soon off another mission against the French fleet near Brest. The French had recently reinforced their fleet with galleys from the Mediterranean. Howard made a daring attack on the French galleys, boarding one of them himself but losing his life in the process.
Demoralised, the fleet limped back to Plymouth. Thomas Howard was appointed as the new Lord Admiral, and started planning a new attack. In August 1513 the Scots joined forces with the French, going to war against England. The Mary Rose was part of a fleet transporting troops to Newcastle, where they then went on to Northumberland to fight at the Battle of Flodden, where the Scottish King James IV was killed.
The Mary Rose was involved in skirmishes against the French throughout the summer, but both sides were by now exhausted. The war was over by the autumn, thanks to a new treaty and the marriage of Henry’s sister Mary to the French King Louis XII.
In 1522, England went to war against France once more. The Mary Rose helped escort troops over to France, and by 1 July the Breton port of Morlaix was captured. The Mary Rose then sailed home to Dartmouth.
In 1525 the Scots again joined the French side. The war came to an end when Francis I, king of France, was captured at the Battle of Pavia.
The Mary Rose was kept in reserve from 1522 to 1535 . Despite the ever-present threat of war, particularly from Scotland, the years were quiet ones for the Mary Rose; as a large ship, she wasn’t that economical to operate. In 1527 she was caulked and repaired in a new dock at Portsmouth.
Although there is little surviving documentary evidence, it seems that the Mary Rose was reinforced and refitted on the Thames around 1535-36. This was at the same period that Henry VIII was dissolving the monasteries, which brought him much-needed revenue that may have funded this work.
No one knows exactly what changes were made to the Mary Rose, but we know that extra bracing was fitted to the interior structure of the ship, suggesting that she was expected to carriy greater weight than before. It’s also believed that extra gun ports were cut, and has even been speculated that extra gun decks were added to the fore and stern castles .
Following the break with the Pope, Henry VIII was particularly isolated in Europe. In 1544 he agreed with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to attack France. However, Charles V made his own peace with France, leaving England even more isolated.
In May 1545, the French navy gathered in the Seine estuary, intending to land troops on English soil. The English fleet mustered at Portsmouth under Viscount Lisle. In early July the French fleet set sail and entered the Solent with 128 ships on 16 July. The English had 80 ships in place to oppose them, including the Mary Rose, but retreated into Portsmouth harbour as the fighting vessels were most effective in sheltered water.
The first day of the Battle of the Solent consisted of a long range cannonade between the French galleys and the English fleet in which neither side suffered any real loss. On the night of the 18 July 1545, Henry VIII dined on the flagship, the Henry Grace a Dieu, along with his admiral Viscount Lisle. During this meal, he presented George Carew with the Mary Rose as his flagship, making him vice admiral of the fleet.
There are conflicting accounts as to what happened in the battle. According to the French, early in the morning of the 19 July, the French galleys took up the battle, trying to lure the English within range of their main fleet. The calm allowed the French to pound the English ships all too easily. Suddenly, much to the delight of the French, the Mary Rose heeled over and sank.
Other accounts say that the French fleet attacked when Henry VIII was at dinner, and the Mary Rose sank towards the evening. What is certain is that hundreds of men aboard the Mary Rose drowned as she went down, with only around 34 survivors.
Find out how the Battle of the Solent ended here
After the Battle of the Solent, a number of attempts were made to salvage the ship. Venetian salvage operators were hired to undertake the work, and on the 1st August it was reported that “By Monday or Tuesday the Mary Rose shall be weighed up and saved.”
However, this confidence was premature. They failed in lifting the ship, and weren’t able to shift her into shallow ground either. Despite all the strenuous efforts, the Mary Rose remained stuck fast on the seabed, and eventually all attempts at salvage were abandoned.
Eventually, the Mary Rose embedded herself deeply in the soft upper sediments of the seabed, resting on the hard clay below. For centuries she lay on her starboard side at an angle of around 60 degrees, and acted as a silt trap for the Solent currents.
The surviving portion of the ship had filled up rapidly, leaving her port side exposed to the currents and marine organisms. Sometime during the 17th and 18th centuries the entire site was covered with a layer of hard grey clay, which sealed it off from further erosion.
In 1836, pioneer divers John and Charles Deane discovered the site of the wreck and recovered a bronze demi cannon gun probably made at a foundry at Salisbury Place, London. After several guns and other objects were recovered, the site was reportedly destroyed, and the Mary Rose was lost once more.