Napoleon Bonaparte is popularly quoted as saying “An army marches on its stomach”, and even though he wasn’t born until long after the Mary Rose sank, the crew of that warship knew the importance of being well fed.
Among the 19,000 objects recovered from the wreck of the Mary Rose, we found evidence of the food the crew ate, as well as the food they never got to eat. Food such as;
Beef seems to have been the staple diet of the crew of the Mary Rose – eight casks containing over 2,000 butchered cow bones were recovered!
It also appears that the crew of the Mary Rose enjoyed their beef on the bone, as through experimental archaeology it has been determined that each bone would have held about 1lb of beef, an amount listed as being a sailor’s daily ration.
The beef would have been boiled in one of the two large galley cauldrons down in the hold, most likely in a cloth bag marked with a tag so the cook knew which mess the beef was being cooked for. Once cooked, the beef would be decanted into a large bowl, and carried to where it was needed. Probably not the tastiest way of cooking, but after a hard day of work, you’d appreciate it!
Officers don’t like to eat the same things as the ordinary crew, even today (My dad recalls once being told that, upon asking for peas in the Officers’ Mess at an RAF base, he was informed that they were “not officer food”)
The officers of the Mary Rose were no exception; rather than having the mass-boiled beef that the crew had, they got roast venison, cooked on a spit above the galley ovens.
The remains of two haunches of venison were found in the storage areas of the Mary Rose, and are believed to be from Fallow deer, which was a favoured food for Royalty and the aristocracy. These were probably fresh, rather than salted, so would probably have been what the officers had both recently eaten, not to mention were going to eat that night, had events not proceeded how they did.
The face of religion in Tudor England may have been changing, but some things stayed the same, for example there were certain days when you weren’t able to eat meat, and had to eat fish instead, even though they’re also made of meat. Anyway, the point is, the crew of the Mary Rose had to eat fish on certain days, which you might think would be easy to do, since they were at sea – Just bung a line over the side and catch the fish as you sail, and indeed a small fishing set was found on the Mary Rose. However, since feeding five hundred men requires rather a lot of fish, it was no surprise to discover casks aboard the Mary Rose containing at least 60 salted cod, as well as Haddock, Hake and Eel. Interestingly, analysis of the cod bones reveals they were caught near Newfoundland, showing that even in 1545, fishermen were travelling long distances to find sources of fish.
Sadly, while the potato had been discovered by Europeans at this point, it hadn’t reached England , so it’s unlikely they had their cod with a portion of chips.
There’s an amusing cartoon from the “Missing Consonants” series by artist Graham Rawle, which depicts two girls who “Went to watch the Raisin of the Mary Rose.”, and features them looking at a large dried fruit labelled “Dried grape found among the wreckage of ill-fated Tudor Warship”
While obviously we didn’t find a dried fruit, we did find grape pips, as well as a few grape skins, among the many thousands of artefacts recovered from the Mary Rose. Grapes were not the only fruit, as we also found traces of plums, cherries and greengages.
Fruit wasn’t part of the ordinary crew’s diet, at least not officially; they were fed on peas and whatever vegetables were in season at that time. It’s likely the fruit was there for the officers, either to eat raw or as ingredients in stews. The officers also enjoyed grapes in wine, whereas the working men enjoyed…
Beer was a vital part of the rations for the crew of the Mary Rose. Although none was recovered from the Mary Rose, for obvious reasons, we know that each sailor was rationed one gallon of beer a day, including spillages. This might sound like a lot, but this was a weaker, mild beer, about 1-2%, so while it might make you feel a glow, you’d still be able to perform your daily functions (unless you were a complete lightweight!)
Beer was preferred over water as it was usually safer to drink; the brewing process killed off most of the bacteria (not that they knew that back then), and there were vitamins and minerals in it to keep the men well. Admittedly, it wasn’t what we’d call a health drink, but at least it was something that stopped the crew getting the runs.
Henry VIII knew the importance of beer, as he had four breweries specially built in Portsmouth to supply his fleet. Sadly none of those four survive, although there are still plenty of pubs around the area, from which a lot of people from Portsmouth and the surrounding area watched the Mary Rose return to harbour on 11th October 1982. Were you one of them? Let us know by tweeting your memories with #WhereWereYouIn82!