The Mary Rose Exhibit Makes Sense of History

Sunday 16th April 2017

Arrowheads and flight feathers obviously lasted only a short time in salty seawater

Most metal had long since corroded in the rigours of a corrosive salt washing of 5 centuries or so, but handles are almost always obvious. Combine that with location and the pieces literally come together. Had it been for me to be a part of the discovery I’m sure I would have had many sleepless nights. But the museum for me was as much about the living as the dead. I enjoyed watching the reflections of children’s faces in the glass as I did the encased artifacts. They took in the shapes and colours formed in wood and steel, bronze and copper like sponges. What it all meant to them I am not sure. Try comparing a bit-brace and centre bits blacksmithed in a forge to our now more ubiquitous modern-day battery-powered drill-driver and you might glimpse what I mean. Parents seemed to me once again the result of our modern analytical age where nothing shown reflected any experiential knowledge; nothing really related even to the older parents with the children. Skip two or three generations where handwork is gone and relational knowledge disappears. The new generation can then be forgiven for thinking the old ways are indeed old and inefficient when in reality they worked efficiently and effectively. What they didn’t do was keep pace with a mass manufacturing society if industrialism. That did not mean what was did not work. Nothing of the sort. That’s why what I do today really works if indeed people have a mind to open their hearts to its reality. You see, even what was written in the legends at the Mary Rose museum to inform became lost information to the child because it wasn’t really explicit enough. Add to that that ordinary leather shoes hand shaped and formed and stitched together by a man’s hand became “swimming flippers for underwater swimming”, according to one dad, and to another axes were “weapons of attack and protection” instead of dressing tools for trimming replacement sections in the repair of a cannonball holes in the ship’s hull.

Arrowheads and flight feathers lasted only a short time in salty seawater

I wasn’t altogether sure accepting of why plexiglass was used to replace steel auger bits and saw blades of steel and why some got the treatment and others didn’t. Visually it did work for me but without clear explanation a child might not make the correlation between our plastics of the 20th and 21st centuries and metals of the 16th lost to corrosion in seawater. So I am sure a note or two more of explanation interspersed here and there would have helped.


Considering the lowlight my images came out fine considering also that no flash or tripods were allowed. In actuality, with a little enhancing, what I could not clearly see with the naked eye because of darkness I could clearly see at home. The show-cased goods were nicely presented and protected. Even so, I would have liked to hold some of the pieces to feel the weight of the wood, examine it and then go on even to replicate some of them to better understand the workmanship, workability and the tools. It’s surprising how much more I could glean from handling the pieces and examining the tools with them actually in my hands. As a working craftsman I am sure I might add further to the discoveries to complement what was indeed fathomed under the microscope as it were.

The long plane drew my eye. What a plane, what a concept! (Read below) Then the short smoother to the front. Short, blocky and probably quite angular, making allowance for erosion and such, rather than coffin shaped of the latter period of the 17th century on through the early 20th century.
There is always guesswork going on in museum accounts trying to fill in the blanks because many things are left unknown. One of the descriptions said that some of the wooden planes had holes bored through, possibly for hanging on nails. That is less a likely reason than a hole for rope to pass through so that one man guided the plane to the work and the other, usually the apprentice, pulled on the rope. You can see the possibility on the plane on the left with what looks like a hole toward the front

Look at this plane as an example. It tapers from the centre, becomes thinner at the four end and then has the handle, which looks like it was a branch from the main tree stem, coming out toward the stern end. What a fascinating concept! The large knob at the fore end looks more like a bung. I wondered about that too. Knife handles were interesting as were saw handles, I learned that a Tudor inch was slightly less than a modern-day inch.

Measuring rulers (rules USA) showing increments of the inch, half inch and quarter inch.

Much use that is when only three countries in the world use imperial measurements today, Liberia, Myanmar and the United States of America, but interesting. Mostly the rulers had only inches with no in-between markings, so i assume ½”, ¼” and less were gauged by eye. I actually still gauge most measurements under an inch by eye. I am not sure if as much woodworking is contained in any other sphere that shows the diverse skills of the carpenter. Wheelwrights to ship wrights and coopers and cabinet makers lived and worked alongside one another, adapting their skills and knowledge interchangeably for the betterment of those on board.

You can’t help but place yourself in the tormenting whirlpool as the great unsinkable was enveloped in wind and water. What was found in the bowels of the ship might well have been worn out by life had it not been held in the watery time-capsule of the deep. A hundred yards from the Mary Rose is HMS Victory–two hundred years its predecessor, whereas across the docks is the modern-day warship of our era, HMS Diamond. Reputedly one of the most advanced warships of our time. 



  1. It is interesting that this topic comes up now, just today I read that there will probably be a new museum built here in the south of Sweden around the ship Gripshunden, that is a bit older than Mary Rose. In the article, Mary Rose was mentioned as an example of how to present an old ship. Of course Wasa was also mentioned but I find it interesting that the Mary Rose came up basically at the same time in the article and in your blog

  2. “A hundred yards from the Mary Rose is HMS Victory–two hundred years its predecessor”…

    Just to be clear for everyone, the “Mary Rose” pre-deceased the “Victory”. I think your phrase as quoted might be understood to suggest the HMS Victory was earlier.

    But it’s all fascinating!



  3. Paul, great article on Mary Rose and her implements. Please comment on the fireplace..I assume that was for the blacksmith. Where was it located, vented(?), etc.

  4. “Fireplace” was one of the ship’s galleys, where the cooking was down for the crew

    I wonder IF anyone has ever tried to reproduce a set of tools from the HMS Mary Rose? Use the artifacts as patterns to build a complete, working set of tools?

  5. I have long loved visiting sailing museums (Maine Maritime Museum, Mystic Seaport), and I am always fascinated by the exhibitions and demonstrations of woodworking skills associated with the building of traditional wooden boats (I am looking forward to a course in building wooden boats with traditional skills this summer).
    Having craftsmen demonstrate the tools and skills illuminates so many details about the ships and small craft themselves. Even a small amount of experience with woodworking makes the visit so much more interesting and inspires me to try my hand at various projects.
    Thanks for this thoughtful reflection on the visit to the Mary Rose. The pictures are wonderful, and your commentary once again points out how much we have lost (and how much there is to be regained) from hands on experience, working with tools, wood, metal, cloth, rope, and all the skills needed to build such a craft.

  6. You, Sir are a gift to those of us who understand what you do.
    I live in North Carolina on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
    I wonder if you plan to be anywhere within the South anytime in the future. Would like to meet you personally. I know you sometimes visit the USA.
    I am now 80 years old, and have dabbled in the craft some from time to time.
    My Great uncle taught me to use the “tray howell” which I think was otherwise called a scorp. I have made a rounding plane in order to make garden hoe handles and other things. I also built a violin (fiddle). In order to make it I had to make the tooling with which to build it, because I could not afford to buy these which I enjoyed as much as making the fiddle.

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