The Mary Rose Emerges From the Deep

From my Journal Saturday 15th April 2017

A model representing the mighty warrior ship of England, the Mary Rose.

I left for Portsmouth, which sits but 1 ½ hours from my home, for some private study and rest time bathing in the history of woodworking. Portsmouth is a port city and naval base on England’s south coast, mostly spread across Portsea Island. It’s best known for its maritime heritage of famed ships and boats restored, housed and maintained at Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard. Home to the National Museum of the Royal Navy, the wooden warship HMS Victory is permanently berthed in retirement here, where Nelson died in the Battle of Trafalgar, and HMS Warrior 1860 also stands testament to Britain’s fighting past. All that of interest too, it was the Tudor ship Mary Rose that drew me to this shore and harbour. In a dark and austere shell-like building developed to house its massive carcass, the Mary Rose has been brought home to rest her weary body as a conserved remnant of war in what has become a dockyard museum.

For the first time in weeks the sky was cloud-covered and greyish but had intermittent splashes of lovely blue. I liked it because it was cool but airy, even though perhaps not the best day for dockland visits. My plan to visit the war ship of Henry VIII and then other war ships might not be as bright as I thought but for months now, I had hoped to make the journey south. Beyond its amazing frame of wood though, inside and hidden for half a millennia, lay the true purpose for my visit. I wanted to see with my own eyes just what was on board the ever-famed Mary Rose at the point of its sinking hulk in the mid 1500’s.

Lights play a key part in interpretation of the remains.

The ship was lost in a manoeuvre to shift from one broadside facing French invaders threatening England to its opposite broadside, having fired all one side of its canons and exhausting its payload. If it turned and presented the other guns it might well send the marauding French armada on its way. In the maneuver though, the great ship lost all advantage. No one knows what truly happened, but in the scurrilous assault 500 seamen and boys on board were lost to sea.

One minute in darkness…
…and then briefly bathed in light.

Inside the great vault of the museum, lights play on the walls of the ill-fated yet legendary ship. It first feels and looks like a massive cave or cavern. Cavers will know what I mean if they’ve gone down a pot (pothole) swam down a tunnel and come up into a massive cavern filled with stalactites. The ship seems to stretch up and out like that; far beyond imagination. If indeed your interest lies in wood at all, this place is just fascinating. But boat building, fascinating though it is, was only a small part of my penchant to be there in the bowels of the ship. It was not so much the building the ship but launching it, manning it and fitting it out. This ship relied almost totally on wood and metal. Within its constructs was an absolute sphere of life-independent, a vessel if you will that held life and soul together, relying only on its construction to hold itself bobbing and storm tossed on the seas of the world.

A teenage kind inherits ships from his father and so begins the birthing of an Empire.

When the Mary Rose sank she landed deeply; the seabed mud swallowed her almost all-consumingly into its well-hidden depths. At first thought it seems so negative but then you realise that in essence it was this muddied burial site the provided a measure of protection. The ship lay protected from the swells, tides, currents and sea life surrounding it. Half of her side was preserved deep in the mud, which kept the wood and contents as safe as possible under the circumstances.

The legendary cannon betrays the whereabouts of a great warship.

Most metals corroded all the way away, others, bronze, even pewter and such, were 500 years beneath the sea but survived, in part anyway, for us to look at today. A cannon of wrought iron was the pivotal turning point of discovery when divers recognised it for what it was. The ensuing work to raise the Mary Rose was soon to begin.

Wooden supports on wooden wheels hold the cannon.

The museum takes you through multiple floor levels adjacent to the ships hulk for you to witness the mass of the ship. The imagination of any woodworker runs riot even though you can’t actually get within 50 feet of actual wood connected to the ship’s body mass. But imagination is a marvellous thing and you definitely see the work of visionaries. This ship, built from 1511 onwards, worked as a warship at sea for 33 years before its fatal day in 1545. Though its location has been long known, the technology needed to retrieve it intact as much as possible didn’t arrive until the 1980’s . the Mary Rose came back into daylight for a brief time when a huge steel frame was built to undergird her great mass from sea to shore. The frame remains as backstage support as an external skeletal structure. The darkness in the museum is atmospheric as well as protective. Climate control is imperative for the wellbeing of the hull so the dark history of the era seems to be reflective of the era and causes deep reflections as you look over from the balconies. It’s much more than just, well, plain interesting: more deep.

Whereas some parents gave their opinions to their young children, and imaginations coloured the truth and reality, individuals did seem deeply reflective facing the truth about protecting kingdoms and what it took to do that. Imagine training every day for decades, beginning as a young child, to become accepted as an archer and then having your whole life dedicated to such a task. I mean to the point that your spine develops its own twisted curvature identifying your bones as the bones of an archer 500 years hence. In the multi-level museum dedicated to stowing the huge carcass of the Mary Rose, you pass along glass-walled corridors from which to view, and listen to interpretive media of life on board at the time. Limbs are lopped off by surgeons on one level while limbs are spliced in by ships carpenters on another.

The skeleton of the carpenter’s dog came up with the wreckage.

The bones of the carpenters dog were discovered at the entrance to his workshop. Swimming out of trouble wasn’t an option even for him.

Explanation shows where the dog was found and why it was identified as the carpenter’s dog.

I have much more written but I just wanted to say, if you get half a chance, do go to the Maritime Museum in Portsmouth and support the great work they have done so far. There is much more to do yet and it is more than just entertainment. Here is the link for more information. You can easily spend three or four days there alone.



19 thoughts on “The Mary Rose Emerges From the Deep”

  1. Truly amazing. I think it’s 25 years since I visited the museum with school, so maybe a visit to the new museum is in order with a curious 6 year old of my own in tow this time.

  2. Did you get to see the carpenter’s tools? It’s an amazing connection to the past we have-the hand tool kit hasn’t changed that much.

    1. Peter Littlejohn

      This really shows the time and effort that is required to build a sailing ship like this, even using modern tools and machinery of today. It’s a marvel to think how this was done all by hand hundreds of years without the aid of the machines and tools we have now.

  3. Bryan McKinnon

    I’ve been studying the bows that were found on the Mary Rose. Lots of preserved history on that ship.

  4. Hi Paul,

    I visited this museum in January during a vacation in England on a whim and was blown away. White oak seems to have been the foundation on which England built its empire! I was struck by how the tools have not changed much at all in 500 years. I am also consistently amazed, through my research of old tools and methods, how much information has been lost in the last century or two. There was a tool at the museum they had labeled as “unidentified”–they thought it might be a “joggle stick” used to transfer measurements or some such thing. I spent some time in front of that piece trying to determine what it could be used for and feeling amazed that humans have forgotten such things. Did you see it and if so do you have any theories?

    Anyhow, I’ve been raving about this museum to all of my American friends ( I live in Pennsylvania) and I’m so glad you’ve posted about it!


    1. Actually, it’s not that haven’t changed but that no new tool has been invented that didn’t exist in 300 years. Of course a machine is not a tool as such, just a machine.

  5. I loved this post Paul, Have to put the museum on the bucket list for sure.
    Thanks, very informative and I’m sure a different experience in the flesh than on the screen.

  6. natxo sainz de aja

    Hello Paul
    Here you can see how in the Basque Coutry, in the north of spain, are building a copy of one whaleship of the century XVI, whith tradicional tools. When they finish they will sail to Canada like in the old days. Regards

  7. Should of jumped on a boat to Guernsey Paul I’d of loved to show you around. Really interesting post I love to see your insight. It also really shows the durability of wood, it really is a wonderful,tactile and beautiful material. It’s funny the misconceptions regarding wood as a modern building material. People believe that plastic in windows and doors is a longer term solution however this is false when treated correctly wood far surpasses the longevitys of plastics. Thankyou for the time and effort you put in to the world of woodworking.

  8. That story and those picture just fill me with awe.
    The hairs on my arms are still standing on end as I type.
    Have we forgotten more than we have learned these past 500 years…………

  9. You have a brief mention of archery, but even more interesting for a fellow woodworker is the craft of bowery. They found around 130 English long bows on the Mary Rose, which has been a true gold mine for those interested in medieval bowery. These bows has been studied and replicated by modern bow makers, and they work exceptionally well for their intended use.

    As a woodworker, it is very interesting to look at the process of making a bow. This craft takes the reading of grain and wood properties to a new level. One thing is to make a working bow from a straight piece of wood, but do the same using a crooked three with lots of knots. It’s truly amazing. Just google “character self bow” and look at the pictures. At fist glance they just look like a random stick of wood found in the forest, but then you see that the bow maker has skillfully followed the grain through all its curls, using the woods own reinforcements around knots, making sure the bow bends just right through it’s whole length.

  10. Having lived in Portsmouth all my life, I still remember when that museum was once but a single wall with parts of the carcass mounted and constantly sprayed with some kind of liquid. One of my most vivid memories. The glistening wood, the dark dank atmosphere. A real defining moment for me come to think of it.

    Anyone who hasn’t come down this way yet, I urge you to do so. This city is packed with history, and Paul is right; you can’t do it all in a day so make it a long weekend!

    I love the historic dockyard and have been a yearly ticket holder as far back as I can remember. A trip round the museums and then into old Portsmouth for a pint. Perfect Sunday.

  11. Anthony Crocitto

    I come to woodworking through my efforts to build exact scale replicas of the wooden warship. I endeavor to work in same materials and techniques as the originals. The complexity and yet simplicity if function never cease to amaze me. I hope some day to get to Portsmouth and see these for myself. But till then uour wnderful photos will tide me over.

  12. Paul Dallender

    Being a Pompey lad when I lived down there I used to love visiting the Naval Dockyard to see the Victory and especially looked forward to Navy Days when ships from all over the world would visit and you could go on board them. Of course HMS Victory was the most fascinating and was always amazed that men could actually live and work on it as it is very compact, mind you as I am only 5 feet four inches tall felt quite at home….hah! but adding the Mary Rose and The Warrior to the collection have as you say, made it a place even more worth visiting.

    Having said that, If you think the Mary Rose exhibition is impressive and you ever get the chance; go see the Swedish ship Vasa in Stockholm. I have an old school friend who lives in Sweden and we went to Stockholm for the weekend and the visit to the Vasa was the highlight of the trip. It sank in 1628 in Stockholm harbor in much the same way the Mary Rose did but due to the type of sea water, it lay buried and preserved in the sea bed for over three hundred years. The difference being most of it survived intact. You can walk round it and under it and even the sails have survived. Give it a Google I think you’ll be impressed.

  13. Stephen O. Saxe

    Fascinating! In 1967 I was in Portsmouth to make measured drawings of the orlop deck of HMS Victory where Horatio Nelson died, in preparation for an exhibition at Mme Tussaud’s:

    That was, of course, long before Mary Rose was raised. But the HMS Victory is well worth a vist.

    By the way, you have written ” but in the scurrilous assault 500 seamen.. .” I don’t think you mean “scurrilous,” which the OED says means “Making or spreading scandalous claims about someone with the intention of damaging their reputation.”
    -Stephen Saxe, New York

  14. Great story Paul, I visited in 2008 and I can’t wait to go back. On a side note HMS Victory isn’t technically in retirement, she’s still in commission!

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