20 December 2010

Accidents: The Sinking of The Mary Rose

By Anita Davison

In Heartstone, C. J. Sansom's hero, Matthew Shardlake, finds himself aboard King Henry VIII's favourite battleship, The Mary Rose, when it sank in July 1545. He describes in chilling detail the cramped and unhealthy conditions, the complaints of the crew and its part in the battle in the Solent against an invading French navy.

Two theories attach themselves to this famous ship, one is that she was top heavy, carried too many men and ordnance, which made her topple during a fast manoeuvre when positioning to fire at the French. The other is that her hull was holed by a French cannonball and the story was hushed up to salve Henry VIII's pride in his favourite vessel.

Built around 1510, probably in Portsmouth, The Mary Rose is believed to have been named after the King's favourite sister, Mary, and the Tudor emblem, the Rose. In October 1525, she was in Deptford, requiring caulking "from the keel up, both inside and out." She is recorded as being 14 years old and weighing 600 tons, being, "good for the wars or else for the King's pleasure."

On the morning of July 19, 1545, the biggest invasion fleet ever to reach British shores sailed around the eastern side of the Isle of Wight and into the Solent with the intention of capturing the town and naval base of Portsmouth. The French fleet of 200 sail, including 23 gun galleys on loan from the Vatican, had been sent to teach King Henry VIII's newly Protestant England a lesson and quash Henry's claim to the throne of France once and for all.

The English fleet consisted of around 80 ships, gathered in Portsmouth, with more expected from the West Country. The first day of the battle consisted of a long range cannonade in which neither side suffered any real loss. The French had also invaded the Isle of Wight, tangling with the local militia.

That night, Henry dined on the flagship, Henry Grace a Dieu, with the admiral, Viscount Lisle, as well as Sir George Carew, the newly appointed vice-admiral, and his senior captains. Among the artifacts recovered from the Mary Rose were two pewter plates from Lisle's dinner service, marked with his shield of arms encircled with the Garter. (John Dudley, Viscount Lisle was created a Knight of the Garter in 1543.)

At dawn on the 19th July, the French attempted to lure the English within range of their main fleet. The flat calm allowed them to pound the English ships with relative impunity, when much to their delight The Mary Rose heeled over and sank. The French naturally believed they had sunk her.

According to the Imperial ambassador, Van Der Delft, the French fleet appeared while the King was at dinner on the flagship. Henry went ashore and the English fleet was engaged by five galleys. He records that The Mary Rose sank towards evening, drowning almost all the 500 men aboard. A survivors account states: "Was told by a Fleming among the survivors that when she heeled over with the wind the water entered by the lowest row of gun ports which had been left open after firing."

Sir Peter Carew, brother of Sir George Carew, newly appointed Vice Admiral in The Mary Rose, gave his biographer another eyewitness account. He states that The Mary Rose began to heel as soon as the sails were raised. When their uncle, Sir Gawain Carew, sailed past and asked Sir George what the problem was, he answered that "he had the sort of knaves whom he could not rule." Hooker further tells us that:
...This gentleman...had in his ship a hundred mariners, the worst of them being able to be a master in the best ship in the realm; and these so maligned and disdained one another, that refusing to do that which they should do, were careless to do that which was most needful and necessary, and so contending in envy, perished in forwardness.
Neither the vice-admiral, or the captain, Roger Grenville, were among the survivors.

Sir Anthony Browne, Master of the King's horse is on the white horse following behind King Henry VIII who is also mounted. Next to Sir Anthony Browne is Sir Charles Brandon, first Duke of Suffolk, who was commanding the English land forces at Portsmouth.

A number of explanations of the loss of the Mary Rose has been put forward over time, none of which are entirely satisfactory. Sir Walter Raleigh attributed her loss to the gunports being too close to the water line with a gap of only four inches. In which case, The Mary Rose would never have left port because her scuppers would have been submerged! The archaeological evidence indicates that the gunports had close to four feet of clearance.

Peter Carew's account says The Mary Rose started heeling immediately after his brother went aboard and her sails were set. There is no mention of her being engaged with the French galleys, contradicting the French account. Other accounts lay the blame on low gunports and heavy ordnance, further adding that the guns were unbreached. While this was undoubtedly the case, the guns were still held in position by their recoil ropes, there is evidence for only one gun (on the upper deck) having fallen from the port to the starboard side.

The most likely reason is a simple handling error in the heat of the skirmish with the galleys, compounded by confusion or a lack of discipline amongst the crew. The excavation of the ship also revealed that the ballast had shifted to the starboard side, and once the angle of heel was sufficient for water to enter the gunports the fate of the ship was sealed.

The Mary Rose sank through the soft upper sediments at an angle of 60 degrees, coming to rest on the clay below. The hull acted as a silt trap for the Solent currents, and the surviving portion of the hull filled rapidly, leaving the port side to be eroded by marine organisms and mechanical degradation. Almost the entire starboard side survived intact, excluding the bow and a portion of the aftercastle. Internally between half and one third of the orlop, main and upper decks, along with a fragment of the castle deck were intact, as were companionways, stanchions and cabin partitioning. During the 17th and 18th centuries the entire site was covered with a layer of hard gray shelly clay, which minimised further erosion.

A section from The Cowdray Engravings showing the sunken ship in the Solent

The Mary Rose was an important battleship and Henry VIII would have ensured she carried the best available crew of professional sailors and some of these men bravely battled against incoming water when the French [allegedly] blew a hole in her side. Nor did the ship sink because she was caught by a gust of wind while tacking under full sail. The documentary suggests the ship would have rapidly taken water into her hull before she manoeuvred to bring a broadside of guns to bear on the attacking French galleys which caused her to capsize and sink with the loss of more than 400 lives.

Serious attempts to save the ship would have been made, and skeletal remains found in the hold are thought to have been the carpenters desperately working in the dark trying to plug the hole made by the cannonball.

Whatever the truth of it, the loss of The Mary Rose was one of England's great naval tragedies.

Anita Davison is an historical fiction author with a love of 17th century England. DUKING DAYS: REBELLION was released in 2007 and the sequel, DUKING DAYS: REVOLUTION in 2008. TRENCARROW SECRET, a Victorian Gothic romance, will be released in June 2011 by MuseItUp Publishing.