The discovery and raising of the wreck of Henry VIII’s flag ship the Mary Rose is one of the greatest triumphs of marine archaeology.
She was launched at Portsmouth in 1510, refitted in 1536 and sunk in the Solent during July 1545. The fleet had been trapped in Portsmouth by the weather, allowing the French fleet to attack, but it was not enemy action that caused her to sink; apparently she heeled to starboard and was unable to right herself before water poured in through the open gun ports and caused havoc. Many of the crew were killed by objects on the ship which had come loose, such as guns, ammunition and stores. One of the brick ovens collapsed and a large cauldron fell onto the orlop deck. Of the crew of some 400 men, only 35 were saved.
There was, and still is, much speculation as to why she sank. The refit might have been partly responsible, making her 200 tons heavier and adding another gun deck; perhaps we shall never know. Salvage attempts were ordered only a few days after the sinking, but she was stuck in heavy clay and the equipment was not adequate, so they had no way of tunnelling under her keel. In the first attempt, only rigging and some ordinance was retrieved. Guns were salvaged and the hope of raising the entire hull was probably not abandoned until after Henry’s death. The wreck could still be seen at low tide until well into the next century.
Unfortunately, the waters of the Solent are not conducive to the preservation of timber. Pits formed around the hull. Much of the starboard side had been buried on impact. The wood was abraded by silt and sand carried by the currents, and attacked by fungus, bacteria and woodboring creatures such as shipworms. Eventually, much of the exposed structure collapsed. What remained was gradually covered in layers of sediment which levelled the site and finally sealed in much of the remaining Tudor material.
She was rediscovered in 1836 and a few more cannons and the like were brought to the surface, identifying the wreck.
It was not until 1965 that the British Sub Aqua Club took an interest in raising the wreck after a chart had been found dated 1840 marking the site of a number of wrecks. The Mary Rose had been marked as being three hundred metres south from the mouth of Portsmouth harbour, at a depth of eleven metres at low tide, and was rediscovered in 1971. Only a few dives were made in the interest of not attracting the attention of the general public as, at the time, there were no protection rights and anyone could remove what they found.
Prince Charles took an interest in the project and became its patron in 1974. In 1979, the Mary Rose Trust acquired the salvage vessel Sleipner, used as a platform for divers who had worked on the Swedish 17th-century warship Vasa in 1961. From 1979 to 1982, over 22,000 divers hours were spent on the site, amounting to 11.8 man years.
No one who watched it will ever forget the final raising of the Mary Rose from the seabed in 1982, or that final drama when the cradle slipped and it looked as if all effort had been in vain. Who could possibly forget the concerted gasp of dismay from everyone there from the Prince of Wales down? The raising of the hull was only the start of the difficulties to come. After three hundred years of submersion in the sea, and erosion from silt and predation, the wood was in urgent need of conservation. Many artefacts had survived, but long exposure to the underwater environment made most of them sensitive to exposure to the air.
Different materials needed different treatment, from being put in sealed polystyrene bags, or water tanks into which pond snails were sometimes added to destroy harmful organisms. Bone and ivory had to have the salt crystals removed. Most metal objects had to be kept in preservation solutions to stop oxidisation. All this was just to stop further deterioration until more permanent work could be carried out.
The Mary Rose Museum
Located just 400 metres from the main entrance to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.
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