Discover more about the history of the Mary Rose as we delve into Tudor life on the high seas

The historical Dockyards in Portsmouth play host to one of the world’s famous Tudor ships the Mary Rose.

Mary Rose Sinking

This painting, by renowned maritime artist Geoff Hunt depicts the final moments of the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s warship, during the Battle of the Solent on July 19th 1545, when a 200+ strong French invasion fleet confronted the much smaller English Navy just a few miles from Portsmouth. Although there have been many theories, from damage caused by the French to design instability, the reason for her loss is a mystery.

Contrary to popular belief, the Mary Rose was quite an old warship, launched 34 years earlier in 1511. During her career she fought in many battles against the French, carried troops to the Battle of Flodden and even hosted the Holy Roman Emperor during treaty negotiations in 1520.

Ship Maintenance

The Mary Rose is one of the largest archaeological artefacts anywhere in the world and her conservation proved to be a difficult and complicated process. After being brought into the dry dock in 1982 she was sprayed with freshwater, to remove any remaining sediment and salts, as well as to prevent drying out.

During the 437 years the Mary Rose spent under the mud, the cell structure of the timbers became weakened, and drying the ship out without treatment would have caused it to shrink and collapse.
In 1994 the conservation team began a process of spraying the structure with polyethylene glycol, a wax that penetrated the wood, replacing the water. Once the wax levels were high enough, they could turn off the sprays, as they did on 29th April 2013, after 19 years, and allow the ship to dry.


This basket-hilted sword was excavated from beneath the sterncastle in 1982 during work to dig the tunnels to secure the lifting wires needed to raise the hull. It was made of iron, with a beech handle grip and an iron/steel composite double-edged blade.
It is unusual in surviving, as most iron objects on the Mary Rose were heavily, if not completely, corroded away. This one was buried deeply in mud with almost no oxygen present, so oxidation was reduced, allowing it to survive almost intact.

A similar basket-hilted sword appears in a portrait of William Palmer, dated to about 1540, where he is dressed as a member of the Gentlemen Pensioners, a corps established by Henry VIII as his personal bodyguard. The presence of this, as well as a second weapon, suggests that there was at least a small number of these elite troops on board the Mary Rose when she sank.


This cast bronze bell was found near the sterncastle of the Mary Rose, close to a beech structure that may have been the bell hanger. Its primary use was timekeeping on board ship, telling the crew when their watches began and ended, as well as when to take soundings and other measurements vital for navigation.

It also allows us to identify the ship as the Mary Rose, as her name isn’t written on any part of her hull, nor on her artefacts. Dendrochronology (the study of the rings in the timbers) allows us to work out what year the trees they came from where felled, so you can tell that none of the Mary Rose timbers date from later than 1545, but while the practise of putting the name of a ship on a bell didn’t start until the 18th Century, it is cast the legend “Ic ben ghegoten int yaer MCCCCCX'”, Flemish for “I was made in the year 1510”, so the ship it belonged to must have been built then.
While the presence of a Flemish inscription might suggest it to be a Flemish ship, the rest of the contents of the ship firmly place it as an English warship.

Anti-Boarding Netting

While only fragments of this anti-boarding netting were recovered, originally it would have been placed over the heads of the crew on the waist and castle decks of the Mary Rose, forming a roof of pitch-covered hemp. This was in place to prevent the ship being captured, enemy boarders would have to cut through the net to get on board, during which time they were at the mercy of the crew underneath, who would be stabbing and shooting at them.

While it proved very efficient at keeping people out, sadly it was equally good at keeping people in. While a lot of people claim it was the crew’s inability to swim that caused them to drown, even the most proficient swimmer would be unable to get through this netting in time. Because of this, of five hundred men on board only the 30 or so working above the netting survived.

Knee-high boot

This leather knee-high boot was found in the hold of the Mary Rose. It appears to have been lined with, although this is now lost. What does still remain are the boot straps, sewn to the top of the boot to make them easier to pull on. Other similar boots found on the Mary Rose have a layer of straw sewn into the sole, to improve comfort, but this one lacks this. It also lacks a raised heel, and isn’t made for a specific foot, allowing it to be worn on either.

Surgeon’s Coif

The Surgeon’s coif, made with black silk velvet imported from the continent, was the badge of office for a Tudor surgeon. Similar hats are seen in the 1540 painting of Henry VIII and the Guild of Barber Surgeons by Holbein, produced to celebrate the amalgamation of the barbers and surgeons by Royal charter. It’s believed that the Mary Rose’s surgeon may be one of the surgeons depicted in this image, but without further information, it’s impossible to tell. Marks on some of the pewter ware suggest his initials were W.E.

The barber surgeons were the field medics of the day, treating the wounded of the King’s armed forces during battles or just day-to-day injuries. Despite their amalgamation, the surgeons and the barbers did not do each other’s jobs. While both surgeon’s tools and shaving equipment were recovered from the surgeon’s cabin, it’s unlikely he did both. Cutthroat razors were used like scalpels and what has in the past been described as a shaving bowl may, in fact, just be a large bleeding bowl.

Gold Half Sovereign

Five gold sovereigns were recovered from the Mary Rose, unsurprising, as they’d only entered into circulation four months prior to the sinking of the Mary Rose. Unlike most of the older gold coinage that was recovered, these had a much higher level of impurity, part of Henry VIII’s debasement of the currency, introducing alloys that were, in the case of the Mary Rose’s coins, only 92 per cent gold.

Even after this, a half sovereign was a lot of money, more than a Captain would earn in five days, and more than an ordinary mariner would earn in five months!

Gimballed Compass

This compass was one of three navigational compasses found on the Mary Rose, all of which were gimballed, allowing them to remain flat in the choppiest of conditions.

While the compass card, onto which the points of the compass were painted, is missing, as is the iron-magnetised needle, we still have the copper-alloy pin it was mounted on, as well as the turned poplar lid. The fact this was found in the pilot’s cabin, rather than the upper deck suggests that this compass was not in use at the time the Mary Rose sank.


Paternosters, or rosary beads, were found on all decks of the Mary Rose, showing that many of the crew would have been deeply religious, which is understandable in a period of such religious turmoil in England. While many Roman Catholic rituals had been outlawed by Henry VIII, in attempt to encourage the laity to take a more active role in religious instruction, recitation of the rosaries was permitted, provided it was done with due reverence.

This particular example is made from various red stones, agate and boxwood and features three drilled dots on some of the larger beads either in a row or forming a triangle, possibly representing the Holy Trinity.

Learn more about the Mary Rose via

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

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