477 Years Ago: When their world ended, our story began | The Mary Rose
477 Years Ago: When their world ended, our story began
Collections | 04 Jul, 2022 | The Collections Team
A blog from Tom, one of the Kick Start trainees working with our Collections Team

477 years ago this month, on 19th July 1545, the Mary Rose sank in the Solent, the strait North of the Isle of Wight.  On this day, hundreds of men lost their lives to an unforeseeable tragedy.

The Cowdray Engraving

The tragedy that befell the crew has provided us with an unparalleled window into the lives of the sailors aboard the Mary Rose, and the details of 16th Century life.

Having been built in Portsmouth, the hull’s sinking in and recovery from the Solent and eventual resting place within Portsmouth Historic Dockyard are all the more poignant.

One of the great contemporary resources that informs us about events on that fateful day is commonly referred to as the Cowdray engraving.  This engraving is a copy of a painting commissioned sometime between 1545 and 1548 by Sir Anthony Browne, Master of the King’s Horse (shown riding a white horse behind the King in the centre of the image).  The colourised version of the engraving, also known as "The Encampment of the English Forces near Portsmouth" was one of a set of five images from Cowdray House that would have depicted historical events that Sir Anthony Brown took part in.  It is remarkably accurate in its depiction of both Southsea and Portsmouth.  The image owes its existence to the Society of Antiquaries who commissioned the engraving as the original painting was destroyed in a fire at Cowdray House in 1778.  

The engraving is littered with details alluding to the battle and what was happening in Portsmouth on the day the Mary Rose sank.  For example, right at the centre of the image we can see two of the masts of the Mary Rose sticking out of the water.  To the right of this, in all its grandeur, is the Kings flagship the Henry Grace à Dieu (which translates to "Henry, Thanks be to God").  Just below the Mary Rose masts is Southsea Castle, where men can be seen manning the fortification’s cannons, carefully watching the French fleet.

A cook with a cauldron bubbling away can be spotted, perhaps preparing food for the group of soldiers massed on Southsea Common.  The men are carrying pikes - the likes of which were found on the seabed with the Mary Rose.  The town of Portsmouth can also clearly be seen to the right; landmarks such as the Round Tower and Square Tower, as well as Portsmouth Cathedral, make piecing together the topography remarkably clear.

The Mary Rose lost on the Cowdray Engraving

The Cowdray Engraving is one of the first things you can examine through Interactive displays when you enter the Museum.

The Cowdray Gallery

Henry VIII declared war on France in 1543 and in 1544 he had seized Boulogne.  Francis I prepared a fleet of 225 ships to invade England's South coast and on the 18th of July 1545 they arrived at the Isle of Wight.  On the 19th, Henry’ s fleet were stationed within Portsmouth Harbour in a heavily fortified position and prepared to defend against the substantially larger French fleet.

Just off the South coast, the two naval forces occasionally skirmished with each other in a series of hesitant encounters.  Neither side wanted to give up their advantage (the French fleets sheer numbers vs. the English fleets defensive position).

During one of these skirmishes, the Mary Rose sailed ahead, fired her starboard guns at the galleys and then turned to prepare to fire her port side guns.  During this manoeuvre she foundered and as a sudden gust of wind caught the sails, she keeled over.  Water poured in through her open starboard gun ports and the ship quickly sank, killing all but 35 of her estimated 500 crew.

The French, who were making no notable progress and were presumably frustrated at their failure to invade the mainland, instead turned to raiding the Isle of Wight.  Around 2,000 men landed on the island, burnt down houses and drove away villagers.  This was to agitate and provoke the English fleet into leaving the safety of Portsmouth Harbour.

In the end, the English fleet stood fast, and ensured the security of the port.  On the 21st July 1545 a hastily formed local militia on the Isle of Wight defeated and repelled the invasion, forcing the French Fleet to head home.  Today, on the Isle of Wight, you can find a memorial to the French invasion on Esplanade junction in Seaview (http://www.isle-of-wight-memorials.org.uk/others/seaviewfrench.htm).

The Battle of the Solent has been brought to life within the museum through an experience called ‘1545: When their world ended’.  Through this, visitors can come aboard the Mary Rose, during the Battle of the Solent, and experience the ship’s final moments, 477 years ago...