An Un-bell-ieveable Discovery! | The Mary Rose
An Un-bell-ieveable Discovery!
Collections | 07 Jun, 2022 | The Collections Team
The ship’s bell was one of the last Mary Rose artefacts found, unexpectedly, beneath the wreck during preparation excavations for raising the ship in October 1982.

Discover the story of the bell’s recovery, its purpose, and how it is now pride of place within the museum galleries once more. 

Forty years ago on 8th June 1982 it started as ‘a day with little to commend itself’, according to one of the daybook entries within the Mary Rose Trust archive.

By the end of the day, that had very much changed.

Within the same daybook entry is recorded:

‘Last thing. 18:00. Bronze bell recovered from site.

Found by Peter Ewens[…]

Oyster shells on it.

Excellent condition.’

The bell of the Mary Rose had been discovered, 437 years after it sank to the Solent seabed along with the ship and her crew.

An exceptional and significant object, it is also the artefact within the collection that has the longest association to the ship that it served. Cast in Flanders, the Flemish inscription on the bell reads ‘Ic ben ghegoten int year MCCCCCX’, which translates as ‘I was made in the year 1510’

This is the same year that the Mary Rose was commissioned, on 29th January 1510. The bell was, therefore, a part of her story from the beginning until the day the ship sank on 19th July 1545.

A ship’s bell was an essential device that all the men onboard would have been familiar with. It was the means of marking time and regulating shift patterns, with an ‘eight-bell’ watch sounding constantly throughout the day and night. 

Each half hour was marked by an additional chime of the bell up to the ‘eight-bell’ chime on the standard four-hour watch, as below, when the new shift started and the pattern repeated:

Number of chimes/'bells' Pattern Timing of 4-hour shift/'watch'
1 X 1/2 hour
2 XX 1 hour
3 XX X 1 1/2 hour
4 XX XX 2 hours
5 XX XX X 2 1/2 hours
6 XX XX XX 3 hours
7 XX XX XX X 3 1/2 hours
8 XX XX XX XX 4 hours

The half-hour system is based on the use of sand-glass timers that measured in half-hour increments. Evidence of four sandglasses was recovered from the Mary Rose wreck. 

Two of these were found on the Upper deck near to where the bell was originally positioned. Another was within a chest on the main deck outside the carpenters’ cabin and is the most well preserved.

Collections De-Install
Maintenance Moving
Maintenance Install
Collections Re-Install
Bell Final Position

To accommodate the opening of the new ‘1545’ experience, the ship’s bell had to be temporarily re-located to the visitor entrance. Planning its permanent new location back within the Museum galleries involved input from a range of teams across the organisation.

This included Collections, Conservation, Curatorial, Maintenance, Interpretation, Health & Safety, Visitor Operations, Staff and Volunteers, with practical and logistical considerations assessed such as visitor flow, access, power and lighting, health and safety etc.

After thorough discussion, consultation and planning, the ideal location was agreed: The Cowdray Gallery. This space introduces the Mary Rose and the crew onboard – with the bell being a long and integral part of their enduring story, staff across departments and Volunteers were keen for visitors to encounter it here.

Positioning the bell here also reflects historical and archaeological context – an important aspect of the museum interpretation – as, being by the stern end of the ship, it is near the bell’s original position as well as the location it was excavated in 1982.

Our in-house Maintenance, Collections and Conservation teams then had the challenge of safely and securely re-locating the (priceless) bell and its (heavy) purpose-built showcase.

The bell of the Mary Rose is once again a starring piece within the museum for visitors to enjoy, to help celebrate and commemorate the 40th anniversary of its discovery and the raising of Henry VIII’s iconic ship.