A Day In The Life Of The Tudor Surgeon | The Mary Rose
A Day In The Life Of The Tudor Surgeon
Learning | 16 May, 2023 | The Learning Team
Our Learning team take a look at Tudor medicine through the eyes of the Mary Rose's surgeon

Medicine is as old as humankind and over thousands of years there have been many changes and innovations. The history of medicine is an endlessly fascinating subject perhaps more so as we can all relate in a small way to the illnesses and injuries of our ancestors. The Mary Rose Museum houses a unique collection of medical instruments and the Learning team deliver a workshop focusing on the role of Tudor Surgeon.

The Guild of Barbers and Surgeons merged in 1540. King Henry VIII gave their charter and wanted the very best recruited into his Army-By-Sea. After a seven year apprenticeship, our Surgeon had a treasure trove of remedies and medical instruments on board the Mary Rose; all preserved under the mud and left undisturbed for 437 years.

Day-to-day-life onboard for the Surgeon and his assistants would be varied as shown by the popular ‘Wound man’ diagram. Evidence from the human remains found on board show a range of back, knee and shoulder problems as well as one unlucky sailor who received an arrow wound to the head. Work related injuries like burns, strains and wounds were common. Other illnesses on board would stem from the close proximity of hundreds of men. The surgeon also took on the role of dentist, although most of the men had terrible teeth with many missing and evidence of very painful abscesses.

No self-respecting surgeon of the period would be without his books on herbal remedies. Many modern medicines have their roots in these ancient cures, for example, aspirin is derived from willow bark, and natural remedies are increasingly popular today. Jars of ingredients included pepper and frankincense. Frankincense is known to be anti-inflammatory and used today to treat arthritis. Many of the skeletons show evidence of osteo-arthritis particularly the gunners and archers – maybe the Surgeon was onto something!

Tudor medicine still used many ideas from Ancient Greek and Rome, such as the four humours – four liquids (blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile) which had to be kept in balanced to maintain every day health. An imbalance could cause all manner of common ailments. Headache? Too much blood – use a bleeding bowl to drain that excess blood away. Phlegmy cough? Too much cold and wet in their humours – grind up something hot and dry, like mustard seeds or peppercorns, to rebalance the body.

More serious operations, like amputations, used a range of surgical tools which would be totally recognisable to surgeons today, but unlike a modern operating theatre, the environment would be dirty and dark. The main problems for the Tudor Surgeon during operations were stopping the bleeding and preventing infection. Cauterising equipment was found on board the Mary Rose, however, at about the same time the French Surgeon Pare was pioneering new techniques, such a ligatures. We cannot know how quickly these ideas spread but our man was working at a very interesting period in medicine when huge strides were being made, often due to the number of casualties in battle which gave surgeons a huge amount of experience in a short time.   

To find out more:

Online resources for young people: https://maryrose.org/meet-the-surgeon/

Visit the museum to see our amazing collection of items or book a workshop with artefact handling and role play https://maryrose.org/student-and-schools-workshops/