What sank the Mary Rose? A perfect cross-curricular enquiry for any age | The Mary Rose
What sank the Mary Rose? A perfect cross-curricular enquiry for any age
Learning | 18 Jul, 2022 | The Learning Team
The question What really sank the Mary Rose? is one of the most asked at the Mary Rose Museum. In July, the month when the Mary Rose sank in 1545, this blog discusses why this question makes such a great topic for learners of all ages.

What sank the Mary Rose? is a genuine historical question. School visitors are presented with a wide variety of evidence in an age-appropriate way: historical, archaeological and scientific. Theories include too much wind; overloading; misbehaving crew and French cannon fire. No one knows the real answer. We have a number of contemporary historical sources. Two Tudor paintings set the scene; the Anthony Anthony Roll illustrates the ship and the other, called the Cowdray Engraving, the 1545 Battle of the Solent. 

During our workshops we encourage pupils to practise key skills, such as weighing evidence and thinking critically, by debating this engaging historical question. Critical thinking is an essential life lesson for personal development as well as a vital historical skill and schools are keen to help prepare pupils to navigate the world of ‘fake news’ and carefully curated social media profiles.

Written sources provide glimpses of what happened on that fateful day on 19th July 1545 and can be interpreted to create wildly different versions of the same story. Would you believe the French who claim to have sunk the Mary Rose by cannon fire? The Spanish who blame a sailing accident? Or the English who suggest the crew were at fault? Voting for their preferred theory always leads to lots of heated discussion between students and teachers! Students must be able to justify their choice and often come up with insightful responses and questions, testing those of us delivering the sessions and challenging us to try and find the answers. The fact there are some things we just don’t know for sure is an important concept for pupils.  

Sessions in our laboratory help pupils test ideas of buoyancy and over-loading practically using weights and models made from plastic boxes with ‘gunports’. Pupils of all ages enjoy the opportunity to experiment with water! The ‘tipping ship’ whole class challenge is always popular.

The Tipping Ship

During their museum time, pupils can analyse the size and shape of the hull of the Mary Rose for themselves – as well as look for evidence of those French shot holes! The unparalleled collection of artefacts including huge cannons, two brick-built ovens and all the other ship’s equipment allows pupils to consider the theory of over-loading for themselves.

For older students and adult learners, more layers of complexity are added with other sources of evidence advancing alternative theories, for example, Dr Dominic Fontana’s research on the Battle of the Solent using GPS mapping.

Learners of all ages enjoy the experience of engaging in a genuinely open debate. Their view is as valid as anyone else’s providing they can support it with evidence. The sinking of the Mary Rose is a perfect case study of the complexity of real history and one of our favourite topics to teach as no two sessions are ever the same.

Find out more

Discover more of the options we have for visiting schools, from basic walk-throughs of the museum to expert-led sessions designed to enrich teaching and learning across the school curriculum!