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Mary Rose: International ship of history

Tudor England was more multicultural than you might think…

When people think of the Tudors at sea, they think of the age of exploration, people like Sir Walter Raleigh sailing around the world, discovering countries, bringing back vegetables and, oh, everything.

While this was true during the reigns of Henry VIII’s children, He was less concerned with exploration, and more with defence. This meant that ships like the Mary Rose rarely travelled far from home; indeed the Mary Rose only seems to have visited France and Scotland during her 34 years afloat. This doesn’t mean that she didn’t have some overseas influences though…

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The ship’s bell – Flanders (now Belgium)

A ship’s bell is very important; they signal the start and end of a watch, and were often the first thing on a ship to be made. This is especially true of the Mary Rose’s bell, which has the phrase “I was made in the year 1510” on it, suggesting that it was cast before the Mary Rose was given her name.

Well, actually it doesn’t say that, at least not in English. The inscription actually says “‘Ic ben ghegoten int yaer MCCCCCX”, which is Flemish, the language spoken in Flanders, in what is now northern Belgium. The town of Mechelen was famous for its bells, so it’s likely the Mary Rose’s was cast around there.

Henry was a big one for status symbols, he wanted the best, and if that meant going overseas to get it, so be it.

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Sundials – Nuremberg, Germany

One of the things that the level of preservation on the Mary Rose allows is very precise measurements to be taken. For example, from examining the position of the gnomon and hour lines we can see that they are calibrated to be used at a latitude of between 49° and 50° north, which is outside the British Isles, but does seem to correspond with central Europe, particularly Nuremberg, which would later become famous for its precision sundials, as well as other time pieces.

The sundials on the Mary Rose are a bit of an oddity; most of the crew wouldn’t need them, as the ships bell was necessary for their time-keeping needs. So, why have them?

While it’s possible that they belonged to foreign mercenaries (more on which later), there’s probably a simpler explanation; they’re all men, who go on shore leave, someone near the docks is selling the latest imported gadget, naturally they’re all going to want one!

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Cowrie shell – India/Africa?

You may not be surprised to hear that a seashell was found on the Mary Rose – 437 years under the sea, you’re bound to get a bit of sea life in there. But this particular example was found inside a sealed chest, in context with the rest of the ship, yet is from a species that at the time was more commonly found in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

While they were sometimes used for decorative purposes, made into jewellery (though probably not glued together to make owls like you see at tacky seaside souvenir shops), this one shows no sign of a hole for it to be attached. This suggests that it may have been used as currency, as was the case in many countries. Its presence on the Mary Rose may simply be as a souvenir from one of the crew’s previous careers, possibly as a trader.

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Cod bones – Newfoundland & Iceland

While beef and pork made up a large part of the diet of the Mary Rose’s crew, there were days when they were required to have fish. As there were 500 men to feed, they couldn’t just have the cook go up on deck with his fishing line that morning (although we did find a fishing line, but it was probably more as a pastime than for provisioning), so cod would be brought on board in barrels, salted to reduce the levels of rot.

But where did the cod come from? Isotope analysis of the bones suggests that, far from being locally sourced, some had been caught near Newfoundland, just off the North American coast, with others coming from Iceland (the country, not the frozen food store). Seems a long way to go to get some fish…

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Halberd – Switzerland

A lot of staff weapons were found on the Mary Rose, even though, apart from being used to repel boarders through the anti-boarding netting that was hung above the decks (and was responsible ultimately for killing most of the crew), they were basically useless in ship-bound combat. They were probably for use by what would later be called marines, soldiers stationed on ships that were being taken across the Solent to fight the invasion of the Isle of Wight that was a major part of the Battle of the Solent.

Halberds were mainly used at the time by Swiss mercenaries, so what were they doing on an English warship? Swiss mercenaries had a reputation for being the fiercest fighters at the time, so if he was going to supplement his troops, he was going to get the best.

He probably didn’t even need to bring them over; Tudor England wasn’t quite the ‘English Only’ monoculture many people think it was. London had an entire area populated by Germans, as well as foundries for Italian gun manufacturers. Even the Venetian salvage operators hired in 1545 to recover the Mary Rose were based in Southampton.

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The Archer royal, who appears to have grown up in North Africa

We even know that people of different ethnicities were present in Tudor England – not only do we have evidence of some of the crew having African ancestry, but one of the divers involved in the attempts to recover the Mary Rose in the 1540s-50s was Jacques Francis, a Guinean who worked for the salvage operators charged with retrieving her guns. Francis would later go on to become the first black person to give evidence in an English court, despite the protests of the defence. If only later generations had been so willing to give black people a voice…

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