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Steering the Mary Rose

How did they steer the Mary Rose?

Popular imagination inspired by movies and paintings shows the great Tudor explorers stood on the upper decks of their ships, one hand on the ship’s wheel as they search for foreigners to shoot at. However, the famous ship’s wheel, used alongside the anchor to represent all things maritime, wasn’t in use in the 16th century; in fact, it didn’t really become widespread until the 18th century!

So, how did they steer the Mary Rose?

We know the Mary Rose had a rudder because we found one. While the full length isn’t preserved due to the way the ship was buried, we do have about 4.5m of the bottom rudder, with the corroded remains of the iron pintles that held them to the ship’s stern.

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But how was it used? We found what appears to be a tiller, a long curved timber about 3m long on the Orlop Deck, which has a fitting to insert into the rudder itself, presumably in line with the upper deck of the Mary Rose. Annoyingly, it would have inserted into the top end, which we don’t have.

This tiller shows no sign of being fitted with a whipstaff, a long pole which would be attached to the tiller then emerge through to above decks, allowing the crew to steer the ship with a clear view of where they were going. The lack of evidence for this suggests that the Mary Rose’s rudder was worked from below decks, the presence of many navigational instruments on the upper deck, especially towards the stern backs this up, but it could just be that the tiller found was an unused spare, hence the lack of whipstaff attachments or markings.

This is one of those mysteries about the Mary Rose that still don’t have answers, but through the work of the Mary Rose Trust research team, we’re able to learn more about Henry VIII’s mighty warship.

 

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