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Witchcraft, belief and religion on board the Mary Rose

While scanning photographed artefacts in the Mary Rose Trust collection, I found I was drawn to images that shed light on Tudor beliefs and superstition, witchcraft, and religion.

Here in the archives, myself and the other Collections Volunteers have been scanning away and have recently reached our 60,000 digitised images milestone! As we make our way through the (hundreds of) film strips, we’re continuing to see Tudor objects make their way from the bottom of the Solent and through the hands of those who excavated the ship and its contents in the 1970s and 1980s.

Having now been with the Collection Volunteers team for just shy of 2 years, I’ve begun to realise that some of my favourite photographs I’ve scanned have been of the smaller, domestic objects. At first, it’s difficult to identify these artefacts on the photographic contact sheet. But once the frame has been scanned, you can make out a small wooden bowl with markings carved into its surface. It’s a similar feeling with the underwater photographs that capture objects and the ship in situ. Once the film has made its way through the scanner, it’s fascinating to gain insights into the processes that lead to a diver memorialising some rosary beads as they were originally encountered underwater within a photograph.

Reflections on both the underwater images and the artefact photographs function as quieter, contemplative moments in the scanning room, in which I find myself looking at the photographs for a while to decipher the subject, the context, and the meaning. It’s what I enjoy most about digitisation, and it’s exciting to know that others will have this very exact opportunity to experience as the archive becomes more accessible.

As I began to collate and research some of the photographed artefacts for the blog, I found I was drawn to images that shed light on Tudor Beliefs and Superstition, Witchcraft, and Religion. (And yes, it’s purely coincidence this blogpost is brought to you on Halloween…)

The Protestant Reformation not only affected people’s religious viewpoints, but it fundamentally changed the way Tudor Europeans saw themselves in terms of their public and private displays of belief. I’ve found that these photographs offer a fascinating insight into superstition and beliefs on board the Mary Rose, how certain objects reflect their deeply personal beliefs and attitudes during a time of religious turmoil, and ultimately how certain objects were kept for protection and safety during life at sea.

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“Hatch” as he was first discovered on the seabed.

What you can see from this murky seascape is the skeleton of the ship’s dog, ‘Hatch’, emerging from the Solent. Modern traditions tell us that cats are more common on board ships than dogs. However, in Tudor England those beliefs couldn’t be more different. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII professed cats to be unholy and linked them to witchcraft. For the next 200 years, it was widely considered to be unlucky to even own a cat! Does Hatch shed light on superstitions on board the Mary Rose, in which he represents an outward display for Catholic belief?

Furthermore, Henry VIII had passed the Witchcraft Act in 1542, which defined witchcraft as a felony punishable by death! It’s interesting to see how life on board supports the superstitions that were held at the time and rejecting aspects that could be associated with witchcraft.

A wooden bowl

These photographs of wooden bowls that were recovered from the wreck are probably some of my favourite images that I’ve come across in the archives. They appear to be relatively commonplace amongst the film negatives: a photograph documenting a vessel used by the men at sea for meal times. But on a second look, each bowl has what appears to be specific markings or symbols carved into its surface. The markings are considered to be a personal means of denoting ownership, but it has also been suggested they functioned as protective devices and/or good luck symbols. The pentagram or pentangle device was probably used as a ‘good health’ symbol by the time of the sixteenth century.

Another example of these ‘protective markings’ is what looks to be the number ‘4’ on a forked stem, which is thought to derive from the device carried by Hermes messenger of the Gods.  The inverted ‘V’ which creates the fork of the stem is thought to represent the ‘coming of the redeemer’ and was a common protective device of the time!

Interior of bowl showing “what looks to be the number ‘4’ on a forked stem”
Exterior of bowl, showing pentagram or pentangle device
Our Collections Manager, Alastair, pointed me in the direction of the HMS Invincible (1747) wreck as an object that was excavated similarly has ‘protective markings’ carved into its surface. When excavating the ship, a chest was recovered wherein a ‘witch’s mark’ was found on the inside of the lid (video hosted by the Maririme Archaeology Sea Trust. It’s thought it was meant to trap any evil spirits inside of the chest. The markings reveal that superstitions continued into the late 18th century, even on board naval ships. Although we may not entirely understand the significance of each of the symbols, both on the chest from HMS Invincible and with these bowls from the Mary Rose, I’m drawn to these objects that seem to reveal something about their owners and their beliefs. It seems that carving certain symbols on their personal belongings was a common means of self-expression.
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A bone angel

I find that objects like this small, bone casket panel lead you to considering the history of the tangible artefact, but they can also induce a sense of wondering who the owner could have been. Particularly in the context of the archive, where the images are digitised in isolation from the wider archive. The casket panel here is photographed alone, which further motivated me to learn more about the history of the object.

On a material level, the carving is incredibly detailed, showing two angels walking, each holding large candles. The angels’ dresses and the building behind are north Italian in style. It was made in Venice at the workshop of the Embriachi family, who were famous for carving altarpieces and bridal caskets out of bone between 1370 and 1433. This means that the object was at least 100 years old when the Mary Rose sank! The panel was found in a chest found on the main deck. Recent isotype analysis into the potential owner of the chest shows that he was of Mediterranean coastal origin, so it is possible he could have been Italian.

It is thought that the panel held iconic significance, as it came from a valued container or it was used in the context of having apotropaic powers (for example, ‘to ward off the evil eye’). The panel features in the temporary exhibition ‘Many Faces of Tudor England’, which runs until 31st December 2019 at the Museum.  The exhibition asks: Was this a much-loved family heirloom or a sign of religious devotion belonging to an Italian gentleman? Or perhaps both…

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Rosary beads on the seabed

Within this photo, a diver has captured their encounter with one of the smaller, objects found during the excavations of the ship: a paternoster or rosary. You may be able to make out the circular beads at the centre of the image.

Considering the zeitgeist of Henry VIII’s reign, an object such as this raises further questions of outward or private displays of personal belief. Could the owner of this paternoster have been carrying it as a means of quieter contemplation in the face of such religious turmoil? Paternosters were also carried as a protective device and used as a means of ‘warding off evil’!

I’ve found that these photographs have furthered my fascination in the Protestant Reformation. The objects and artefacts are so varied; wooden bowls carved with symbols of significance and the skeleton of the ship’s dog are artefacts that don’t initially appear to be associated with belief, witchcraft nor religion. Whereas the casket bone panel and rosary beads are much easier to associate with belief. I’ve found that there is always more to objects than it originally appears. Who would have though ‘Hatch’ the dog could be a symbol of anti-witchcraft? Or that men at sea would use their wooden bowls to carve protective devices?

As I continue to help digitise the Mary Rose Trust archive, it will be interesting to see how more photographs shed light on Tudor beliefs…

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