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Artillery on the Mary Rose

Guns are important to the Mary Rose. Finding a bronze gun in 1836 led John Dean to work the site between 1836 and 1840. Finding ‘an old wrought iron gun’ in 1970 eventually led to finding the first timbers in May 1971.

We have three inventories for the ship. One in 1514, one in 1540 and the illustrated Anthony Roll of 1546, providing us with the only contemporary image we have of the Mary Rose.  The weapons listed in these inventories demonstrate the dramatic change in the tactics of warfare at sea within a short period. The mixed bag of weapons, some old some new, with dates suggested for alterations to the ship’s structure from tree-ring dating, chart this transition from troop ship to gun ship and provide a unique insight into this period of change.

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The great guns

The Mary Rose is listed with 39 guns large enough to require carriages. These were arranged over four gundecks. The main deck supported the heaviest guns, with seven or eight each side, situated at gun ports with lids which could be closed. Many of these main deck gun ports appear to have been added during the major refits between 1536 and 1540. The orientation of the lids on the surviving starboard side, which lay on the seabed, confirms that they were open when the Mary Rose sank.

Above this was the upper gun deck, which was open in the centre of the ship, but enclosed at each within the bow and stern castles. Between the castles, over this deck, there was a heavy net designed to obstruct boarders. Being trapped by the net was the main reason for the huge loss of life. The gun ports for this deck did not need lids as they were well above the waterline.

We think there were two additional decks within the castles at each end of the ship. We have the remains of one castle deck in the stern. A bronze gun on its carriage was positioned firing forwards through a gun port cut in the front of the stern castle at an angle. At the widest part of the ship, the gun provided long range forward firing capability not achievable at the bow due to the narrowness and shape of the ships bow.

The great guns of the Mary Rose were made of iron or bronze. The iron guns were forged, and the bronze guns were cast.  This influences the form of the guns, and the method and speed of loading. Advances in furnace technology and casting skills meant that within the next 25 years of the loss of the Mary Rose most guns were cast in iron.


Bronze guns

Bronze cannon 81A3003

Fifteen bronze guns are listed for the Mary Rose, in six different sizes; cannon, demi-cannon, culverin, demi-culverin, saker and falcon. Ten guns were recovered. We know that Tudor salvors were paid for recovering bronze guns, and among those missing are the sakers and the falcon, which were smaller, lighter guns. Positioned on the castle decks in the bow and stern, these would have been more accessible to Tudor salvors.

Guns recovered range in weight between 1.4 tonnes and 2.7 tonnes, with lengths between 2.6m and 3.7m. They fired cast iron shot which ranged from 65mm – 210 mm weighing from just under a kilogram to 32kg. The shortest distances (firing horizontally) are between 250 metres and 420 metres. By lifting the muzzle the longest range guns could achieve 1.3 nautical or 1.5 statute miles. A project to recreate and test the range of some of the guns confirm that the Mary Rose was within range of the galleys within the French fleet.

All were cast in one piece and were loaded from the front, the muzzle. Bronze is relatively easy to cast, and many of the guns are highly decorated. All have royal emblems, the Tudor rose being the most common. Many have highly ornate lifting rings in the form of winged mermen or lion/leopard heads. All are inscribed, sometimes inside a decorative panel.  The most detailed when translated from Latin reads

‘Henry the Eighth, by the Grace of God, King of England, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, and of the Church of England and also of Ireland in Earth Supreme Head’.

Four guns have an additional inscription of ‘HI’, standing for ‘Henricvs Invictissimvs’ (Henry most invincible). Most have the name of the maker and date.

The ‘recipe’, based on analysis of the guns, was about 1 part tin to 20 parts copper. Most of the copper was imported and expensive. Many of the gun founders were foreign, brought to England and set up in foundries in London to cast for the crown.

All those recovered were originally mounted on four wheeled carriages. These are important, as wooden carriages rarely survive except in waterlogged conditions. Each was specifically made to fit the gun, and each adapted to fit its position on the ship. Uniformity in length, weight and bore size with decks having only one size of gun was a later concept. Each size had its own size of shot and loading equipment.


Iron guns

Port piece from the Mary Rose 81a3001

Ninety-one guns are listed for the ship of which 76 were made of iron. Iron was locally available and much cheaper than imported copper. These guns were made by heating and hammering billets of iron in a blacksmith’s forge to form long staves of iron laid side by side to form a tube. Bands of iron were bent and welded and these were positioned over the tube whilst still hot. As the metal cooled, the bands shrank, pushing the staves together, similar to a barrel.

Unlike the bronze guns, these guns were loaded from the rear, a process called breech loading. The shot would be put in the back of the tube, then a chamber built using the same process as the barrel, containing a charge of gunpowder. Two chambers are listed for each gun, so re-loading these guns was much faster than reloading the bronze guns.

The largest guns fired shot made of stone, or sharp flakes of flint in wooden canisters. Some had double sets of staves, these were stronger and could fire iron shot.

Seven sizes of these were mounted on carriages. These were large solid blocks of wood mounted on two large, spoked wheels or two smaller solid wheels depending on where they were placed on the ship. The bores of those found ranged from 50mm – 200mm. The largest are three metres long and weigh 1.1 tonnes including their carriage.