The Mary Rose was a successful warship for Henry VIII for 34 years: almost the entire duration of his reign.
Henry VIII was an enthusiastic shipbuilder, whose pride in his “Army by Sea” would see his fleet grow from 5 at the start of his reign to 58 by the time of his death in 1547. While he may have had many ships, it is the Mary Rose that is remembered as his favourite. Notably, the life of the Mary Rose coincides almost exactly with the reign of Henry VIII.
Before the development of a standing Navy, English kings relied upon requisitioning merchant vessels in times of need. This was certainly cheaper than building, maintaining and manning ships in times of peace, but it was inefficient and difficult to mobilize. With the threat of Scotland to the north and France to the south, Henry VIII began to build his Navy as soon as he came to the throne.
Skirmishes continued until a peace was signed, with the Mary Rose involved in the final fighting of the war on the 14th June 1514. On the 9th October 1514, a peace between England and France was officially sealed with the marriage of Henry’s sister, Princess Mary Tudor, with King Louis XII of France.
In July 1514, the Mary Rose, along with most ships in the king’s navy, was decommissioned in Deptford. This saw the dismantling of the masts and rigging, the removal of anchors, pulleys and other such equipment, as well as the removal of the armaments of the ship.
The Mary Rose briefly returned to service in June 1520 as Henry mobilized all of his most prestigious ships to escort him to France for the meeting of the Field of the Cloth of Gold. This meeting between Henry and Francis I of France was a glamorous display of the wealth and grandeur of the two countries, as the two rival kings attempted to find solutions to their differences and prevent future wars. Everything about the meeting was designed to awe the opposition; as such the inclusion of the Mary Rose in the king’s escort was inevitable.
In 1522, just two years after the Field of the Cloth of Gold, England and France were at war once again, with Henry siding with Charles V of Spain, the nephew of Queen Katherine. In May 1522, Charles arrived in England. At 2pm on the 30th May 1522, the two kings boarded and inspected the Henry Grace a Dieu and the Mary Rose; Henry was showing off his favourite ships.
Shortly afterwards, the fleet set off from Southampton. Lord Thomas Howard, now the Earl of Surrey, decided to use the Mary Rose as his flagship; the superior sailing of the Mary Rose trumped the size of the Great Harry. Surrey successfully attacked the Breton port of Morlaix on 1st July 1522 but the supplies that he requested in order to take Brest never arrived. He had no choice but to return to Portsmouth. The Admiral was redeployed and given command of a land force at Calais at this point; the Vice-Admiral, Sir William Fitzwilliam, also chose the Mary Rose to be his flagship. The Mary Rose had now been the preferred ship of Sir Edward Howard, Lord Thomas Howard and Sir William Fitzwilliam.
The second war with France was mostly a collection of skirmishes, with very little actually happening until 1525 and the Battle of Pavia, which ended the war. The English, however, had nothing to do with Pavia, which saw King Francis captured by Spanish forces. The fleet does not seem to have been mobilised at all throughout 1525 and the Mary Rose was moved to Deptford that summer to be recaulked.
From January 1536 to March 1537, the Mary Rose could be seen in the Thames without her masts. As tensions mounted in Europe as a result of Henry’s break from the Church of Rome, Henry began reinforcing his warships and the Mary Rose underwent a refit. Extra gunports were added and the sides of the ship were strengthened in order to accommodate the extra weight.
Unfortunately, the new alterations to the Mary Rose may have cost her her impressive sailing. In April 1537, Vice-Admiral John Dudley reportedly that some of the ships were “unweatherly” and that “the ship that Mr Carew is in” was particularly bad. While it’s not clear which ship “Mr Carew” was on, George Carew was the captain of the Mary Rose when she sank eight years later; it is not impossible that the problematic ship was the Mary Rose.
In 1539, Henry mobilized the fleet once more, in fear of a joint invasion from France and Spain. Henry had been excommunicated by the Pope for declaring himself Head of the Church of England and he feared the Catholic powers of Europe would attack. In the summer of 1539, the Mary Rose was anchored at Deptford, ready to defend the Thames.
In June 1542, Henry entered an alliance with Charles of Spain against Francis, thus beginning Henry’s last war with France. The reasons for Henry entering this war are unclear, although it is worth noting that his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, had been found guilty of adultery and executed just four months previously; perhaps Henry was desperate to prove his power and masculinity in the face of this humiliation.
It is not known whether or not the Mary Rose was part of the fleet that took Henry himself to Calais in 1544, although it is likely, since most of the fleet was involved. In September 1544, Henry captured the French town of Boulogne. However, his alliance with Charles of Spain fell apart and England was left isolated against France.
The French retaliation for Boulogne was to prove fatal for the Mary Rose.
After the battle, it was believed that it would be relatively easy to raise the Mary Rose. Divers were sent down to attach cables to the masts of the sunken ship; these cables were then attached to two ships that would sail away from one another. The resulting tension would then, theoretically, bring the Mary Rose to the surface.
On Saturday 1st August, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk wrote that “I trust by Monday or Tuesday, at the furthest, that the Mary Rose shall be weighed up and saved”. Unfortunately, this confidence was unfounded. The masts broke during the raising attempt and all further attempts to raise her in the following weeks failed.
Work on the Mary Rose concluded in 1552, all the salvage work up to that date having cost £559 8s 7d, and the wreck was finally abandoned.
In 1836, pioneering divers John and Charles Deane were exploring wrecks in the Solent, notably the 1782 warship, the Royal George. While they were exploring, some fishermen requested their assistance; their nets kept getting caught in a particular area and they asked the divers to explore. The Mary Rose was rediscovered after nearly 300 years.
The Deane brothers recovered several large guns from the ship, attracting a large amount of attention. After a while, however, excitement over the discovery faded. It was the practice at the time to detonate shipwrecks lest they cause problems for modern ships; luckily the Mary Rose barely protruded above the seabed and so she was saved from this fate. However, it was largely believed that she had in fact been destroyed and, as interest in the wreck died, the Mary Rose was lost once more.
In 1965, Despite the common perception that the Mary Rose's hull had been destroyed, Alexander McKee, in conjunction with the Southsea branch of the British Sub-Aqua Club, initiated ‘Project Solent Ships’ to investigate wrecks in the Solent. His real hope was to find the Mary Rose.
In 1971, they found her...