On July 19th 1545, King Henry VIII watched in horror from Southsea Castle as his favourite flagship, a carrack-type warship called The Mary Rose, heeled to starboard and began to fill with water from her open gunports. Within a matter of minutes, the Mary Rose, the English Navy’s pride and joy had sunk below the waves, taking almost all of her 500-man crew with her. To add insult to injury, this accident (if it can be considered an accident) practically took place on English soil, with the ship going down in the Solent Straights – the stretch of water north of the Isle of Wight and south of Portsmouth, less than five miles from where the beloved vessel was constructed. It was here that the Mary Rose waited in the water and sand for almost 500 years, guarding its contents like a time capsule, harbouring countless archaeological treasures of incalculable value to science and history. This was until 1971, when the ship was rediscovered, and then later in 1982, when the ship was raised and brought home to Portsmouth, where the wreck remains on display to this day.
Since its discovery, this tragic sarcophagus to almost 500 lost souls has helped historians and archaeologists to better understand life on board a Tudor ship, and has provided an interesting mystery for scholars and the public at large to unravel – why exactly did the Mary Rose sink? While this is certainly an interesting dilemma to uncover, and one that scientists are still trying to figure out today, all the twists and turns that people have taken to link up all the evidence are far too numerous to explore in this article. Instead, I want to take a look at a potentially simpler, but deeper question; Why was the Mary Rose so important, and why was her sinking so devastating to England?
The Mary Rose wasn’t just a ship, she was one of the world’s first built-for-purpose, sail-rigged warships. She was built with combat and cannon fire in mind, and over thirty-four years she dominated the seas in Henry VIII’s name. She was outfitted with heavy, state-of-the-art cannons, made and engineered with the latest and most powerful technologies available at the time. At some point in the 1530s, Henry, spurred by mounting tensions owing to his split from the Catholic Church, prepared for war by pre-emptively refitting his warships. The Mary Rose was no exception, having extra gunports added to accommodate extra guns, as well as reinforcing her hull to account for the extra weight.
She fought three successful campaigns against the French, and achieved great renown, overcame many perilous obstacles, and overall began to represent England under King Henry VIII as a whole.