Mary Rose Museum visit September 2015

It was good of the Royal Navy to arrange what our organizer, Tony Norman, called an ‘oompah band’ to greet our arrival at the Naval Dockyard – the crew of RFA Argus were being awarded medals by the Duchess of Cornwall and the Royal Marine Band played, predictably, ‘Hearts of Oak’, as they and the Royal Naval guard of honour marched in glorious sunshine.

The Museum is a stunning building, both its exterior and the internal layout of the Mary Rose and its contents. It was designated ‘Museum of the Year in 2014’. An introductory talk in the Learning Centre, by the Museum’s munitions expert Alexandra Hildred, described the sinking of the Mary Rose on July 24th 1548, in the face of a French fleet bent on invading England, and in sight of King Henry VIII. She set out the possible reasons for the heavily-armed ship listing and sinking, with the loss of around 500 men, including Vice Admiral George Carew.

A gust of wind may have caught the sails during an alteration of course.

Archers and sailors on the top deck might have unbalanced her.

The recent addition of heavy guns might have caused the ship to heel over.

The gun ports on the lower deck were not closed, which would have allowed water to rush in, speeding up the tilting of the ship.

French gunfire the evening before might have damaged her. (A French witness took credit, but there is no trace of damage in the portion of the ship which has survived.)

Communication by the Captain might have failed. A contemporary witness described the crew as ‘the sort of knaves he could not rule’. Some of the skeletons carried traces of Mediterranean diet, suggesting they may have been foreign prisoners.

Or a combination of some of these factors … It is one of the great historical detective stories. Alex took us through the remarkable feat of excavating the Mary Rose on the seabed, then the raising of the skeleton of the ship in 1982, since when she has been preserved first in a makeshift building designed to preserve the timbers, now in a custom-built facility which not only houses the substantial carcass but also its 19,000 artefacts which between them offer a priceless insight into life on board in the sixteenth century.

After Alex’s talk, the group was guided around the museum; each deck is matched with exhibits of the activities which would have taken place in that part of the ship. Halls at each end of the walkways held display cases both of specific discoveries from the Mary Rose, and more general aspects of life on the ship.

The conservation taking place ranges from the recreation of the cannons (and firing them to estimate their range and penetration) to analysis of the human remains and social history of the sailors, their food (and its cooking), medicine, entertainment (games and musical instruments), commerce (a money-exchanger on board) … as well as navigation and archery.

The Museum will close for around six months in December, when the timbers will have dried out sufficiently to allow the ventilation ducting to be removed, and the viewing galleries will be opened up to allow better visibility. Most EMHG members intend to visit the Mary Rose again; one visit is not enough.