Review – The many faces of Tudor England

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Recent analysis of human remains from the Mary Rose has found that a crew member dubbed ‘Henry’ was also most likely born in western (or southern) Britain, but had North African ancestry. (IMAGE: Oscar Nilsson and the Mary Rose Trust)
Lucia Marchini travels to Portsmouth to meet some of the crew of the Mary Rose.

When Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose, sank in 1545, nearly all the 500 men on board lost their lives. Excavations have recovered some of their remains (see CA 272), including 92 partially reconstructed skeletons and 149 additional skulls. Objects found with some of the men help shed light on their activities on board, but recent analysis of some of their remains is delving deeper into their origins, diets, and more.

Following the route through the dark, atmospheric decks of the Mary Rose Museum, visitors encounter nine characters who lived and worked on the Tudor ship. Among them are the carpenter (and his dog, Hatch), the cook, the purser, and the master gunner. For each of these men, we see the artefacts found with them and facial reconstructions by Oscar Nilsson; many of their skulls are also displayed. Now, a temporary exhibition also presents the latest research into their remains and those of a couple of additional individuals, revealing new details about a diverse crew who hailed from both Britain and abroad, and setting them in the context of Tudor society.

The cook was probably born close to the west coast of Britain. (IMAGE: Oscar Nilsson and the Mary Rose Trust)

One individual, dubbed ‘Henry’, has one of the most complete of the 92 reconstructed skeletons, though few objects were found with him. Photogrammetry had been used to make digital models of ten skulls, including his, which were then studied by osteoarchaeologists in different locations. Based on the morphometrics of Henry’s skull (of which a 3D-printed acrylic model is on display), it was suggested that he was of African origin, and so isotopic and DNA analysis was carried out to investigate further. A series of back-lit panels and interactive displays explain the results of the studies. Henry’s isotope values indicate that he was probably born in western or southern Britain, and the DNA suggests that his ancestors came from North Africa.

In the case of the Archer Royal, an earlier facial reconstruction has had to be revised. At a height of 1.79m, this man was taller than most of the crew. He was found with a longbow and wore a leather wrist-guard bearing the Royal Arms of England and the badges of Katherine of Aragon (whom Henry VIII had divorced more than a decade before), hinting that he was perhaps part of a royal bodyguard associated with Captain Sir George Carew. The new isotopic results suggest that this Archer Royal grew up in inland North Africa, and certainly in a much hotter climate than Britain. Henry was the only individual to undergo DNA analysis, but thanks to a recent grant the Archer Royal will soon receive the same treatment.

The Archer Royal came from inland North Africa. (IMAGE: Oscar Nilsson and the Mary Rose Trust)

As well as these men who died on the ship, the exhibition introduces us to Jacques Francis and an interesting aspect of the wreck’s history: early salvage attempts. Francis was the 19-year-old lead diver on the Mary Rose in 1547. In 1548, he testified in defence of the Venetian diver Peter Paolo Corsi in a trial, and the court records report that he had been born in ‘Insula de Guinea’, which could be one of many west African islands. This testimony gives us Francis’ name, thus making him possibly the first African named in English state records.


The Many Faces of Tudor England runs at Portsmouth’s Mary Rose until 31 December 2019. Tickets are £18 for adults (concessions are available). Visit for more information.

The documentary Skeletons of the Mary Rose: the new evidence can be watched online at

This review appeared in CA 352.

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