The Mary Rose revisited

4 mins read
The Mary Rose as seen from the main deck of the virtual hull. (Photo: courtesy of the Mary Rose Trust)

The Mary Rose museum at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard was reopened 471 years to the day since the sinking of Henry VIII’s flagship – for the first time giving the public a clear view of her hull. Lucia Marchini went along to find out what else is new.

When the new Mary Rose museum first opened in 2013, the wreck was still drying after being treated with polyethylene glycol (CA 280). Visitors could only peer at what remained of the magnificent Tudor warship through windows. Now she has reached a stable stage in the drying process and the museum has been reworked so that each of the nine galleries opens up to uninterrupted views of the ship, with no black drying ducts in sight.

The most impressive of these views is from the upper level, where airlocks on either side of the museum open onto a glass balcony. Here visitors overlook the 15m-tall hull, with ghostly vignettes of the crew – cooking, sharpening blades, and readying cannon – periodically projected onto the carefully treated wood. As well as the preserved wreckage, the museum houses a ‘virtual hull’. This is essentially a mirror image of the Tudor structure, reflected across the balcony and walkways that cut through the space along the surviving portion of ship. Encased in one vast 35m-long, three-storey showcase, the virtual hull is decked out with many of the artefacts found on the ship. Thanks to the meticulous work carried out by divers investigating the wreck, the curators have been able to place objects in almost their exact findspots aboard the replica decks.

The Mary Rose from the glass balcony of the upper deck. (Photo: L Marchini)

Looking down from the upper deck, under the glass top of the showcase, you can see one of the ship’s anchors and a large coil of rope, still in excellent condition. On the glass is a graphic representation of the netting that stretched over the open upper decks of the Mary Rose, as can be seen depicted in a 1546 record of ships known as the Anthony Roll. Intended to prevent the enemy from boarding the ship, this netting – reassembled fragments of which are on display elsewhere in the museum – is one of the factors that contributed to such a high loss of life (there were only 35 survivors out of 500 men). As the Mary Rose foundered, it became horridly apparent that a measure designed to keep people out was just as adept at keeping them in: many of those on board were drowned, unable to escape from this deadly cage.

Below deck

Display cases showing everything needed to fire and load the ship’s cannon. (Photo: L Marchini)

There’s a vast array of weaponry in the collections, including 2,303 complete arrows, 138 complete yew longbows, as well as pikes, shields, halberds, and ten different types of cannon in iron and bronze, some breech-loading, others muzzle-loading, the heaviest weighing about 3 tons, and all reflecting the quickly evolving technology of the Tudor arms race. What is remarkable about the Mary Rose collections is not just the size (some 19,000 artefacts were recovered from the seabed) but the completeness of the assemblages.

Reflecting life on a Tudor warship as closely as possible, every gun occupies its own space on the main and lower virtual decks. Each cannon would once have been operated by its own dedicated team, who slept on the floor beside their gun. Though the crew are long gone, the cannon are not alone. In this relatively early period in the history of the English cannon, there was a lack of standardisation, with each gun having its own uniquely sized shot, which would be measured with a gauge. These gauges, cannon balls, and all the items needed to fire a gun are displayed alongside the cannon themselves.

Though the view of the Mary Rose from the upper deck is the most expansive, those from the main and lower decks are more atmospheric, and the closeness between the artefacts of the virtual ship and their original location can be felt all the more keenly. Walking along these galleries, with floor-to-ceiling glass walls facing the hull, the sense is very much that you are in the midst of the ship as she was before she sank on 19 July 1545. The walkways and virtual decks dip, following the curves of the Tudor ship from bow to stern. With bundles of arrows, barrels, cups, stools, and chests filling the modern planks, all without labels or any attempt at interpretation, the focus is on providing an experience, one that is enhanced by the darkness of the museum, evoking both the gloom on board the 16th-century vessel and the murky depths of the Solent that the divers recovering the wreck worked in.

A digital recreation of how the Mary Rose emblem may have looked when painted in 1545. (Image: University of Portsmouth Departments of Creative Technologies and Geography)

One of the new additions to the museum is the ship’s eroded timber Tudor rose emblem, on display for the first time in the King’s Ship Gallery. It is perhaps the first emblem to represent an English warship’s name. Originally recovered in 2005, it is only thanks to work carried out last year, using techniques including laser scanning, computer modelling, and 3D rendering, that researchers have been able to confirm that the indistinct, round contours are indeed what remains of the carved Tudor rose.

The Mary Rose was a state-of-the-art ship when she was built in 1511, and her various refits over 34 years of service show how she kept up with innovations in technology. As the ship enters this new stage in her story, her museum, so it seems, has been innovating too.

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