Subscribe to our Newsletter

Henry VIII’s Favorite Warship Lives Again

July 21, 2016.  This week, the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard celebrated the dramatic opening of an entirely refurbished exhibition of the Mary Rose, the favorite warship of Henry VIII. The Mary Rose was launched in 1511 – one of the first of the ‘modern’ carvel-built ships with side by side planking and lidded gunports (which enabled it to carry much heavier guns).  After 34 years and many battles, the Mary Rose sank with 500 men aboard in the 1545 Battle of the Solent Strait between England and the Isle of Wight, as the Mary Rose led the British defense against an invading French fleet of 220 ships. Only 35 men survived the wreck; many are thought to have been trapped in the netting hung to repel boarders. Henry VIII and the wife of its captain, Vice Admiral Sir George Carew, are said to have watched the sinking in horror from Southsea castle onshore, able to hear the cries of the drowning men.

The ship lay undisturbed in the Solent for almost 300 years. In 1836, John Deane, diving pioneer and inventor of the first diving helmet*, located the ship. He and his brother Charles recovered longbows, cannon balls and cannons from the wreck, but the location was not properly recorded and was lost after the Deanes stopped work after four years. The hunt for the Mary Rose was renewed in 1965, and located again by divers in 1971. Almost 20,000 artifacts were removed in the following years, and in 1982 the wreck of the hull was raised – broadcast live on the BBC with 10 million people watching around the world.

The ship has undergone 23 years of restoration since its raising, culminating in a massive reopening in the dockyard, after a six month refurbishment and a new investment of several million pounds. The ship has been described as a Tudor time capsule. The displays include many personal possessions found still locked in the sailor’s trunks; a master carpenter’s box held plates and a drinking tankard, a sundial, a book and a backgammon set. Forensic scientists have studied the skeletons of crewmembers and discovered much about the diet and history of the people who served on the ship. They have recreated the faces – and the life stories – of a half dozen men who are featured as part of the display.

The newly opened exhibition space is designed to bring the visitor into as close a view as possible though nine glass-walled galleries and a special airlock entrance to a glass balcony overlooking the ship’s deck. The drying tubes and extraneous restoration equipment have been removed in order to allow visitors to feel almost as if they have entered the ship itself.

When the ship was raised in 1982, it was completely washed, imbued with water-soluble wax and then subjected to a controlled air-drying which stabilized it. The conservation process resulted not only in the discovery of hidden elements such as a carved wooden rose and the first known figurehead akin to those depicted in 16th century drawings.

The only comparable raising and reconstruction of a ship is that of the Vasa, a Swedish vessel that sank on its maiden voyage in 1768 and was raised and re-floated in 1961. Today, the Vasa appears almost as it did originally, since the shipworms that damaged the sunken Mary Rose are rare in Baltic waters.

  • The diving helmet was adapted from an earlier invention by Deane for firefighting, a helmet constructed from an old knight’s battle helmet, with a long hose and bellows attached to pump air, used to enter smoke-filled buildings to rescue people trapped inside.

R9uykdGrzEpTVrtaefsVUxjDDS8tiTwc-SUZB3Uqe8AImages: Mary Rose Trust, ship illustration, crew illustration by Oscar Nilsson,

Share this post:Share on FacebookTweet about this on Twitter