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Mary Rose on show for the first time in 500 years

Aug. 23, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

On July 19, 1545, the French attempted to invade England. A large French fleet of some 128 ships appeared in the Solent, the strip of water between the south coast of England and the Isle of Wight. To oppose them, the English had around 80 ships in Portsmouth harbor led by the huge carrack or "great ship" Mary Rose.

When the enemy first appeared, the English fleet were unable to leave port because of the lack of a wind but, finally, the breeze got up and they set sail with Mary Rose in the lead. This was one of the biggest ships in the world at the time. Carrying about 91 guns, it had a crew of just over 400, although some reports say that 700 men were aboard for the battle of the Solent.

She was a veteran ship, having been built in 1510, and she first saw action, again against the French, in 1512. This was just the first of several battles that she was involved in and she was refitted extensively in 1536. Her armament was changed several times in her career, but at the time she left Portsmouth to tackle the French in the Solent, she carried 39 carriage mounted guns, mostly on her main deck and 52 other guns as well as matchlock muskets, boarding pikes and 250 long bows.

The Mary Rose led the English fleet into action against the French galleys and what happened next is in no doubt; why it happened is a matter of conjecture. According to one report, the ship fired one broadside and then tried to come about to present its other side to the enemy. A sudden gust of wind hit the sails at the critical moment during the turn and she heeled over to starboard. Water poured in through the open gun ports and the list got worse. Huge cannon from the other side broke loose and crashed across the decks, crushing men, shattering fittings and adding to the weight on the side that was under water. Part of the galley collapsed, cargo shifted and in seconds the ship was sinking.

It went down fast. Of up to 700 men who were aboard, only 35 escaped, most of them from mast tops. Many others swarmed up from below, but the ship was rigged for action, boarding nets protected the decks from the enemy and now trapped the crew on deck as the Mary Rose sank beneath the waves.

The battle of the Solent proved inconclusive. The French were beaten off, but the English also took casualties and the Mary Rose lay embedded in clay at the bottom of the sea. Within days plans were made to raise her. Venetian experts were employed and several attempts were made. Some sails, rigging and guns were salvaged over the next four years but the clinging clay that forms the sea bed here was holding the wreck too tight to enable the attempt to succeed.

The ship lay there for the next three centuries. For a time her timbers could be seen under the water at low tide but the current scooped a trench beside the wreck and as the action of the sea rotted the vessel, part of it was carried away and the rest slid into the trench to eventually be covered by compacted clay, crushed sea shells and then soft sediment.

The currents in the Solent are fickle though. In 1836 they uncovered some of the ships timbers and local fishermen snagged their nets on them. They employed divers and they began to bring up objects from the wreck. They brought bronze and iron guns as well as several long bows and other wooden objects to the surface but modern preservation techniques were not available then and many of these have since deteriorated and disappeared.

The divers worked for four years before giving up, fortunately for us, because in the end they were using explosives to try to blow their way into the wreck.

The site was forgotten for more than 120 years until, in 1965, a local diving club began looking. It took six years to find the remains and a further 11 to raise the hull from the sea. It was a tremendous undertaking but well worth while. The Mary Rose was a treasure trove of archeological finds with everything from weapons, ship's equipment, personal items, tools, games, the skeleton of the ship's dog and the remains of 179 of her crew.

There were over 26,000 items in all.

What do you do with finds like that? What Britain did was spend $40 million dollars on a state-of-the-art museum to display the Tudor remains to the public. It opened just eight weeks ago and displays the inside of a 16th century warship on three levels as it would have been before it sank. There are even figures from the crew, reconstructed by forensic archeologists from the remains of some of the crew members. Anyone who wants to know more or who is considering visiting southern England can find details at www.maryrose.org or www.historicdockyard.co.uk. Hopefully I shall be going in December.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.