Published date: 4 January 2013

King Henry VIII watched as the Mary Rose, pride of his Navy, suddenly capsized and sank whilst engaging a French invasion fleet off Portsmouth. This talk brings together Tudor art, geography, history and archaeology to better understand a few desperate minutes of a naval action which occurred almost 500 years ago.

This podcast considers the development of a geographical understanding of the events surrounding the loss of the Mary Rose. The research makes use of a very wide range of data sources including: Tudor artwork, maritime and terrestrial archaeological data, physical geography, written historical accounts, Tudor mapping and even some astronomical data. GIS technology has been used to integrate the data and provide visualisations enabling a step-by-step ‘detective’ approach to unravel the events leading up to the disastrous sinking.

Dr Dominic Fontana teaches Geographical Information Systems, human and historical geography at the University of Portsmouth. He has a long association with the Mary Rose having spent five years working on the archaeological excavation of the ship. He has been involved in several television documentaries on the Mary Rose, one about the Battle of Hastings, a Time Team excavation for Channel 4 searching for the remains of a mediaeval hospice and most recently advising David Dimbleby on ‘Britain and the Sea’ for BBC1.

Author: Dr Dominic Fontana Duration: 46:57

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (2 votes, average: 3.50 out of 5)
Loading ... Loading ...


Well, thank you very much everyone for coming along this afternoon. I hope this is going to be interesting and entertaining.

I’m a geographer, and as a geographer I have significant interests in history, in archaeology, in maritime archaeology, and in art and art history. So I’m something of a jack-of-all-trades, a magpie and I’m certainly master of none of these things, but never mind.

The Mary Rose was the vice flagship of Henry VIII’s fleet, and she sank off Portsmouth on 19 July, 1545. She was engaged in a major confrontation with a very large French fleet that had come across the channel, carrying an army of about 30,000 soldiers to invade England. It was a serious attempt at invading England and taking the crown of England for France. It was a big national event, and it’s one in which Henry VIII’s crown really hung by a thread. Henry’s main army was in France, not in England. All he had in England at that time, and at Portsmouth, was a scratch army of militia and not terribly well trained or equipped troops. So things were not easy.

Now, we know quite a lot about Henry VIII, obviously, and Francois ‘Premier’ [I], King of France. Both magnificent monarchs¬¬, absolutely splendid people, as we see here in these paintings [shows image]. And these paintings tell us stories about things. Paintings are about stories, they’re about telling us about these people. But paintings always have a different slant from time to time, and so we have Henry and Francois presented in a slightly different style – perhaps less magnificent monarchs, maybe more truthful, as images go. But they also, as magnificent monarchs, wanted to record the events of their reign. And this painting at Hampton Court in the Royal Collection, The Field of the Cloth of Gold, recalls the diplomatic meeting between Henry and Francois in 1520, in France. And there’s a great deal of detail in that panting. It’s a painting that really shows Henry and his court, and all their doings and all the events, and so on, that were going on at that time.

Now, interestingly, there’s a copy of this painting somewhere in France. I’ve noticed it about 25 years ago when touring around chateaux of the Loire. The last place that I heard of that it was actually at was at Azay-le-Rideau, on the Loire. If anyone happens to come across that in their travels, I would very much like to know where it is – I need to see that copy!

Now there’s another painting in the Royal Collection that’s another one of these, that recalls events of Henry’s reign, this one, The Embarkation at Dover, and it’s always been referred to as The Embarkation at Dover in 1520 partly because there is no early record of it within the archives.

The first record is in the 1580s, when there’s a bill for this one and The Field of the Cloth of Gold being cleaned, which kind-of implies they were before that time. And I’ve been looking at this with the Royal Collection people and Historic Royal Palaces and so on, really trying to understand something about the picture. It’s a fantastic picture, it’s a magnificent picture, it certainly shows Henry there on his flagship, with the sails painted in gold, magnificently sailing across the English Channel, and it is undoubtedly Dover. But then we look in at the detail of Henry, and we see Henry there, in that pose – and this is a tiny, tiny detail out of what is a very, very large painting – there’s Henry, probably Lord Lyle beside him (you can see in fact, how the painter has modified the position of Lyle’s head), but it also is Henry very much in his Holbein pose, and we can just drop that in over the top [shows image]. And that kind of implies that painting is actually rather later than 1520 maybe, who knows?

There’s a copy of that painting as well. This one’s at Leeds Castle in Kent, and those are the people from the Royal Collection having a good look at the painting [shows image], and we really come to the conclusion that it’s probably contemporaneous with the version at Hampton Court, but painted by one painter instead of by several different hands. So perhaps there’s a slight question over the date of the events that that painting is showing. My guess is it’s actually 1544, when Henry was sailing over to France to lay siege to the city of Boulogne.

But we can look at it in other ways: we can look at the geography of the picture. There’s the view of Dover, from Shakespeare Cliff, me hanging over the fence there [shows image], the long drop down on the other side of the grass. Looking over towards the town of Dover and you can see the cliffs and the docks, and so on. But as a person interested in landscape and archaeology, I know that we can plot in positions of various known items within the painting – The Black Bulwark and the Archcliffe Fort. And then we can play around with this geographically, by creating a three-dimensional model of the landscape surface, and then manipulating it in the software to rotate it, modify it, so that we get it into the same geographical position to recreate the viewpoints of the painting.

And there it is [shows image]. Near the foreground here we’ve got lots of made-up land, because a great deal of Dover is reclaimed land; this piece here is the old Hover terminal. So that’s a bit in the way, that’s using some modern survey data… we’ll get rid of those (I wish it was that easy!). And that gets the landscape pretty much back to a roughly Tudor configuration.

So let’s drop in the Archcliffe Fort, the Black Bulwark, the road between the two from the painting, shift the Archcliffe – sorry the Black Bulwark – over a little bit to join it up properly, put the ships in, and you notice that Dover Castle up here in the corner drops into approximately its correct position up there on the cliffs. Put in ‘Henry Grace à Dieu’ there, and shift it over because they didn’t leave enough space on the side of the images while I was creating it, and drop it all back together. And so it starts to fit together, all these pieces fit together. It gives us some confidence in the way that the artists have constructed the landscape that they’re showing in that painting. That starts to give us some confidence in what the painting is showing.

Now, where most of my work has been done is on this picture, The Cowdray Engraving, which shows the battle scene at Portsmouth on 19 July 1545. It’s an engraving. It’s not the original painting. It’s an engraving that has lots of detail, lots of stories within it. And people like to look at these stories and tell these stories; there’s David Dimbleby, up on the walls of Southsea Castle filming for Britain and the Sea, which will be shown sometime shortly on BBC 1, telling some of the stories from The Cowdray Engraving. It’ll also feature in the new Mary Rose museum at Portsmouth, which will be opening hopefully reasonably early in the New Year [podcast recorded 2012] but we haven’t got a date for that yet. And it will be there as a great big digital display, several meters high, and about twelve meters long. It’s going to be big!

Now, this picture was originally created for this chap here, Sir Anthony Browne, Master of the King’s Horse, a well-connected man in Henry’s court, described by Cromwell as being something of an ‘old beau’. So he was, I think, a bit of a slippery character in some ways. Next to him with the long beard is Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk, Henry’s longtime friend and jousting partner.

And the reason that we have the picture as an engraving and not as the original wall-painting is really thanks to these two chaps who were working for the Society of Antiquaries in London: James Basire, who was engraver to the Society, and his apprentice, William Blake. There’s a good chance that there’s quite a bit of William Blake’s work in that engraving. No direct documentary evidence for that, but he was working as Basire’s apprentice at exactly the right time. And it’s a good job that the Society of Antiquaries did commission the creation of the image, because Cowdray House was destroyed by fire, and all the paintings that were in the dining parlour were lost.

So what we have is an engraving. So it’s one stage removed, if you like, from the original wall painting, but it’s still packed with detail, packed with incident. Looking over from the east of the picture, towards the west – this is the eastern end, the left hand end of the picture [shows image] – and there at the top we’ve got the eastern end of the Isle of Wight, we’re looking from the north to the south, with the Solent in between, that’s the French fleet, at St Helen’s Roads off the eastern end of the Isle of Wight. In the front there are galleys, which are powered largely by oars rather than by sail, and those had sailed round from the Mediterranean, from Italy and southern France.

And here we’ve got Henry’s scratch army, massed on Southsea Common, with some of the fortifications shown. This later became Lumps Fort, and that won the easterly redoubt. Going on to the central part of the picture, we’ve got Southsea Castle in the centre here, created or built around about 1544 or 1545 in response to Henry’s need to fortify the coast. Above it we’ve got the front of the English fleet. The Great Harry, there is the largest of the English ships, the flagship of the English fleet. A group of four galleys over on that side, firing at the English ships, and we can see the masts of the Mary Rose, poking up above the sea with a number of sailors drowned, floating in the water, and people coming in small boats to come and pick them up¬¬, an attempted rescue. Henry is shown here on horseback, and behind him Sir Anthony Browne and Charles Brandon.

Over to the western side of the picture, the right-hand side, and there we’ve got a very detailed image of the town of Portsmouth, including the fortifications, some of which are still there: the Round Tower, and the Square Tower here. We’ve got the Camber Dock down here, which was the small commercial area, and lots of detail of the buildings. On the Gosport shoreline (that’s the bit at the top) we’ve got the three forts of Blockhouse, [Lyndon’s] Bulwark, and Haselworth Castle right up there at the top, and the English fleet sailing out of the narrow entrance to Portsmouth Harbour.

Ok, look at the centre part of the image: there’s Henry on horseback, there’s the Mary Rose, a great deal of detail of the guns and so on, and the positions of things in the centre of Portsmouth there, the Mary Rose¬, having sunk, with her masts protruding above the surface.

The one of the left hand side is the main mast, and the one forward of that is the fore mast, showing the Mary Rose sailing in a northerly direction at the point where she sank. And indeed she did, that’s the position she was found in. So that’s the archaeological direction she was sailing in at that time, and assuming that the ship didn’t move round too much once she hit the seabed, that’s probably fairly likely.

The seabed at that point is very sticky, it’s very gloopy mud, and we know that the Mary Rose hit the bottom pretty hard, went down quickly, and would have got stuck very easily. In fact, she was quite difficult to remove from the seabed, but we have removed her, we have excavated the hull. There’s a diver using an airlift to get at the archaeological data contained within the sediment layers within the hull [shows image].

It’s a fantastic collection of stuff. Not so much because any of it is amazingly valuable, but because it’s ordinary, and because it’s complete, and it’s a complete set that belonged to one specific moment in time. We know that all of those things were in use on 19 July 1545. We know that they belonged to sailors on the Mary Rose.

Now that’s a great deal of providence that we have for the objects, and they are actually really quite fabulous objects in themselves: things like the carved combs, some of which even contained nits and fleas still within the tines of the comb, or wood working tools, a really important aspect in any wooden warship, the pewter from the offices, some of which is stamped with ‘GC’, possibly Sir George Carew, who was vice-admiral, had been appointed to the post day before, in command of the Mary Rose on that day, certainly a man who was aware the King was watching him.

Even the shoes, and it’s not just the best shoes, the most stylish shoes, it’s the ordinary shoes. It’s the ordinary shoes that need repair, it’s the ordinary shoes that have got holes in the sole, it’s the ordinary shoes that have been packed out with bits of straw to make them fit where they didn’t. It’s the ordinary shoes that have been slashed to allow bunions and things to get a little air and space. So it’s everything, it’s detail.

Even some of [the] things like these navigational instruments are fantastic in their own right, but also because we can tie them in with other historical documents, the device in the centre here is for calculating the tides. You point the notch at the moon at the appropriate time of day, and you can read off from this almanac, off there, the tidal streams to various ports around the English coast and look them up in a nice table of data in that book.

So it all fits together, archaeology and historical documentation coming together. Even some things like the peppercorns that came of the peppermill in the barber surgeon’s cabin. When they were first excavated not only did they looks like peppercorns, but they still smelt of pepper. I remember sniffing those about 25 years ago and thinking: Wow, this is Tudor history really connecting.

And the ship [Mary Rose] is a big ship, and she will be fantastic where she’s on display in the new museum, where people will be able to walk along the galleries, looking at artefacts from the ship and the ship on the other side. It’ll be 2016 before we’ve got it into this state, because we have to continue with the drying process of the ship. But she is massive, and we’ll even be able to show some of the outside of the vessel, not just the inside of the hull.

So, back to the Cowdray Engraving [shows image]. There’s Henry, complete with Sir Anthony Browne and Charles Brandon, and you know, we’ve got this at one stage removed from the original. But we also have recently discovered this [shows image]: it’s in the British Library and it was acquired from Althorp House as part of the attic sale, and it’s a watercolour painting done from the original wall painting by the Sherwin Brothers, before the original paintings were destroyed.

And so it gives us another piece to consider how accurately the image has been translated from wall painting to the engraving that we have today. And I think you can see that actually it’s pretty good. Let’s look at the detail there, there’s Henry, and straight onto that portrait of Henry, it really starts to show Henry as a man who is, I think, under some pressure. Not in the best of health, he’s certainly coming towards the end of his life. Things were not going his way generally in July 1545. I think that’s a fantastic image, but it’s really translated quite well through the medium of the engraving.

Now, the engraving tells us stories, it tells us about the scratch army that Henry had on Southsea Common, and here we have a chap who’s probably Francois Van der Delft, the ambassador from Charles V’s court, he was coming down to inspect the army, and you can see he’s turned up on his fine white horse. It’s a bit like turning up to a battle on your Ferrari, or something like that. It’s splendidly reproduced in the engraving; an enormous amount of effort has been taken to hatch the lines. It took two years to create that engraving. It was very expensive, the Society of Antiquaries of London were not best pleased by the cost.

Ok, now back to the battle. Here we’ve got the French fleet, it’s a mass of ships, ranged around the eastern end of the Isle of Wight. And the English certainly were decidedly concerned that they were there, and preparations had been made all around Portsmouth, including building temporary fortifications with these gabions here, and guns mounted behind them to see off the attackers.

And we can tie in these details in together with the historic maps that exist of Portsmouth. Portsmouth was the first town or city in England to be mapped to scale. It was mapped first in 1545. This map shows Portsmouth in plan form [shows image], it shows fortifications, and some proposals for additional works that should be done to the fortifications in order to improve them. But it’s got a great deal of detail in there about other aspects of the town.

In 1552, when Edward VI came to visit Portsmouth another map was created, presumably for discussions with the then King about how improvements to the fortifications in Portsmouth might then be made, and again it [shows image] shows us the fortifications, the narrow harbour entrance, the Round Tower, the Square Tower, and the forts on the Gosport shoreline, and so on. And again in 1584 [shows image], for Elizabeth I. This one is quite remarkable because it includes an overlay, it’s a piece of Tudor ‘Geographic Information Systems’ to show the proposals for building new walls in part of the town.

And it also shows some really quite interesting details, and this map, the 1584 map, has annotations on it, labels, those were the four brew-houses that were built in 1515 for Henry VIII, they are The Dragon, The Lion, The White Hart and The Rose. And you can see that they’re grouped around a pond in the middle. That was probably the fresh-water spring to supply the water for the brewing process, and those breweries were churning out about 500 barrels of beer a day, each. That’s a lot of beer coming out of Portsmouth.

And we can compare the details with the 1552 map, and the 1545 map, and then compare these details with what’s shown in that location on the Cowdray Engraving. So there we’ve got: four brew houses around a pond [shows image], four brew houses around a pond, and in the Cowdray Engraving four brew houses over the top of a pond.

It tells us a lot about the detail, and how this has been captured within the image, within the Cowdray picture. Here’s another section from the 1545 map: the square at the top there is the Square Tower here, the square down in the bottom of the image there is the Swan Bakery, the Queen’s Bakehouse, which is this building down here. You can see the bread ovens shown at the back of the bakehouse there. You can even see the internal doorways, so you come in this way, and you can go that way or that way, and there’s a set of stairs going up the outside of the building, round the back. And these are the palisaded walls, and indeed they’re shown here on the Cowdray Engraving, complete with the gates. Not perfect, in terms of their coincidence of data, but it’s not too bad.

And occasionally you get lucky breaks; this is the Domus Dei, which was the medieval hospice in Portsmouth, founded in 1212 – it’s what remains of it. It was hit by an incendiary bomb in 1941 and the roof was burnt out. It was the church at which Catherine of Braganza was married to Charles II, immediately that she landed on English soil. And it was around there that originally there was quite a number of buildings, and these are nicely shown on the 1545 map. There’s the church building, there’s the alter, and these are some of the outbuildings here, including a small bread oven down there.

And sometimes you strike lucky, and in 2009 ‘Time Team’ came down to do a quick dig in the area, and were able to uncover this, and we were able to use then archaeological data, again to confirm what was shown in the maps and the Cowdray Engraving. So we were able to see, for instance, these walls here, they correspond to the wall that runs up this side of the precinct wall around the Domus Dei site, that’s Penny Street, with the entrance there. And indeed on the outside of here we’ve got the Tudor road surface, and the precinct wall foundations there. It all fits together nicely.

There’s other aspects of the landscape which are useful: there’s the round tower, and this is the narrow entrance to Portsmouth Harbour, and indeed that’s still there today, so viewing the narrow entrance to Portsmouth Harbour, and the Round Tower’s just here, Fort Blockhouse is over here, there’s the Isle of Wight in the distance, the Mary Rose sank out here somewhere, about there somewhere. So we can tie that up with documentary records from John Leland:

‘There is at this point at the Haven, Portsmouth town, and a great Round Tower almost doubling in quantity and strength to that that is on the west side of the Haven right against it. And here is a mighty chain of iron to draw from tower to tower.’

And then we go onto the 1584 map, we look at the Round Tower here and what we see is a mighty chain of iron to draw from tower to tower. And indeed in the 1920s, sections of this chain were excavated from in front of the Round Tower. So again archaeology, documentary evidence, the reality and so on all fitting nicely together.

Interestingly, on the Cowdray Engraving the chain isn’t shown. What there is, is this capstan here, in a place known as Capstan Square. The capstan was used to pull ropes tight, so that the chain would be lifted from the seabed and hung beneath some lighters strung out across the harbour entrance. And it’s certainly been suggested that the chain was not functional in the 1545 Battle. And I think that’s why you have this chap standing there, somewhat forlornly. It doesn’t work, it’s not there. Perhaps.

Anyway, it’s a fascinating image, it’s got lots in it. And I thought, ‘Look, anyway, because it’s a landscape, why don’t we try and model that in a landscape?’ So, create a digital terrain model, process it in the computer, and run the model round, rotate it until I can recreate the approximate viewpoint [shows image]. That’s the Isle of Wight at the top there, this is the southern shore of Portsea Island here, that’s the Gosport shoreline, there’s the entrance to the harbour, that’s the Solent out there. Chop it down a bit so we get the aspect ratio right, and we’ve got St Helen’s Roads out here, and there it is, something like that, and we can compare the two, and we can start adding things in. Look, there’s Southsea Castle, put Southsea Castle in, there’s Lumps Fort, put Lumps fort in. Put the forts there, Haselworth Castle, [Lyndon’s] Bulwark, Fort Blockhouse, and drop them into their correct locations.

And we can create a digital map of the area, building it up. We know where the Mary Rose sank because we dug her up off the seabed. We know some of the buildings: that one’s St Helen’s Church, none of the church is there now apart from the church tower, or half the church tower, the other side of it is bricked up and painted white, and used as a sea mark. That’s Lumps Fort, Round Tower, the Domus Dei and old Portsmouth, Southsea Castle.

So we can drop those in, we can drop the forts in, we can drop Nettleston Fort on the Isle of Wight in there, and we can make estimates about the positions of the French and the English ships. So those are the English ships from the Cowdray Engraving, those are the French ships, those are the advanced galleys from the French fleet coming in to attack the English. And we can make sure that they’re spread out reasonably, so I’ve created 200 meter buffers around each ship to allow each ship enough room to be able to swing on its anchor gable as the tide turns, and so on, because they’d need to do that to ensure that they didn’t bump into one another.

Then we can add in the bathymetry, and we can start to see how all this fits together. So what we have here are the shallow areas round here; most of the English fleet is in quite deep water, out in the middle of the Solent there. The Mary Rose is in a very shallow place there and it gets shallower as you head off in the direction she was travelling when she sank, she was going this way, heading up northwards.

Those are the advanced party of French galleys, and they’re located at this point here, and in fact it’s been known as ‘No Man’s Land’ on every chart of the Solent that I have ever seen. And look at it: No Man’s Land, English fleet, French fleet—halfway between the two. It’s a sandbank, and there’s Palmerston Fort on the site now. It’s very shallow, you could not sail one of the large English ships across that area. So the French galleys actually could sit there quite happily, knowing that they couldn’t be attacked by the English. Other than fire from Nettleston Fort on the Isle of Wight coming out this way they were in a fairly good position to sit there.

Now we can tell other things about the seabed and about the configuration of the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour, particularly from this chart [shows image] which is the oldest one in the UK Hydrographic Office collection. It’s undated, and it’s difficult to date exactly, but we’ve got it as somewhere between 1586 and 1620. My guess is it’s about 1590, possibly 1588, and you can see down here that it indeed shows the seabed configuration on the entrance into Portsmouth Harbour.

And you’ve got a narrow channel that goes up through here into the harbour; that’s the town of Portsmouth, there’s Gosport, that’s the Royal Dock – the dockyard – up there. And again we can play around with modern mapping, drop in a modern coastline, and you can see it fits jolly well really [shows image] apart from where the dockyard was extended in the Victorian period, up there but it’s generally pretty good. And indeed when we look at the configuration of the seabed, here, there’s a channel marked here called The Swashway, and that’s used every hour of the day by the Isle of Wight ferries travelling backwards and forwards between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight. And we can stick some modern bathymetric contours on there, and you can see it fits perfectly. Again, mapping of really very high order for Tudor England.

So what we’ve got is a situation that looks something like that. We can further enhance the model by looking at the gunnery, based on shore, so from Nettleston Fort, from Haselworth Castle, Southsea Castle. And you can see the areas where gunnery would deny access to attacking ships. And the French, in order to get into Portsmouth Harbour, would have to sail through here, through here, do a turnabout there, sail through the channel, and then go through an awful lot of gun fire to get through a very narrow entrance and into Portsmouth Harbour. Not easy sailing at all.

So they were very constrained, and although they had all these troops, they had a big problem on their hands. What were they trying to do? Well, 30,000 soldiers, 200 or so ships, 25 galleys, needed to get from Le Havre in France to Portsmouth, they needed to do that. The only time it was done before, successfully, was in 1066. So there’s been a 500 year interval, nearly. It could be done then because they weren’t opposed by an English fleet, and because these were shallow draught vessels that could be dragged up onto a beach or brought up into other places other than a deep water harbour and quayside.

All the French had to get their troops off the French ships were ship’s boats. And you can fit maybe 20 people into one of those and row them ashore. What happens when you do that, [when] you discharge your troops? Well, they get picked off, so it’s not a very effective mechanism. The other time it was done successfully, this time going the other direction, is 1944, and when special vessels were made to be able to do just that: get troops ashore quickly.

And if we look at the Cowdray Engraving we can see that the French actually did land some troops, they landed them here, at Bembridge on the Isle of Wight, and they went up to set fire to the village of Bembridge itself. And we can see the position where it’s shown; in fact where these boats are is just down here [shows Cowdray Engraving]. If it was this bit of coast they were shown on, it would look like that, with lots of rocks, and you can’t land small boats there.

Looking the other way, where they are shown, it’s a nice sandy beach. Again it gives us a lot of confidence about what the picture is telling us. Even details like the cutting of the bridge here at Yarbridge, and you can see that the English have cut the bridge, built a small temporary fort to deny the French access to the main part of the Isle of Wight across this sort of muddy, sort of intertidal area, here. Even this structure, here, which is Sandon Fort, which is no longer there, in Sandon Bay, is shown quite well. You’ve got a tower on this side, and some sort of tower on that side, and in Staffordshire Records Office there is this map showing the tower, and the other tower there. It’s really not badly described at all in the Cowdray.

Now there’s the French galleys, they’re firing at the English, they’re at No Man’s Land. The English are returning fire from The Great Harry, and in fact you can see, The Great Harry is having some difficulty and is only firing its gun. All the rest of the gun ports, incidentally, are closed.

So what was going on? Well, the French account of the battle by Martin du Bellay says that the admiral:

‘ordered the galleys to take up position in the morning, where they could maintain a hot cannonade with the enemy, and during the engagement retire towards our fighting line in order to, if possible, draw on a general engagement, entice them outside the narrows.’

So what the French were trying to do was to annoy the English so that the English would sail out of the Solent and take on the French ships out in the English Channel. Funny thing is that the English would lose, they were outnumbered three to one in ships, and they didn’t do it. Just as well really.

So what about the weather on that day? Well Martin Du Bellay records that:

‘for in the morning, favoured by the sea, which was calm, without wind or strong current, our galleys were able to manoeuvre at their pleasure and to the disadvantage of the enemy who, not being able to move for want of wind, remained exposed to the fire of our artillery.’

And in the Solent, in the summer, under a high-pressure weather system, you get very calm days, and the wind powered English ships could not move for much of the day. Except later in the afternoon, when a sea breeze starts to blow up, probably about three, four o’clock in the afternoon. So the English were going to have to sit there doing nothing, taking incoming fire from the French galleys for some time.

What about the tide? Well, we can model that, all we need to know is the phase of the moon. It was full moon on 23 July 1545. In the Solent full moon gives you twelve o’clock midday high tide, give or take about ten or fifteen minutes, and that is pretty standard. 19 July therefore is four days before, which means that we can calculate the tide and we can model the tidal flows. So six o’clock in the morning it’s like that [shows image] running from west to east, two hours, seven o’clock, that is, slack water, two hours before high tide, the tide turns, and runs the other way.

So from eight o’clock in the morning the tide favoured the French, by bringing them in quickly towards the English, so that they could fire, turn around, and row themselves out of trouble. And it gets stronger, nine o’clock, ten o’clock, eleven o’clock, twelve o’clock, the tide changes, we go to slack water at about one o’clock, [it] turns around, and then starts running the other direction, getting stronger, as the afternoon goes by, until about five o’clock in the afternoon, and then diminishes a bit.

So, at about four o’clock in the afternoon you’ve got a situation like this: the tide is running from west to east, it’s flowing this way, and you’re getting a breeze blowing up from the south-west. The English, having been sat there all day taking incoming fire, can now move. And what are they doing to do? What’s Sir George Carew, onboard the Mary Rose, going to want to do? He’s going to want to bring his guns to bear.

In the morning, that was the situation, with the English ships facing the French, bow on. They could not fire their main artillery at the French coming into attack them. They had very little that they could fire forward with, and there are letters from shipwrights to Henry VIII trying to negotiate how they might fit forward-facing guns. The shipwrights thought it a very bad idea because it would damage the integrity of the ship.

In the afternoon the situation is like this: with the English ships being held on their anchor cables, stern towards the attacking French. So it’s not quite so bad, they can fire back at the French, at least a bit, but they’ve been taking incoming fire for some time. I think it’s quite likely that the Mary Rose had taken some incoming fire around the rear of the ship, and had actually been shipping some water. Not dramatically, not enormous quantity, but enough to make her sail very badly.

Once we get to four in the afternoon, with a breeze the Mary Rose can get sail up and get underway, and bring her main armament to bear on the attacking French. And that’s she did. We know where she ended up, she ended up there [shows image], so to get there she must have been going in that direction, she must have started from somewhere about there, give or take a little bit.

So the French were coming in doing this, attacking the English – zoom in on it – and we can use the GIS to calculate the times that these things would take. So from that point there to that point there at three knots, would take 12 minutes. That point there to that point there at three knots would take nine minutes. So you’ve got a potential engagement phase of about nine minutes. Not very long, really quite a pressurised time. After the engagement, that’s six minutes from there to there at three knots, to the point where she sank.

So you can see that onboard the ship there would have been a lot going on, a great deal to do in a very short period of time.

It’s possible that she intended to loop back into the rest of the fleet, but personally I can’t see it, because to make that turn would be very difficult. I think the Master of the ship was trying to run her another 600 yards further on, directly towards Portsmouth, so she would run aground. If she ran aground it would be embarrassing, but the ship would not have sunk, the guns would not have been lost, the ship would not have been lost. It would have been embarrassing because Henry would have seen it himself, and if they’d managed to get from there to there, it would have taken them perhaps another five minutes, that’s all.

But she sank, and she sank with a large loss of life, something about nearly 500 men were lost. And this research I’ve then been feeding back into trying to recreate some further artwork from it, and this is [shows image] Geoff Hunt, former president of the Royal Society of Marine Artists, with Rear Admiral John Lippiett. And we’re discussing the creation of a new painting showing the sinking of the Mary Rose, and Geoff was literally just working off my maps, drawing in some little sketches. And the one that we chose in the end is that one [shows image], and that’s now turned into this fabulous new painting, which will form the entrance image as visitors arrive at the Mary Rose Museum.

So she sank. We know that, we’ve recovered stuff, but there was still an invasion fleet and a big army to stop. What happened then? Well, the French called a meeting onboard the French flagship, and they discussed the possibilities of directly attacking Portsmouth. It was too dangerous. Fighting at anchor, the English would not play ball. Invading, holding and fortifying the Isle of Wight.

There was some support for that, but it was decided that they couldn’t supply sufficient food and wine and support to an army on the Isle of Wight, because they English would simply pick off their supply ships, and well, you know, not having enough food and wine is not a very good motivator for an army. So they decided to take on water and head off to lay siege to Boulogne that the English were still holding at that time. Some of the French ships landed troops at Shoreham, but they were repulsed.

But then there are other things in the archives that are also slightly puzzling: this one from the minutes of a Privy Council meeting which said, ‘A Frenchman saved in a ship, sunk by Blackie of Rye, sent to my Lord Admiral to be examined’. Well, William Blackie was captain of a ship called The Magdalene. It was one of the boats of Rye, quite a small vessel, only had 37 men, but it kind of implies that there was another French ship sunk on that day.

And then there’s this one, a letter from Lord Russell to Sir William Paget: ‘At the writing of your letters, seventeen of the galleys came in the order of battle to the fight, of the which one was sunk, and the ships began to retire, which I believe will not come again.’ Hmm, that also says…if we have a look at the Cowdray Engraving [shows Cowdray Engraving] right at the front of the French fleet, in the galleys is a galley where we can see the stern, and the bow of the galley is well down in the water.

So somewhere out there, off St Helen’s on the Isle of Wight, is one of the opponents of the Mary Rose. I’ve started having a look, I haven’t found it yet. Who knows? Maybe if somebody would like to lend me a big magnetometer then maybe we’ll find something; there should be some large bronze guns on that ship, and they’re almost certainly still there.

So, the Cowdray picture has tremendous detail. It’s truthful inasmuch as we can tell from combining the data from a whole range of different sources together. We’re using archaeology, using documentary evidence, using maps, and so on. It’s an interesting tale, it’s got a great deal to it. We’ve now started to do some further archaeological work, looking at the detail of the movement of objects and parts of the ship’s structure during the actual sinking itself.

And this actually starts to confirm what we think happened to the Mary Rose; that as she was sailing northwards, trying to run aground, she was sitting low in the water, and slightly over-tipped, to a point where water gushed in through the gun ports, because they were sitting low in the water, and she sank very, very quickly, hitting the bottom extremely hard, to such an extent that the ballast within the hold was displaced, rushed upwards, and bashed itself up underneath the Orlop deck decking, displacing it and pushing it upwards. So again there’s archaeological evidence to support this as a sequence of events.

There’s much more to be done. Hopefully I’ll have enough time to do some more on it, but that’s where I’ll finish today.

Transcribed by Anna Guyatt as part of a volunteer project, May 2015

Leave a comment


You can find help on how to download and listen to our podcasts in our quick guide to getting started. If you wish to re-use any part of a podcast, please note that copyright in the podcasts and transcripts in some cases belongs to the speakers, not to the Crown. Please contact the Copyright Officer with queries. If commenting, please be aware of our moderation policy.


Select an option to receive our free podcast series, using either RSS or iTunes. See our help guide for more information on podcast subscription.