Sunday, 9 June 2013

The Mary Rose Museum

Recently I went to the Mary Rose Museum which opened to the public on the 31st May at the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth. The brand new museum cost £35 million and was designed by Wilkinson Eyre Architects in the shape of a ship with a stained black exterior that alludes to traditional English boat sheds. The museum is in the dockyard next to HMS Victory; and it may have taken her almost 500 years but the Mary Rose began and has ended her life at the Portsmouth dockyard.

The Mary Rose Museum in the centre of the image, flanked by HMS Victory in the
right of the image

A brief history of the Mary Rose:
Portsmouth's reputation as a great dockyard had been cultivated gradually prior to Henry VIII's reign, with a particular boost being in 1495 when Henry VII built the first dry dock there. Henry VIII is known for his development of the 'Navy Royal', which culminated in the first naval dock in Britain being built at Portsmouth in 1540 and in the establishment of the Navy Board in 1546, which remained almost unchanged for 300 years. Another achievement of Henry's naval developments was the construction of many great warships, by his death in 1547 the fleet was 58 vessels strong, and the most well-known of Henry's ships is the Mary Rose.

Image of the Mary Rose from the Anthony Roll c.1546

The Mary Rose was built in 1510 at the Portsmouth dockyard using timber from almost 600 large oak trees and she was launched in July 1511. She was built in the midst of plans for war against France and the need for defences against possible invasions from France and Scotland.

Her name has been the cause of much debate and traditionally it has been assumed that she was named after Henry VIII's younger sister Mary. But there is no evidence for this and given the traditional custom of naming ships to honour a religious figure it is more probable that the ship was named after the Virgin Mary and the Tudor rose. So the ship could have been named to honour both the King and Virgin Mary by being named the 'Mary Rose'.

Painting titled 'Combat de la Cordelière' by Pierre-Julien Gilbert
c.1838 it shows the fire that erupted after an explosion on the
Cordelière, which spread to the Regent when English sailors
began to board the French ship 
At war: 
The Mary Rose was used in war against the French on three occasions. Her first battle was the Battle of Saint-Mathieu in August 1512, in which the English had three more ships than the French. The Mary Rose emerged relatively unscathed and performed well by forcing a French ship, the Petite Louise, to retreat in the face of the Mary Rose's relentless gunfire. Despite this both sides lost their most powerful ships when they were ravaged by fire after a clash; the English lost the Regent and the French lost the Marie la Cordelière.

An oil painting of the sinking of the Mary Rose by Richard

In 1522 the Mary Rose went to war against the French for the second time when she was used to ferry English troops across the Channel to France in early June.

Her third and final outing in war was in 1545 after she had been kept in reserve from 1522-35 and extensively repaired/remodeled. In July the French fleet entered the Solent with the intention of mounting an invasion of England while it was vulnerable without an Imperial alliance. The Mary Rose was one of the 80 English vessels poised to defend the south coast and rebuff the French threat.

Picture of surviving sections of the
anti-boarding netting displayed in the
Mary Rose Museum

This was the Battle of the Solent which ended horribly for the Mary Rose on the 19th July 1545. Initially the Mary Rose had assisted in leading the attack on the French fleet's galleys but during the attack she lurched down heavily on her starboard side while trying to turn. This allowed seawater to pour in through her open gunports; accentuating the imbalance and pulling her down further so that the crew lost any chance of salvaging her. The majority of the crew was killed with only around 25 survivors, it is thought that many drowned because they were trapped by the anti-boarding netting which would have acted as a barrier between many of the men and the surface.

The wreck of the Mary Rose then settled on the seabed and became firmly embedded due to rapid siltation, so despite the attempts of Tudor divers she could not be raised. And so she lay undiscovered in the Solent for over 400 years.

The Museum: 
The sinking of the Mary Rose may have been a tragic event but in a sense we are very fortunate that it sunk and became embedded in silt because in doing so part of the ship and thousands of artifacts have survived. These fascinating artifacts show us a completely different lifestyle within Tudor England as we are provided with a glimpse into life on a sixteenth century ship as opposed to life at court or in a nobleman's manor house,  so the remnants of the Mary Rose are particularly intriguing.

In the museum you walk around three different levels which each contain rows of display cases that house the 19,000 artifacts on display and you can view the surviving hull of the ship through windows along one of the walls. Many of the cases hold items belonging to specific individuals that reflect their wealth, status and roles on the ship. So there are cases for the cook, archers, the surgeon, the carpenter, the purser, the gunner and even the dog used to catch rats.

The atmosphere inside the museum has been made to reflect that of a ship by means of dim lighting, sound effects and relatively narrow spaces. When I was there it wasn't too busy, which was probably because I went on a weekday and in one of the earlier time slots but when I left at around midday there was a huge queue outside so if you plan on going I'd recommend going early or you'll probably get a good idea of the cramped conditions on a ship!

Overall I would definitely recommend a visit because the care and conservation put into this museum and its contents has allowed the public to access a truly remarkable world.

You are allowed to take photos in the museum as long as the flash is off and here are some of mine...

A backgammon set that belonged to a crew member
The skeleton of the ship's dog, who the museum
has named 'Hatch'

The surgeon's syringe
The contents of the Master Gunner's chest including a
whistle at number 4, coins at number 6 and dice at number 7
The skeleton of an archer
The reconstruction of the above archer
Instruments that were found, including a violin on the left
The crow's nest of the Mary Rose
Engraving on a cannon from the ship
Pewter dinner plates
Surviving shoes and socks
The hull of the Mary Rose which is currently being dried  out
And exit via the gift shop!
The Mary Rose Museum 
Young Henry by Robert Hutchinson