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Ghosts of Mary Rose

  • The Marsden Book

On the summer days of 18 and 19 July in the year of our Lord 1545, one of the most famous battles of the so-called "Italian Wars", fought between the fleets of Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England, took place amidst the waters of the Solent, somewhere between Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. The clash yielded no settlement, but went down in history as the one that saw the sinking of the English carrack Mary Rose.

Tragedy befell when the Mary Rose, Henry VIII's flagship, suddenly sank shrouding beneath the vaves hundreds of sailors for whom the sea bed became a final resting place that day. While many theories of why this particular ship sank has been debated over the centuries, it wasn't until the Mary Rose was raised to the surface in 1982 that we began to fathom what really happened. Peter Marsden a Scotland-born writer and director, also an expert on the Mary Rose, believed it was a good time for a thorough examination of the vessel story and attempt to explain what or who really had sunk it. This resulted in the fascinating book "1545: Who Sank The Mary Rose?"

For those who have never come across Peter Marsden's work, he is a PhD in Archaeology from Oxford University and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London. As a City of London archaeologist since the 1960s, he has been investigating how the ancient city began in Roman times almost 2,000 years ago and grew to its present immense size. His excavations included Roman baths, houses, streets, a basilica and forum, and city defences. In addition, he searched for the lost Saxon city (which was later found near Westminster), and excavated medieval and later houses, streets, churches and the royal palace in the City of London. This has led him to become deeply acquainted with fascinating historical figures, beginning with Queen Boudica of the Iceni tribe, who destroyed London in A.D. 60-61, to Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, who was king in the 15th century, and whose house he unearthed near St Paul's Cathedral, and to the Tudor royal palace at Baynards Castle, which is associated with Queens Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I.

London has also seen the (all through his hands) discovery of Roman, medieval and later shipwrecks in the Thames. When retired from the Museum of London, he researched a number of historic ships to reconstruct England's maritime past. These include the 3,500-year-old Dover boat; Henry VIII's flagship, also another English warship Anne, sunk in 1690 as well by the French; and East India Company treasure ships from the 17th and 18th centuries. He was successfully involved in taking the Ministry of Defence to the High Court for failing to protect the sunken merchant ship SS Storaa as a naval war tomb during the Second World War. He has written many books, including two on the Mary Rose.

Thanks to his long-standing experience, especially in marine and coastal archaeology Marsden acquainted himself with some of the key members of The Mary Rose Trust, dedicated to raising the shipwreck from the sea bed so as to restore it to history and the public eye once again. It is his lifelong work and expert knowledge that makes Marsden the ideal person to tell her story anew...

As a way of starkly illustrating what a significant event the sinking of the Mary Rose was at the time, the writer commences by telling the story of the encounter between the French and English fleets at the Solent in July 1545, giving a full account of the battle according to the historical record on both the English and French sides. Then he follows the footsteps of admirals, Claud d' Annebault for France and Sir George Carew for England, to understand what guided them in making key decisions before, during and after the battle.

The better part of his book is the meticulous details of the ship itself. It was an absolutely fascinating read as it allowed me to better understand, and in fact brought before my wits, a vivid exemplar of the ship which, through the author's words, I could see as it was moored before my very eyes. The descriptions are beautifully combined with detailed diagrams and illustrations so that anyone even new to shipbuilding can get a picture of what the Tudor fleet might have looked like. Further pages of the book are a meticulous study of the history of Mary Rose's recovery and how it was only in the 1970s and 1980s that the modern world was able to see the wreck of this once great ship. It is a story of the love of history, courage and of sacrifice, all those responsible for enabling us to experience the Mary Rose in a museum today. The book is also, as the author explains, a kind of memorial tribute to the ship's crew, for it is the personal artefacts and the remains of the sailors, that give clues to contemporaries, shedding light on how the Mary Rose sank.

Perhaps for the first time, the book conclusively shows that the French fleet arrived unexpectedly to occupy the Isle of Wight and Portsmouth a day later than thought, that many of the remains found inside the wreck prove that the ship was indeed in combat and that an extra deck had been added, making her more unstable than previously thought. Finally, the author makes it clear who was responsible for the loss of the Mary Rose, after describing what happened on board, deck by deck, in her final moments. The fascinating revelations will intrigue the reader, historian and archaeologist alike, In my humble opinion, this book has the potential to be the final word on the ship's epopee.

To my mind, the author succeeds in providing his own (expert) fascinating insight into the archaeology of the wreck.

At times the book reads like a novel - the final battle, and the background to the protracted war with France, of which Mary Rose was a part, is for me one of the key focuses of this volume - one can almost feel the maddening frustration to which the French were driven by the British refusal to rush into the French guns, the running supplies, the increasing sickness and finally the raids on the Isle of Wight which, despite great efforts, could not lead to a conclusive battle...

The best the reader can do is to visit the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth to see the vast number of artefacts recovered from the wreck and surrounding seabed; this book acts almost as a very detailed guide to these artefacts, and such a visit, in addition to reading the book, or better still with it in hand, is perhaps the best testimony Peter Marsden could wish for.

  • A Voice From Beyond The Grave

Examination of the remains of Henry VIII's flagship crewmen cast light on the ethnic diversity in Tudor England. It is thought that one sailor was an archer raised in the Atlas Mountains of northern Africa, whereas another one may have been a carpenter drawn up in southwest Spain. Others seemed to have come from the nearer environs, perhaps from the throbbing harbours of West Anglia or the Thames Estuary.

The most in-depth study of the brace of men who drowned when Henry's carrack Mary Rose sank off the coast of Portsmouth has provided further insights into the manning composition and differing nature of society in Tudor England.

Combining evidence of where the men's remains were found within the vessel when it was brought to the surface, with a cutting-edge study of the men's teeth, scientists were able to delve further into the lives of eight crewmen who perished nearly five hundred years earlier.

This diversity is confirmed by Alexzandra Hildred, head of research and curator of ordnance and human remains at the Mary Rose Trust, saying that the sheer number of items recovered from the wreck that was not of English origin hinted that some of the crew were foreign.

Researchers did not expect the diversity to be so rich, the study of the remains of the sailors transforms perceived ideas about the composition of what later became the world's most powerful navy.

The excellent preservation of the men's skeletal remains as well as knowing the exact time and context of their deaths has given scientists ample scope to delve into the crew's past.

In their latest study, academics from Cardiff University, the Mary Rose Trust and the British Geological Survey employed a technique called multi-isotope analysis on the teeth to discover where eight crew members spent their early years.

Four of them earned their nicknames of archer, cook, officer and porter based on where they were found or what objects were found near. They and a fifth - known as the young sailor - almost certainly came from Britain.

Archer possibly came from a port in southwest England, perhaps Plymouth in Devon or Fowey in Cornwall, whereas cook likely came from the coastal West Country. The officer may very well have matured at the southern end of the Midlands or Wiltshire, while the porter in question was said to be raised around the banks of the Thames Estuary.

As disclosed some time ago, the young seamen also came from the West Country and are believed to be of African descent.

The above findings are thought-provoking and change perceptions of social relations in contemporary England, as the Mary Rose never ventured further than British coastal waters, yet three of the eight crew members researched found themselves almost certainly raised in rather southern climes.

A crew member, now known as a gentleman, maybe an interesting case study as to the origins of Henry's carrack personnel, as his remains were found near a chest containing a carved bone panel much like those made in northern Italy in the 14th and 15th centuries. Scholars believe he may originally belong to the Mediterranean coast.

Items found in the carpenter's place included Spanish coins and Spanish-style tools, thought that at least one of the carpenters may have originated from the Iberian Peninsula. Analysis of the remains of a seventh man, who was found near the same place, hinted that he came from deep in the southwest of Spain.

An eighth man is now known as a royal archer for he wore a leather armguard featuring the pomegranate symbol commonly associated with Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's first wife. He is believed to have come from the Atlas Mountains or perhaps Spain.

If you are interested in the subject of Mary rose, here is a list of several books available on the market today:

1. Douglas McElvogue, Tudor Warship Mary Rose (Anatomy of The Ship)

2. A. J. Stirland, The Men of the Mary Rose: Raising The Dead

3. David Loades, C.S. Knighton, Letters from the Mary Rose

4. Margaret Rule, The Mary Rose: The Excavation and Raising of Henry VIII's Flagship

5. Alexzandra Hildred, Mary Rose Exposed

6. Julie Gardiner, Before the Mast: Life and Death Aboard the Mary Rose (Archaeology of the Mary Rose)

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