Wednesday, 14 August 2013

The Mary Rose & H.M.S Victory

Portsmouth Historic Dockyards, home to two of Britain's Greatest Ships - the Victory and the Mary Rose - are about forty minutes drive down the motorway for us. M and I hadn't seen either of them for years so we decided it would be a Good Educational Trip for the boys, and set off first thing to get there early and beat the crowds. Sadly, there had been a terrible accident on the M27 about two hours previously and the opposite carriageway was closed with police forensic teams scouring the whole area. The queue of stationary traffic went back miles and miles. We later learnt that a motorcyclist had lost his life, and the motorway was still closed when we came home some five hours later.

There were no queues at the dockyards though and we sailed through (no pun intended), having booked our time to see the Mary Rose for 10.30. That gave us half an hour to spare so we headed off to see the Victory, Nelson's Flagship from the battle of Trafalgar and the scene of his death in 1805. It was built in 1759 and launched in 1765 and has 104 guns and is a very elegant looking ship.

It is in the Admiral's quarters, which are behind these windows in the pic below, that Admiral Horatio Nelson, fatally wounded by a French Sniper during the battle of Trafalgar, is said to have died, after uttering the immortal words: "Kiss me, Hardy" to his Flag Captain, Thomas Hardy. The scene was recorded by the ship's surgeon William Beatty and substantiated by two other eye-witnessed, and the account published in 1807. Despite this, there persists an alternative version that what Nelson actually said was "Kismet Hardy" which is Turkish for fate. I think this is probably the result of seeing 18th century things through 21st century eyes. Nelson was embalmed in brandy and given a state funeral back home in England.

Nelson's quarters at the front of the ship. They look a bit like a mini Georgian house, which I suspect was the point. 

 Absolutely Ginormous Anchor (there are two of them, one at either end of the ship)


Roman Numerals marking the depth of water as it rises up the front of the ship

Steps up the outside. I don't fancy those very much.

The Ship's Bell

"England expects every man will do his duty"
These are Nelson's words, uttered at the start of the Battle of Trafalgar, and sent to the rest of the fleet via flag signals from the poop deck of H.M.S. Victory at 11.15 a.m. on 21 October 1805

The bell inside the ship

Rows and rows of canon

Sick quarters for poorly sailors

Before we knew it 10.30 was approaching so we skedaddled off next door to the uber new and plush Mary Rose Exhibition, which has only just opened.

The Mary Rose is a Tudor Warship built by Henry VIII in 1510. She was launched in 1511 and served for 33 years in battles against France and other countries. She sank in the Solent (the stretch of water between the mainland and the Isle of Wight) in 1545, watched by Henry VIII who was on the shore at Southsea Castle at the time. She was leading an attack against French Warships who had come perilously close to the English shore and it is believed she swerved suddenly to avoid a ship and the water rose up and sloshed over into the gun ports which were only a metre above the water line. It was this that ultimately sank her.

New evidence (forensic testing on the skeletons recovered with the wreck) suggests a substantial proportion of the crew was made up of Spaniards, either prisoners of war or mercenaries, and it has been suggested that their limited grasp of English meant they didn't understand the order to close the gun ports. The Admiral, George Carew, was heard to shout to a nearby ship as the Mary Rose listed that his men were "knaves he could not command," and this is now thought to relate to the language barrier being responsible for the ship's ultimate doom.

One account in Henry VIII's state papers might support this theory. Six months before the Mary Rose sank, nine ships were caught in a storm in the English Channel and sought refuge in Falmouth harbour in Cornwall.They held 600 Spanish soldiers who – with no money or food – were pressed into service for England. It is possible that some of these men were on the Mary Rose. It is known Henry VIII was short of skilled sailors and had been trying to recruit from the continent.

Five hundred men lost their lives that day (all but 35 of the crew), and the ship remained on the seabed buried in silt in the Solent for a further 450 years. She was finally lifted in 1982 following a lengthy salvage operation. I was 9 at the time and remember watching it happen live on TV at home. My sister was off school poorly that day and I was allowed to stay at home too so we could all watch it together. It was a truly historic moment. 

The conservation of the Mary Rose has been ongoing ever since. The last time I saw her she was barely visible beneath a mist of water, salt and wax which was sprayed constantly onto the timbers to prevent them from drying out and falling apart. The jets were switched off a couple of months ago after 30 years of constant spraying and the ship is now in an airtight container called a "hot box" where conditioned air is directed at the timbers to slowly extract the 100 tonnes of water that remain in them. Once dry, in about five years time, the conservation will be complete.

The new museum reunites the Mary Rose with thousands of the 19,000 artefacts raised from the wreck, as well as several of the skeletons of the men who perished with her.

This is Admiral George Carew, the ship's Commander

The Ship's Bell

Detail of a lion head on one of the ship's canons

This is the ship's dog. 
He was between 1-2 years old, a terrier/ lurcher type, and would have been on board to catch rats, the partial skeletons of which were also discovered in the wreck.

Skeleton of a man believed to be an archer. 
This is deduced from the shoulder bones which show different development in Longbow Men, because of the colossal strength required to pull the English Longbow. It has been said that Longbow training began at the age of 10 or 11 because if you left it any later you would not be able to develope the necessary strength to pull the string back and release the arrow. Tests have been done to show the effect of using very powerful longbows on the musculoskeletal system, which made some bones almost 50 per cent bigger on one side of the body than the other. No wonder the Longbow Men were feared throughout Europe.

Personal possessions from one of the drowned sailors, remarkably well preserved by the silt in the Solent.

These were believed to have been owned by a well-off foreign gentlemen, because of the level of fine workmanship and the detail of some of the items found in his wooden chest. His skeleton was discovered trapped behind the chest. The bones suggest he was in his 20's and was possibly Italian.

Beautiful combs (probably for ever-present nits, the bane of sailor's lives!) and, behind them, canon balls.

A beautifully carved Pomander, from among the possessions of the foreign gentleman. Pomanders were stuffed with herbs and flowers (anything that smelled sweet) to stave off illnesses believed to come from bad smells. Tudor England was not the sweetest-smelling of places at the best of times so these were often carried by the wealthier sections of society when travelling.

Gold Angels and Half Angels.
One of these coins was minted during the reign of Edward IV, who was one of the three Sons Of York who fought the Lancastrians during the Wars of The Roses. It was his sons who were the two Princes in the Tower believed to have been murdered by their Uncle, Richard III. And it was Richard III who was killed on the field at the battle of Bosworth, the battle at which Henry VII (Henry VIII's father) became King Of England.
Edward IV's daughter, Elizabeth of York, married Henry VII and their union effectively put an end to the Wars of The Roses by combining the two warring houses of York and Lancaster. She was Henry VIII's mother, and Grandmother to Elizabeth I.

This leather satchel has an inscription and engraving urging obedience to Henry VIII and his then wife, Catherine of Aragon (who, sadly, Henry himself turned out to be less than obediant to, casting her aside for a younger model in the form of Anne Boleyn a few short years later.)

A stash of English Longbows (traditionally made from Yew), and an enormous wooden crate found with the wreck which was used for storing and transporting them. 

I found this very evocative. 

The Mary Rose was a Ship Of War first and foremost, and the Longbow was still the weapon of choice at this period in history. More than 3,500 arrows and 137 whole longbows were recovered from the wreck, and an elite company of professional archers were also known to have been aboard the ship when she sunk. Many of the skeletons show evidence of repetitive stress injuries of the shoulder and lower spine which are consistent with pulling Longbows and shooting arrows. The Mary Rose also had hundreds of lead bullets and composite round shot on board, making her an important resource for evidence of the transition of warfare towards muskets and pistols that was happening during the 16th century.  

The tickets for the dockyards buy you a year's worth of returns, and as we had a rather tired L by the time we'd surfaced from the bowels of the exhibition, we didn't push our luck and take the 45 minute boat trip round the harbour that was included in the ticket price, or indeed go up on HMS Warrior.
M and I will return, sans enfants, at a later date and do these things and the Mary Rose and The Victory again, because there is so much to see it is hard to take it all in in one sitting. It's definitely worth a visit if you ever find yourself in this neck of the woods.

Hope you are all having a good day,

CT :-)


  1. HI CT That was a wonderful informative post with excellents photos. I will be in portsmouth on saturday but only to get the ferry to the I.O.W. Someday I must visit this.

    1. Thanks Margaret. You'll see the docks from the boat over to the Isle of Wight- they're just below the spinnaker tower. It's worth a visit if you get the opportunity.

  2. I haven't been to Portsmouth since 1975, with the school on the way to the Isle of White. I have a photo I took of the Victory then. Lovely to see yours and I hope your boys were fully educated!

    1. Stuffed full of education, which (as far as they are concerned), should do them for the next ten years....

  3. I enjoyed reading your post and learnt so much. I have obviously seen coverage of the new Mary Rose museum on the TV. Thank you for showing me what I have missed. I must try and visit it one day.
    Sarah x

    1. Thanks Sarah for your kind words :-) Def worth a visit, there is so much of interest to see- just make sure you get there a little before opening time (10am), when the car park next door should have spaces and you won't have to queue to get a ticket. They were still queuing to get in when we left at one and the car park was full by then too.

  4. Wonderful and informative post CT :) We went there a few years back (although Mary Rose wasn't then on display) and really enjoyed it. As you say there is far too much to take in and do in a day. Would love to go back now Mary Rose is finally on show! I remember watching it on tv when they were bringing it up off the sea-bed many many years ago!

    1. If you can hang on another 5 years they will have completed the conservation and all the pipes will have gone, which will give a fantastic view of the timbers and the shape of the ship.

  5. This is fascinating. I visited both these ships years ago, so I loved seeing them again. I didn't know about the Spanish sailours on the Mary Rose, so I was interestd to read about that. I have thought a few times about the horror of the ship going down and people watching from the shoreline. And I remember the low ceilings on the Victory, it is amazing how the sailours lived and fought in such cramped conditions.

    1. The Spanish connection is a relatively new theory thanks to modern forensic tests on the bones. Fascinating stuff. And yes! such low ceilings- we were bent over for much of it, must have been so uncomfortable if you were living and working there for months at a time. Getting down the stairs onto the floor below also required a level of athleticism I fear I am beginning to lose!

  6. It's all fabulous stuff, this history malarkey. I remember watching the live programme when the Mary Rose was brought to the surface of the sea, and the heart-stopping moment when part of the crane chain broke! Ooooooh!!!

    1. I remember that too and was telling the boys, who looked less than impressed, but then I guess you had to be watching at the time to understand what a huge deal the whole thing was, and how magical too :-)

  7. A great post CT, fascinating stuff, I love all this history and things like the Longbow men and their skeletal differences is great. Thankfully with progress in forensics we are learning more and more about what we find.

    1. It is amazing. Makes you wonder what they'll be able to tell in another hundred years....


Thank you for leaving a comment. I always enjoy reading them and will try my best to reply to every one. CT x