19 July 1545 – The Sinking of the Mary Rose

Posted By on July 19, 2011

Mary Rose

New Geoff Hunt painting of the Mary Rose

On this day in history, the 19th July 1545, Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose, sank right in front of his eyes in the Battle of the Solent between the English and French fleets.

We still do not know exactly why the Mary Rose sank, all we know for certain is that the English fleet moved out to attack the French fleet in the late afternoon of the 19th as “a fitful wit sprang up” and that something went wrong as the ship carried out a turning manoeuvre. The Mary Rose sank and along with her the majority of her crew, including Sir George Carew, the Captain.

But why did a ship whose illustrious career had started in 1512 sink to the bottom of the Solent on that fateful day in 1545? Well, there is still speculation over this question today with the following reasons being put forward:

  • Her sinking was caused by a French hit – According to the French fleet, they hit her and she sank after they lured the English ships within range of their main fleet.
  • She heeled over in the wind and water entered her gun ports – Van der Delft, the Imperial ambassador, told of how she sank, drowning just under 500 men, and how he “was told by a Fleming among the survivors that when she heeled over with the wind the water entered by the lowest row of gun ports which had been left open after firing.”
  • Human Error – According to Sir Peter Carew, brother of the Vice Admiral of the Mary Rose, Sir George Carew, who died when the ship sank, his uncle Sir Gawain Carew had sailed past the Mary Rose as she began to heel and asked Sir George what was wrong. Sir George replied that “he had the sort of knaves whom he could not rule.” It was also Sir George Carew’s first naval command, so he was inexperienced.
  • The Mary Rose had become unseaworthy – Some people believe that modifications over the years had added to the weight of the ship and made her unseaworthy.

You can read more about these theories and the arguments against them on the Mary Rose Trust page at https://maryrose.org/why-did-the-mary-rose-sink/.

The Raising of the Mary Rose

The Secretary of State in 1545, William Paget, ordered a salvage operation within days of the sinking but operations in 1545, 1547 and 1549 only managed to raise some guns and rigging. Nearly 300 years later, on the 16th June 1836, a fisherman snagged his gear on the wreck and John Deane, a diver exploring a nearby wreck, agreed to help the fisherman disentangle his gear in return for a half share of whatever the gear was caught up on. Dean found the Mary Rose and between 1836 and 1840 was able to recover a number of items including iron guns, bows and timbers. The ship, though, was left lying in her watery grave.

Claire Ridgway at Mary Rose museum

Me and a long bow from the Mary Rose

In 1965, 420 years after the sinking, Alexander McKee decided to try and find the wreck of the Mary Rose. With the collaboration of Professor Harold E Edgerton and John Mills, and their sonar systems, a sub-seabed anomaly was found in 1967 and confirmed in 1968 by a sonar survey. Dives were carried out in the area between 1968 and 1971 and divers found timbers and an iron gun. Then, on the 5th May 1971, Percy Ackland discovered three of the port frames of the Mary Rose.

In 1979, The Mary Rose Trust was formed and an archaeological team led by Dr Margaret Rule CBE began to excavate the Mary Rose wreck. This culminated in the raising of the Mary Rose on 11th October 1982 by a team of Royal Engineers. The wreck was placed in a dry dock with a relative humidity of 95% and a temperature of 2-6ºC. A preservation programme then began in earnest.

On the 4th October 1983, just under a year after she was raised, the Mary Rose was put on public display in Portsmouth and a museum was created to display some of the artefacts found in the wreck. The Mary Rose is well worth a visit and you can find out more about visiting it at https://maryrose.org/.

Trivia: As the Mary Rose Trust points out, it is a myth that the ship was named after Henry VIII’s sister, Mary Tudor, Queen of France, and “It’s more likely the ship was named after the Virgin Mary, who was also known at the time as “The Mystic Rose”.” Mary Tudor was not known as “Mary Rose” either.

Also on this day in history

19th July 1553 – Mary I is proclaimed Queen. See “19 July 1553 – Mary I Proclaimed Queen” for details.

27 thoughts on “19 July 1545 – The Sinking of the Mary Rose”

  1. Andy says:

    Ther was a TV documentary here in Britain not so long ago, and as i recall, the answer seems to be a combination of the last three possibilities. Apparently, the ship was overloaded with men and armament, so was low in the water, modifications had made her top heavy and unstable, and forensic tests on the recovered crew showed that as much as 60% (if i remember correctly…) were foreign, from several different countries in fact – presumably captives and mercenaries put into service. This meant that communication may have been slow because several different languages could have been in use, and when the ship turned, the gun ports were still open, so the already unstable and overloaded ship flooded.

    1. Dawn says:

      I saw that, Andy, the crew were made up of a lot of non English speaking men and didn’t understand orders as well as being unruly. They made a scale replica of the ship and sailed it in tank of water with the same weather conditions, speed the ship was travelling at, and the angle at which she turned. They seemed to conclude that the most probable cause was because of all the extra weight she was carrying as you said, and the gun ports being left open when she turned, in went the water and over she went, it didn’t need much to tip the balance. Its a crying shame, those poor blokes trapped like that, and very few sailors could swim in those days, well anyone really because it wasn’t a recreational past time then. It most have broke the Kings heart seeing his beautiful ship sink before his eyes. I wouldn’t have wanted to be at the brunt of his mood after that happened….

      1. Andy says:

        That’s the one, Dawn. It must have been hell for the men below decks – very confined space, water coming up from one side and cannons and cannon balls falling down from the other as the ship rolled. I would suspect that waterlogged sails would drag a ship under pretty quickly too. I think it was very close to this event that Charles Brandon died too, so you’re probably right – Henry would have benn more hellish than usual for a while… It doesn’t appear to be a unique occurrence though. There’s a ship in Stockholm that suffered a similar fate in the 1600’s, but the Swedes managed to raise it virtually whole and in one piece in the 1960’s; so i wonder how common this type of thing actually was.

        1. Dawn says:

          I would have thought quite a lot really Andy, as the ‘technology’ of fire power improved, big guns, heavier shot and more men needed to use the weapons. Even though the were some very clever ship designers/builders who understood the mathmatics of building a sea worthy vessel, there were probably a lot that took short cuts or took old ships to be more capable than what there were with upgrades, especially if it was a rush job or to show off to neighbouring countries, I suppose this one was extremely well documented as it happened in front of the King himself….I know life was cheap in those days but it still must have been horrific to stand helplessly by and see and hear those men drowning… chilling.

    2. BanditQueen says:

      That documentary has since been shown to have been a load of rubbish. She was not over loaded and the modifications did not have anything to do with her sinking. More recent evidence shows that she was hit by the French. She also turrned too quickly, her gunports letting in water from the hole and the turn; the mix of foreign sailors and the new commander also contributed to the confusion. She had been hit earlier and it is clear from evidence that repairs were going on below the waterline. The ship was damaged and the attempts to save her failed. The water came in too quickly and she went down near the quicksands. She tried to get to be able to beach but failed, went over and then down taking most of the crew with her. There is no evidence that her new design had anything to do with her sinking or that she was overloaded. The documentary that you mention is quite old now and new evidence has shown that its findings were just guess work. The experiment in the documentary was just pure speculation. The number of people on board were no where near what they estimated. Documentary evidence from the French Ambassador, other eye whitness reports and from the charts and drawings of the day have also shown that the ship was not overloaded. The evidence from were the men were found on the ship also points to repairs going on and they have found evidence of her being hit as well. The upgrades were not a rushed job. The changes were made in 1538 and had been done to very specific orders. They took into consideration the new guns. Henry VIII did not do things by halfs: he had only the best and that included making sure that things were made to a good standard.

      Your point that the sight of all of those men going down in front of him must have been chilling and horrible to watch. The wife of Carew, the admiral was at the side of the King and saw her husband going down with the ship. It must have been a terrible thing to bear all those men, lost and those lives cut short. A sad day for them all and for England.

  2. Elenah says:

    Wasn’t the Mary rose named after Mary Boleyn…?

    1. Nancy says:

      I believe that the Mary Rose was named after Princess Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s youngest sister (and, apparently, his favorite), who was Queen of France for about 3 months until Louis XII died, and who then became Mary Brandon, Duchess of Suffollk after her marriage to Charles Brandon. I also believe that there was another ship named the “Mary Boleyn”.

    2. Dawn says:

      I think I’m right in saying that the ship was named after Mary Tudor, his favourite sister, Elenah.

    3. No, it was named after Mary Tudor, the king’s younger sister.

    4. Michelle Shady Watson says:

      No. Most likely Henry’s younger sister. He loved her and she did everything he asked of her, well that is until she married Brandon without his permission.

      1. Banditqueen says:

        No it was named for the Virgin Mary, not Mary Tudor, Henry’s sister.

  3. Julie B says:

    Love the artifacts that were found on this ship. There seems to be alot that were preserved, amazing!
    I like the shoes, they show us what people back in Henry’s time wore.

    Oh, just ordered the calendar, can’t wait till it gets to my house!

  4. Adriane says:

    For any that are interested littlemisssunnydale posted a wonderful documentary on Youtube. It’s 6 parts and very informative. The link is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGpJkvC-pQo I hope you all enjoy it as much as I did!!!

    1. Torben Retboll says:

      I tried to access the link. I was told: this video is not available.

  5. Tudorrose says:

    The Mary Rose, one of Henry’s greatest and most beloved warships. I can only imagine how he felt on and upon this day when it sank before his eyes at the Battle of Solent. In battle between the English and the French. How he must have felt, to see such a ship that truly loved and genuinely cared about sink before his eyes. Like a previous post said his wrath must have been a tempestuous one on that day and I would of not wanted to be near the King on this day in this particular moment in time. Oh, my. Also i agree due to the circumstances at the time like too many men on board, the weight of them all and everything I agree that is what caused it to sink, plus the weather too it may just have been very windy and blowy that day and that could be another reason why or it could of gotten a blow by and from one its opponents on the opposite side which may have caused its sinking too. Any one of these things or a mixture of it both or all three.

    Indeed the Ship was named after his favourite younger sister Mary Tudor even though there has been much speculation about it although as to whom it was named after, was it named after the Kings sister Mary or was it Mary Boleyn the King’s one time mistress. I have heard this speculated oftenly enough.

    +R.I.P+ Mary Rose +

  6. Carol Mertens says:

    As a Portsmouth girl, I am really grateful to everyone who supports the Mary Rose Appeal and really excited about the new museum.

    I have fond memories surrounding the Mary Rose. My Grandmother lived on South Parade, Southsea in the early eighties. I spent many a Sunday afternoon in her flat or on the beach with my cousins watching TogMor, the divers and the yellow cradle being put together.

    Alas she was brought to the surface on a Monday, I remember sitting in a science lab at school and watching her top timbers clearing the surface; a mighty cheer from a large group of 13 year olds.

    I went to see her at the end of the next year, not long after she had been put on show. Not realising that the view would be obscured by plexiglass as well as plenty of running water. Exciting nonetheless. I have visited many times since and am delighted by the progress each time I visit.

    Although the ship is not currently on display, please may I explain a few of the delights you will find in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard once the new hall is complete.

    When standing in the dockyard you will be able to look over the water to “Portchester Castle”, a place where Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII and Elizabeth Visited.

    You will also be able to visit HMS Victory, Nelson’s warship, the oldest commissioned ship in the Royal Navy (I believe) HMS Warrior, the first iron clad warship.

    A short 2 mile walk along the seafront will take you to Southsea Castle where Henry was standing when the Mary Rose went down, a beautiful view of the Isle of Wight, where the Armarda tried to reach in Good Queen Bess’s time.

    Any how,

    Thanks for the memories

    Carol

    1. Dawn says:

      You are right Carol, Portsmouth has a lot of history, it has always been one of the main sea ports through history, though it has more than seafaring history. How lucky were you seeing the raising of the Mary Rose. You are quite a bit younger than me seeing the age you were when they raised the ship, but I can remember going on a school trip to see Nelson’s ship in the late 60’s, and what sticks in my memory the most is how small the ship was, the rooms, stairs and height of the decks were so low, even to me as a child. It must have been so claustrophobic, when all the crew was on board especially when in battle, no wonder tempers were high and mutinies happened…. scary.

    2. TinaII2None says:

      Carol:

      I love Portsmouth. I was there for 5 days during the Trafalgar Bicentennial and I had a wonderful time walking about the town and enjoying such sites as the launch spot for Francis Drake’s trip around the world, which I think is also the same location where the ship set sail for the New World and the Carolina colony — the vessel which would have carried the mother of Virginia Dare, the first white baby born of English parents in America. (That’s the whole Lost Colony story). I loved seeing the sites related to Nelson which are now gone — thanks to the Nazis, and those that thankfully remain. As a Patrick O’Brian fan, I got such a thrill being on-board the Victory, and I adore the Warrior.

      And I did get to visit the Mary Rose exhibition. I can’t even imagine being witness to such a tragedy; reminded me of the witness stories the night the Titanic sank, the sounds of people screaming, calling for help, dying. For Henry…you do wonder what went through his mind as he watched the loss of that mighty ship, especially when you are the man who has dared Popes, established your own Church, made yourself Supreme Head, and considers yourself God’s representative on Earth. Did it shake him to the core, even a little? Did he feel a bit of mortality in that moment?

      Anyway, I’ve got to get back there one day. Well, I was there for a day visit back in 2009, but my friend and I only went aboard the Victory, then visited the maritime museum. Due to transportation problems in 2005, I missed out on Porchester and Southsea, but they’ll be on my list for next time!

  7. Andy says:

    You’re right, Dawn, and having the gun ports low down to keep the weight low would be part of that, which would make crew discipline all the more vital in preventing these types of incidents. In a sense it’s an occupational hazard – but one that could be easily avoided. I guess it’s partly the result of the reluctance of people to join a life at sea; hence the need for foreign captives, mercenaries and converts, and press gangs and the like at various times. As you say, life was cheap and there may have been an attitude of this is the King’s anointed ship – it can’t happen to us… although Carew seemed aware of the possibilities and problems. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that everyone was too scared to broach the subject of crewing and design with Henry…

  8. Anne Barnhill says:

    Carol,
    I can’t wait to visit Portsmouth when I get to England someday. My husband really wants to see those ships, too as he used to build model ships. It would be awesome to see those artifacts up close and personal!

    1. Carol Mertens says:

      It is so well worth the visit.

      Sometimes I think Portsmouth is considered a poor cousin, however its steeped in History and the surrounding countryside is absolutely Beautiful.

      Enjoy the trip.

      Carol

  9. i am doing a history assignment for uni and have found this soooooooooooo helpful

  10. BanditQueen says:

    What a shock it must have been for the King and Lady Carew to witness the sinking of this wonderful ship, the pride of the navy and to hear the screams of the dying must have been really distressing. It is a great thing that we have her now to study and know what life was like for the ordinary sailor and soldier during a battle as well as life at sea. The experts have done a great job with the new museum and the thousands of items there to get a feel for the way things happened that day. Documentary evidence seems to support that she was not overloaded, that she was hit by the French, that there was not a sudden wind, and that the sailors were working on her to cover a large hole long before water came in through the gun ports. But there is also debate on a number of theories. We will know the truth one day I am sure.

  11. Torben Retboll says:

    “Secrets of the Dead: What sank the Mary Rose?” is a documentary program that was broadcast when? 2000 or 2013? and on what channel? Channel 4? In this program a group of experts concludes that a combination of different factor was the reason why the ship sank. The factors are:

    (1) new guns made the ship lie low in the water

    (2) many men on the ship – perhaps 400, perhaps even 600 – made the ship lie low in the water

    (3) a large number of the men were on top meaning that the centre of gravity was raised meaning the ship was unstable

    (4) the gun ports were open as the ship turned, so water could enter the ship

    (5) a gust of wind hit the ship as it was turning and this made the ship heel so much that water could enter through the gun ports that were open

    In this program the experts specifically reject the idea that the ship was hit by a French cannonball. They say this was not the reason why it sank.

    An article by Jasper Copping in the Telegraph (15 November 2008) claims that the ship was indeed hit by a French cannonball. According to this article, the notion that the ship was overloaded by guns and crew is completely wrong.

    This article promotes the opposite view. It is not easy to decide which theory we should believe.

  12. Torben Retboll says:

    Regarding the documentary film “Secrets of the Dead: What sank the Mary Rose?”

    It seems it was broadcast on Channel 4 in the year 2000.

    It was posted on you tube in 2013.

  13. Banditqueen says:

    With modern science you would think that we would be able to test which theory is correct. The original documentary showed several different things, most of them speculation. Nobody knows exactly how many men were on board, if she was over loaded although it seems unlikely as she was in port for several days being prepared and couldn’t sail for a few days because of the wind being down. The wind didn’t suddenly come up, it came up gradually and to the extent that the fleet could now sail. There were two possible points at which the Mary Rose could be hit. One was a slight hit in port, which wasn’t a problem, the other from a gallyass a low laying gun boat used by the French to get close up to the English fleet. Small canon on board were swift and shot from the front of the vessel. The painting shows these boats firing and hiting their targets. A French report says she was hit. The English said the wind suddenly got up, caught her, she keeled and woosh, down she went. Carew, an inexperienced commander had said her crew spoke many languages and there would be confusion, rushing to fix any damage, see to the injured, smoke, canon fire, etc to contend with. Efforts to fix a hole apparently failed, she turned with gun ports open, the water was already coming in and her crew tried to ground her on the sandbanks she was heading for. They didn’t have enough time and the Mary Rose sank. The English denied the truth and have denied it ever since. Surely science can solve it now with the new museum being cutting-edge.

  14. Banditqueen says:

    As we see over the years a number of theories have emerged but some can be dismissed as our knowledge and science improves. Basically she was hit by a French long attack vessel, low in the water and the crew were actually working on a small hole just before she keeled over. She wasn’t over manned or over gunned and before this had been unable to sail due to calm weather. She was manoeuvring fine before she turned with her gun ports open. Most of her crew were below and became trapped on the gun decks or working with ordinance and to repair damage. She fired and turned to fire again and either because of the wind or the damage below caused her to take on water quickly and she went over onto her side. This is challenged by one fact, she didn’t go down at once because she tried to head for the sandbanks and to beach so as she could make repairs and safely abandon ship. However, she was unable to do so as she took on water more quickly because she hadn’t closed her gun ports and the sheer weight pulled her over and her crew drowned. 37 people, most probably the archers who would be on the upper decks but over 400 men lost their lives. It was a sad sad day, to drive off the French, but to lose so many lives and the pride of the English fleet was devastating.

    Henry watched on the fortified castle and he too expressed grief at the loss of his men and his flagship. He saw this with the wife of Captain Peter Carew who was killed on the Mary Rose. She had been launched in 1510 at the start of his reign and underwent three refits. Henry saw to all of this personally and analysis shows he only used the best oak and yew, not always from English trees but those high in the alps which are stronger. Henry formed centres of production of iron ore and bronze throughout the country and his canon were top quality. The half dozen or so Canon in the museum are of the finest craftsmanship. What ever else the ship didn’t sink because of poor quality building or design.

    The biggest clue to what may have gone wrong comes from a later source which is suspicious and may not be entirely dependable. The brother of the Captain wrote a biography of his late brother in which he claimed his brother said the crew were unruly and disorganised and were difficult to command. However, Carew was not used to command and evidence has shown many of the crew came from abroad. Henry used some 170 Flanders and Italian mercenaries in his crew from 1537 to 1545 as regular sailors and soldiers on his flagship. The chaos and smoke from the guns, together with a language problem and shouted orders, the noise and smoke from battery, water pouring in and panic to get that under control, all of these could be the true origin of those later words, which also are designed to protect the reputation of an unseasoned commander.

    The bones of the crew also revealed quite interesting information about the make-up of the crew and the way they died as well as the jobs they did in the crew and their diet and health. A good number of the men were over six foot and they were bowmen and one man had a dodgy knee and went from being a gunner to a cook. Besides the life events on board you could see were men had been injured and hurt and so medical care was good as they had lived. The crew had personal items, they had games and religious items, including rosary because beads made from ivory or bone and mess dishes with HR had been provided by the King. It was more than a crew, it was a noisy, boisterous, loud, vibrant, multilingual and very active community of people who served on the same ship time and again.

    Rest in peace all of the crew and the Captain of the Mary Rose lost at sea and found again. Amen

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