On 19 July 1545, King Henry VIII watched in horror while his 36-year-old flagship the HMS Mary Rose suddenly capsized during the Battle of the Solent. The warship at that point had served for 34 years in the Tudor Navy, leading the attack in wars against France, Scotland, and Brittany. During the Battle of the Solent, the English were becalmed in Portsmouth Harbor off Southsea Castle and unable to maneuver when the French fleet advanced. The Mary Rose suddenly heeled to starboard, and water poured through the open gunports. She went down between the invading French fleet and the huge English carrack Henri Grace á Dieu. Of her crew of nearly 500 men, perhaps 30 survived.
History retains only one eyewitness account of her sinking: a surviving Flemish crewman told an ambassador to the Holy Roman Emperor that the ship had fired her starboard guns and was turning to fire from port when she was caught in a strong gust of wind and capsized. Later accounts name insubordination of the crew, instability, and French guns as the reason for her demise.
Attempts were made to resurrect the Mary Rose within days of the sinking, but salvage attempts over the next two years only managed to raise rigging and guns from the wreck. She was rediscovered in 1836, when fishermen caught their nets on the ship’s timbers, but it was not until 1965 that sonar scans led divers to her actual position. For the next two decades, divers worked to excavate the ship under the supervision of the Mary Rose Trust, with Prince Charles acting as president. Her hull was raised from the bottom in October of 1982, with the Prince watching.
The Mary Rose Museum reopened on the grounds of HM Naval Base Portsmouth in July 2016, 469 years after the ship’s demise and 34 years after her raising. The long wait was worth it.
A convincing manikin of King Henry, portly in rich attire and obviously past his physical prime, welcomes visitors to the museum that celebrates not only the Mary Rose but more generally the Tudor Navy, Henry’s “army of the sea.” This navy, as inventoried in 1546 in the drawings of the Anthony Roll, became the Royal Navy that gave Great Britain centuries of command of the sea and control of the world’s burgeoning trade.
Three decks of exhibits entertain and educate visitors. The 13 fascinating principal exhibits are wrapped in tiers around what remains of Mary Rose’s starboard hull, and include one about her loss and several on the more than 19,000 artifacts found at the wreck site. These include her ship’s bell, great guns, tools, musical instruments, and evocative (some would say spooky) reconstructions of several crewmembers based on skeletal remains uncovered in the wreck. Two exhibits, “Science and the Mary Rose” and “Divers’ Stories,” describe her discovery, excavation, 1982 recovery, and further preservation. Naturally, the museum houses a café and gift shop.
The museum is superb, a window opening directly onto the Tudor Navy, providing a unique insight into the technology of naval warfare and the stuff of life afloat nearly five centuries ago. Located on the grounds of the historic Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, the museum is set only yards away from later stalwarts such as HMS Victory (Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar in 1805) and Warrior (1860, an example of an early steam-powered, iron-hulled warship), and HMS M-33, a nameless World War I M-29-class monitor (the only surviving veteran of the war’s catastrophic Gallipoli campaign). A nearby cluster of mini-museums makes a visit here all the more essential for students of sea power of any age.