History Column - October/November 22
Raising The Rose
Looking back four decades to October 1982, when the Mary Rose was finally raised from its watery grave.
As famous warships go, it’s right up there with Cutty Sark, HMS Queen Elizabeth and the Golden Hind, yet what perhaps makes the Mary Rose so special is not just its age – it was sunk in 1545 off Portsmouth in the Battle of the Solent – but also the fact that despite its deterioration across over 400 years off the south coast saw it split into three pieces, large sections of the hull remained intact.
The ship’s demise has always been something of a tale of folly on the part of the captain and crew. Several eyewitnesses described an account where the vessel had reportedly exhausted its gunfire from one side. It attempted to turn so as to utilise the gunports on the other, but a sudden heavy breeze unbalanced it. Water rushed in through the open gunports and the crew found itself powerless to correct the sudden imbalance, scrambling for safety on the upper deck as the ship began to sink rapidly.
Subsequently, ammunition, equipment, loose artillery, supplies and storage containers came loose, crashing down on the crew. It is said that only 35 of those on board escaped, with 90% perishing as the ship dragged them, trapped, to the depths of the Solent.
Wind forward to 1836, when a group of five fishermen caught their nets on timbers protruding from the bottom of the channel. They contacted a diver to help them remove the hindrance, and on 10th June Henry Abbinett became the first person to see the Mary Rose in almost 300 years.
Then, over a century later, and with increasing interest in bringing the ship back to the surface, the Mary Rose became one of the first to be protected under the new Protection of Wrecks Act in 1973. This meant that, for the first time, a British privately funded project – with the employment of new, groundbreaking techniques and modern scientific standards – could proceed without having to auction off part of the findings to finance its activities. In other words, everything retrieved from the wreck was recovered, recorded and kept.
These totalled over 26,000 artefacts and pieces of timber, plus around half of the supposed 400-plus crew members.
As a self-contained community on board, the ship was stocked with victuals (food and drink), casks, clothing, games, books, plates, a sundial, musical instruments, a tankard, plus countless tools. Animal remains were also found - skeletons of a rat, a frog and a dog.
Indeed, so significant was its recovery in 1982 that the Mary Rose became the first historic shipwreck museum in the UK to receive government accreditation and funding.
However, the actual raising of the vessel was anything but simple. After several initial ideas were rebuffed, it was decided that the hull would be emptied of its contents and strengthened with steel braces and frames. It would then be lifted to the surface and transferred to a cradle. While its condition had been preserved for over four centuries by mud, its exposure, as teams dug through the silt, meant decay was rapidly speeding up, and it therefore had to be brought to the surface quickly.
Divers on the project belonging to the Royal Engineers were pulled because of the outbreak of the Falklands War, with the method of lifting the hull repeatedly revised.
Yet on the morning of 11th October 1982, the final lift began, with Prince Charles and other dignitaries watching from nearby in boats. The first parts of the boat to reach the surface in over 400 years broke through at 9.03am.
The raising of the Mary Rose has since become regarded as one of the most ambitious and expensive projects in the history of maritime archaeology, but also an event that enhances and lengthens the legacy of this iconic vessel.