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The sea gives up clues about its Tudor dead

by
29 June 2010

Artefacts found on the Mary Rose continue to suggest new insights into life on board, say Mary Kinoulty and Clare Williamson

THE Mary Rose, King Henry VIII’s favourite warship, sank on 19 July 1545, during a battle against the French, off the coast of Portsmouth.

During the 1970s, the wreck was rediscovered and excavated. Divers were amazed to discover thousands of Tudor artefacts that had been preserved by the silt of the Solent. These objects give a unique insight into all aspects of life on board a Tudor warship.

The raising of the Mary Rose, in 1982, was watched by 60 million people worldwide. This was just the start of more than 25 years of con­servation, cataloguing, and research of the ship and her contents.

Understanding of Tudor warfare, navigation, medicine, and ship de­sign has been transformed by evidence from the Mary Rose. Many items are unique — the still shawm, for example, the forerunner of the oboe.

Of particular interest are the everyday items, many engraved with the owners’ individual marks, in­cluding wooden bowls and nit combs, which do not often survive from the medieval period. These were found side by side with high-status artefacts used on board the ship by the officers.

Of particular interest are the everyday items, many engraved with the owners’ individual marks, in­cluding wooden bowls and nit combs, which do not often survive from the medieval period. These were found side by side with high-status artefacts used on board the ship by the officers.

Personal items, such as shoes and clothing, bring us closer to the ship’s crew. The collection of more than 19,000 objects provides an extra­ordinary view of life towards the end of the reign of Henry VIII.

One of the most intriguing as­pects of life illuminated by the Mary Rose collection is the religious practice of the day.

One of the most intriguing as­pects of life illuminated by the Mary Rose collection is the religious practice of the day.

THE titles of the King in 1545 are in­scribed on a bronze gun from the ship, cast in London in 1537: “Henry the Eighth by the Grace of God, King of England and France, Defender of the Faith, Lord of Ireland and on Earth Supreme Head of the Church of England.”

By the time of the sinking of the Mary Rose, however, the break from Rome was complete, and the monas­teries in England had been dissolved. This com­plex period is usually charted by historians using written records. The evidence from the Mary Rose offers a different perspective, described in detail by Mark Red­knap in Before the Mast: Life and death aboard the Mary Rose (edited by Julie Gardiner with Michael J. Allen, Mary Rose Trust, 2005).

The ship provides a rich seam of evidence about life in a deeply reli­gious age. The naming of the Mary Rose, and her sister ship, the Peter Pomegranate, is a reflection of the intertwining of Church and State.

Many believe that the Mary Rose was named after Henry VIII’s sister, Mary, and the emblem of the Tudor dynasty. It seems much more likely, however, that the ship was named in honour of the Virgin Mary, and the Tudor rose.

This mirrors the naming of the Peter Pomegranate, which links St Peter with the emblem of Catherine of Aragon. This seems likely, as the ship was commissioned shortly after the King’s marriage to Catherine in 1509.

No extant crew list for the Mary Rose has been found; so there is no way of knowing whether there was a chaplain on board. Certainly, there is no discrete collection of artefacts that could be identified clearly as sacred vessels. And yet, as Dr Red­knap points out, it is highly likely that on such an important ship there would have been at least one priest on board to minister to the crew.

WHAT is immediately strik­ing is how much religion was an integral part of everyday life for both officers and crew. A wide range of artefacts of varying social status incorporates religious words and symbols.

A number of wristguards, worn by the archers, are stamped with symbols, including the crucifixion and the crossed keys of St Peter. One wristguard is stamped with “Ave Maria”. Hugh Soar, the author of “The Mary Rose decorated wrist­guards” in Weapons of Warre: The armaments of the Mary Rose (edited by Alexzandra Hildred, to be pub­lished later this year), has established that religious symbolism was a common feature on this essential piece of the archers’ equipment.

A number of wristguards, worn by the archers, are stamped with symbols, including the crucifixion and the crossed keys of St Peter. One wristguard is stamped with “Ave Maria”. Hugh Soar, the author of “The Mary Rose decorated wrist­guards” in Weapons of Warre: The armaments of the Mary Rose (edited by Alexzandra Hildred, to be pub­lished later this year), has established that religious symbolism was a common feature on this essential piece of the archers’ equipment.

The lid of a large wooden tankard, probably owned by a member of the gun crew, which could hold a gallon of beer, is inscribed in Latin with “If God be for us, who can be against us?” At the other end of the social scale, a decorated leather purse is stamped with IHS.

A sundial case was inscribed in Latin with the motto “God will provide.” A leather book-cover and balance case are both inscribed in Latin with “The word of the Lord endures for ever.” This text had also been adopted on the Continent by Lutherans, and it is interesting to speculate whether religious re­formers were on board.

Another book cover is embossed with the words: “Hear, O Lord, my prayer and let my cry come to thee.” Although fragments of pages were photographed when they were first brought to the surface, they could not be saved. Tantalisingly, it proved impossible to decipher the writing.

PERHAPS the most personal religious artefacts are the eight rosaries that were found on the decks of the ship. Unlike the costly rosary found on the Neustra Señora de Atocha, a Spanish wreck that sank in 1622, those found on the Mary Rose were predominantly made from humble materials. Three were made from boxwood, one from bone beads, and four from a com­bination of boxwood, fruit­woods, coloured agate, brass, and silver.

Saying the rosary was still legal in 1545, but mechanical recitation had been banned in 1538. This am­biguous ruling must have been im­possible to police.

This evidence leaves a number of unanswered questions. The most obvious is: to whom did these rosaries belong? Evidence from the human remains has shown that some of the crew were from southern Mediterranean countries, including Spain. Did the rosaries belong to foreign Roman Catholics, or to Eng­lish crew-members who adhered to the old religious practices?

Were they being used? Owning a rosary does not necessarily equate with pious practice. It is interesting to note, however, that only one rosary was packed away in a chest — the others were with their owners. It is impossible to assess the religious beliefs of the crew, but it would ap­pear that rosary beads were in every­day use on the Mary Rose.

THE possessions of individuals on board also provide an in­triguing insight into their lives and faith. A gunner’s chest, found on the main deck, contained a linstock for lighting the guns, a priming wire, and a bo’s’n’s call, or whistle.

THE possessions of individuals on board also provide an in­triguing insight into their lives and faith. A gunner’s chest, found on the main deck, contained a linstock for lighting the guns, a priming wire, and a bo’s’n’s call, or whistle.

It also contained two silver pen­dants, both in the shape of a cross. One is in the form of a Maltese cross, with a red stone, probably a garnet, set in the centre. While under water, it fused with two silver rings. The other pendant is a tiny cross with arms of equal length, just over one centimetre across, made from sheet silver.

Another chest — found between the barber-surgeon’s and the car­penter’s cabins on the main deck — contained carpentry tools, and a whet­stone, as well as personal pos­ses­sions such as shoes, a comb, fishing weights, silver coins, and die.

One of the most beautiful reli­gious items on the ship was found in this chest: a finely carved bone panel, showing two angels in pro­cession with candles. Its original pur­pose is unknown, but it may have been the spine of a prayer book, or a piece from a decorated casket or triptych.

The meaning of this artefact is unknown, but it is clearly religious in character. Interestingly, it dates back to about 1420; so it was already an antique when it was brought on to the Mary Rose. Had it been kept as a family heirloom for sentimental, as well as religious, reasons?

The carpenter also owned a lead badge, which was inside an em­broidered purse in the same chest. It appears to show a kneeling lady with rays of light behind her, which may represent the Virgin Mary. On the back, the date 1542 is shown back­wards.

The use of religious imagery was the subject of much controversy in the 1540s, and the removal of imagery from churches involved strong feelings on both sides. The Mary Rose offers a glimpse of reli­gious practice, but the evidence raises as many questions as it an­swers.

Taken as a whole, the artefacts from the Mary Rose provide evidence of personal devotion at a time of great religious upheaval. It is im­possible to establish the precise reli­gious affiliation of the crew, but it is clear that religion played an im­portant part in their daily lives.

The Mary Rose Trust is running the “500 Public Appeal” to raise £35 million to build a new Mary Rose mu­seum, and fully display the ship’s 19,000 artefacts.

www.maryrose500.org

Mary Kinoulty is head of learning at the Mary Rose Trust. Clare William­son is learning officer at the Mary Rose Trust.

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