12 Facts About the ‘Mary Rose,’ Henry VIII’s Legendary Warship

King Henry VIII built the English Royal Navy around his favorite warship, the ‘Mary Rose,’ which sank under mysterious circumstances in 1545. The shipwreck was raised from the seabed more than 400 years later—and scientists are still finding clues in the timbers.
The preserved hull of the Tudor warship ‘Mary Rose.’
The preserved hull of the Tudor warship ‘Mary Rose.’ / Geni, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

The Mary Rose, a carrack-style, four-masted sailing ship, was King Henry VIII's favorite naval vessel. It sank  in 1545, under still-mysterious circumstances, and lay on the bottom of the Solent (the channel between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight in the UK) for more than 400 years. 

In 1982, the shipwreck was raised from the water and researchers embarked on a decades-long effort to preserve the world’s only intact Tudor warship. Here’s what you should know about the legendary vessel, which is now on permanent display in Portsmouth.

Shipwrights needed about 40 acres of trees to build the Mary Rose.

An illustration of the ‘Mary Rose’ in the Anthony Roll, a manuscript containing descriptions of all of the Tudor navy's warships in the 1540s.
An illustration of the ‘Mary Rose’ in the Anthony Roll, a manuscript containing descriptions of all of the Tudor navy's warships in the 1540s. /

When Henry VIII became king in 1509, England was under threat of attack from France and Spain. Bolstering his country’s small fleet of warships was a priority. Over the course of his reign, Henry oversaw the steady growth of the English fleet from just five ships in 1509 to 53 vessels by 1547, which effectively established the English Royal Navy.

The Mary Rose, constructed at the Portsmouth Dockyard in 1510, was one of the first new ships to be built. Enormous timbers from ancient trees were needed to craft its parts, and modern researchers estimate it took around 600 oak trees, equivalent to about 40 acres of forest, to build the 672-ton vessel. Historians estimate the Mary Rose measured between 110 and 148 feet in length, carried up to 80 cannons, and sailed with a crew of 400 to 500 sailors.

The Mary Rose had a sister ship.

The ‘Peter Pomegranate,’ similar to but smaller than the ‘Mary Rose.’
The ‘Peter Pomegranate,’ similar to but smaller than the ‘Mary Rose.’ / Gerry Bye, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When Henry VIII ordered the Mary Rose, he also commissioned the Peter Pomegranate as its 450-ton sister ship. Those catchy monikers stemmed from religious and royal symbols: the Mary Rose was likely named for the Virgin Mary and the Tudor rose, a symbol of Henry’s dynasty. The Peter Pomegranate was probably named after Saint Peter, the patron saint of shipbuilders, and the botanical emblem of Katherine of Aragon, Henry’s new wife.

The Mary Rose served in the Tudor navy for 33 years.

‘The Embarkation of Henry VIII,’ a 1520s painting of the Tudor navy.
‘The Embarkation of Henry VIII,’ a 1520s painting of the Tudor navy. / Artist Unknown, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Mary Rose was the pride of Henry VIII’s fleet and sailed into battle numerous times in its 33-year career, most often against Henry’s arch enemy, the French. Its greatest triumph came during its first foray at the Battle of St. Mathieu in 1512. Sir Edward Howard, admiral of the English fleet, somewhat controversially chose to make the newly built Mary Rose the squadron’s flagship instead of a larger ship, the Regent. The English convoy surprised the French ships in Berthaume Bay, near Brest, France, and the Mary Rose promptly showed off its impressive firepower by shooting off the mainmast of the enemy ship Grand Louise.

Why the Mary Rose sank remains a mystery.

Mary Rose Compass
The box that held the ship’s compass. / Epics/GettyImages

On July 19, 1545, the Mary Rose sank in the Solent in a battle against the French navy. The only known eyewitness account of the sinking comes from a Flemish sailor who survived the disaster. According to his account, the Mary Rose had fired its starboard guns and was turning around when a rogue gust of wind caught its sails, causing water to enter the open gunports and flood the interior.

Historians have suggested that human error might have been at play. It was Captain Sir George Carew’s first naval command and his inexperience may have caused him to mishandle the ship. Some doubt the Flemish sailor’s account because the Mary Rose had encountered far worse weather conditions in 33 years than a mere gust of wind, and instead argue that a recent refit of new guns had made the Mary Rose suddenly more unstable and vulnerable to listing. And yet, the vessel had sailed all the way from London to Portsmouth carrying the guns without incident. We may never know the exact reason for the Mary Rose’s demise.

Hundreds of people died its the shipwreck.

Around 500 sailors, soldiers, servants, and gentlemen were on board the Mary Rose when it sank, and only 30 or so are known to have survived. Analysis of the some of the skeletons found in the wreck revealed that most were young men in their twenties. Recent DNA evidence has shown that, contrary to common assumptions about Tudor Britain, some 50 percent of the hundreds of skeletons retrieved from the Mary Rose were not white English individuals. In fact, the crew was diverse: a carpenter from the Iberian Peninsula, a gentleman from Italy, and an archer from North Africa were among their number. 

Almost immediately, people tried to raise the ship.

Watercolor illustrations of a rusted iron cannon and wooden carriage recovered from the ‘Mary Rose’ in the 1830s
Watercolor illustrations of a rusted iron cannon and wooden carriage recovered from the ‘Mary Rose’ by John Deane in the 1830s. / Southsea Castle Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Unlike some famously inaccessible shipwrecks, the Mary Rose sank in just 40 feet of water on its starboard side. Officials immediately began efforts to raise the ship and recover its many valuable cannons. A Venetian salvage team attached cables to the stricken ship’s hull and tried to haul it up using the power of two large vessels, but after that plan failed, the wreck was abandoned. 

In 1836, local fishermen reported catching their nets on an underwater wreck. A diver named John Deane, who had invented a diving helmet with his brother Charles in the 1820s, investigated the shipwreck on behalf of the Admiralty and recovered some timbers and cannons. Based on those items, the government confirmed it was the Mary Rose. However, because of the ship’s vast size, any plan to recover the entire vessel was beyond official capabilities.

The recovered timber was fashioned into souvenirs and trinkets or auctioned off. After 1840, the location of the wreck was forgotten once again.

The Mary Rose was rediscovered in 1971 using John Deane’s map.

Military historian and diver Alexander McKee began researching the location of the Mary Rose in the 1960s, after he realized that its exact position at the bottom of the Solent had been lost in the mists of time. McKee gathered a team of divers and embarked on Project Solent Ships, ostensibly a mission to document the many shipwrecked vessels in the Solent, but really he was laser-focused on finding the Mary Rose before it could be plundered by unscrupulous divers. In 1966 he found a map drawn by John Deane 130 years earlier showing where the ship lay. Every weekend he fundraised for the project and completed dive after dive with his team. It wasn’t until 1971 that they finally discovered the remains of the once-great warship.

Even with modern technology, researchers had a hard time raising it from the seabed.

Workers raise the ‘Mary Rose’ shipwreck using purpose-built lifting frames
Workers raise the ‘Mary Rose’ using purpose-built lifting frames / Kypros/GettyImages

Once the wreck was located, teams of volunteer divers surveyed the site to build a picture of how much of the ship was still intact. Archaeologists were elated to discover two decks of the ship had survived, though the bow (its front) was missing. Many of the artifacts were recovered first, with underwater archaeologists laboriously working to preserve and record every item. The next big problem was figuring out how to raise the ship without it becoming damaged by the suction effect of the silt covering the seabed. A purpose-built, net-like frame was made to support the waterlogged ship, and then attached with metal cables to an enormous lifting frame.

More than 60 million people tuned in to watch the operation.

After more than a decade of delicate work, the Mary Rose was gently raised from the water on October 11, 1982, as more than 60 million people watched the event on live TV. Prince Charles (now King Charles III) was able to get a close view of the dramatic operation from a nearby boat.

Another shipwreck offered clues for preserving the Mary Rose.

A detail of the ‘Vasa,’ the 17th-century Swedish shipwreck now preserved in a Stockholm museum.
A detail of the ‘Vasa,’ the 17th-century Swedish shipwreck now preserved in a Stockholm museum. / Charles Labatut/500px Plus/Getty Images

As soon as the Mary Rose was removed from its protective layer of silt and exposed to the air, bacteria, fungi, and oxygen began to react with the ancient timbers, putting the ship at risk of decay. Fortunately, about 20 years earlier, researchers working on another famous shipwreck had come up with ways of preserving such materials

Scientists and archaeologists working on the Mary Rose were able to learn from work on the Vasa, the 17th-century Swedish warship that sank minutes after beginning its maiden voyage, which had been raised from Stockholm Harbor in 1961. 

Waterlogged ships can shrink, crack, and become unstable as they dry out. To counteract these effects, both the Vasa and the Mary Rose were constantly sprayed with mists of water and then injected with polyethylene glycol (PEG), a polymer that would prevent any shrinkage of the timbers. It was a very slow process, and it took until 2013 for all the water in the timbers of the Mary Rose to be removed and replaced with PEG. The ship’s hull, by this point housed in a specially made museum so visitors could witness the preservation, needed to be dried out next. This was achieved with air-conditioners, which kept the air around the ship at 55 percent humidity and maintained a constant temperature between 64°F and 68°F.

Nineteen thousand objects have been recovered from the wreck.

Mary Rose gold coins.
Gold coins recovered from the ‘Mary Rose.’ / Epics/GettyImages

Objects recovered from the Mary Rose offer an unprecedented glimpse into the lives of ordinary Tudor sailors. One of the interesting finds was all the food left on board, which lent some insights into the ship’s rations. Nine barrels contained joints of beef and others were stuffed with pork. There were also huge North Sea cod measuring over a meter (3.3 feet) long stored in baskets. Other foodstuffs included plums, pea pods, and peppercorns.

One of the most numerous objects found on the Mary Rose was, rather tellingly, the nit comb. Eighty-two nit combs made from wood and ivory have been uncovered, with narrow prongs to remove nits (which are the eggs of lice) and fleas from hair and beards. A couple even had nits still attached!

A museum was built around the Mary Rose while it was being preserved.

The ‘Mary Rose’ museum (the oval in the center of the photo) was built around the ship in Portsmouth dockyard.
The ‘Mary Rose’ museum (the oval in the center of the photo) was built around the ship in Portsmouth dockyard. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

The Mary Rose museum is in Portsmouth’s historic dockyard and displays not only objects found in the Mary Rose, but also the ship itself. The design of the museum is unique: It has been undergoing preservation in dry dock since 1982 and could not be moved, so the museum was built around the ship. During construction, the wreck remained sealed inside a special hotbox that controlled the temperature and humidity. When the process of preservation was completed in 2016, the hotbox was removed, and today people can come face to face with Henry VIII’s historic ship without being separated from it by glass. 

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