477 years ago today, on 19th July 1545, Henry VIII's beloved flagship, the Mary Rose, left Portsmouth Harbour to meet the French fleet in the Battle of the Solent. Shortly after joining the battle, disaster struck - while the King watched from the walls of Southsea Castle, the Mary Rose fired her cannon and was turning when she suddenly tipped over and sank beneath the water within minutes, losing all but around 35 of the 500 men on board. Historians have several ideas about why the 35 year old, experienced ship would fail so catastrophically, but the most commonly held idea is that a gust of wind caused her to lean as she turned, so water rushed into the open gun ports.
After an unsuccessful Tudor effort to raise the ship, the Mary Rose lay abandoned until 1965, when Alexander McKee's team saw something odd in a sonar scan while investigating shipwrecks in the Solent. When 3 large timber frames were discovered in 1971, McKee knew he'd found the Mary Rose! The main excavation between 1979 and 1981 involved 500 volunteer divers and had HRH the Prince of Wales as president, and on October 11th 1982, suspended from a frame and using an enormous floating crane, the fragile wooden hull was finally raised out of the water. Today the remains of the ship and thousands of artefacts salvaged from the wreck can be seen in the Mary Rose Museum, in Portsmouth's Historic Dockyard.
On our way to the ferry port before our trip to Spain last month, we had a free afternoon in Portsmouth and decided to finally get round to visiting the Mary Rose Museum. We're both very interested in Tudor history and were very excited to see Henry VIII's ship. The Mary Rose is such a significant find that the wreck has been referred to as Britain's Pompeii - the wreck site was incredibly rich in artefacts that give an extremely detailed insight in Tudor life.
Entering the Historic Dockyard, we were surrounded by treasures from British Maritime history. Walking past the pride of Queen Victoria's fleet, HMS Warrior and HMS M33, one of only 3 British warships from WWI still in existence and the only surviving British ship from the Gallipoli campaign, we found the Mary Rose museum next to the dockyard's most famous resident: Admiral Nelson's HMS Victory, the flagship from the Battle of Trafalgar. If you're lucky, you might even see the Royal Navy's most recent additions, the aircraft carriers HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Queen Elizabeth, the largest and most powerful vessel ever built for the Royal Navy!
Our visit to the Mary Rose museum began with a video introduction by an actor playing Henry VIII about his flagship, and Experience 1545 - When their world ended - an immersive audio visual experience about the Mary Rose's final moments at the disastrous Battle of the Solent, before being released into the exhibition. The first displayed items we saw was a beautiful cannon decorated with Henry's Tudor rose and the ship's bell. And then we saw the ship...
The remains of the Mary Rose are vast - much bigger than we had expected, skeletal and ghostly. While one half of the wooden ship has rotted away in the waters, a large section of the other half is in amazing condition, leaving the ship bisected, which meant that we could look inside at the ribs and decks. Each floor of the exhibition looks out at the height of a different deck, with the top floor leading out into the airlocked, climate controlled chamber containing the ship itself. Bathed in a blue light and with sound effects of creaking wood, it's an eerie experience - we felt like we were diving with the wreck!
Exploring the different floors of the exhibition was surprisingly moving. The Mary Rose is much more than just a celebrity ship, famous for belonging to Henry VIII, it's where nearly 500 people lost their lives and the museum beautifully tells their stories, piecing together clues from their personal belongings: a bowl with the owner's name carved onto it, leather boots, combs and shaving brushes, a velvet hat - even the skeleton of the ship's dog. The physical remains of around half the crew have also been found, and the museum has recreated some of their faces (like Meet the Ancestors - remember that tv programme?) - you can get a real insight into people like the ship's cook, carpenter and an archer.
If you stick around until closing time, a short film is shown on the wall behind the ship about the excavation project, with television footage of the raising of the Mary Rose, which was really interesting. Prince Charles even had a dive down to the site during the process!
The Mary Rose museum exceeded our expectations by a long long way - the collection of finds and personal possessions was just staggering, from enormous cannon, long bows, tools, cooking pots and even a brick oven, to personal chests still packed with precious items like gaming dice, mirrors, ink pots and rosaries. British Pompeii is a well deserved nickname - the shipwreck site provided an amazing time capsule of Tudor England, and the site itself is still protected today -who knows what else might be hidden in the silt at the bottom of the English Channel? If you'd like to see some of the finds, the Mary Rose museum has an online artefact gallery here.
Visiting the Mary Rose Museum
The Mary Rose museum is open from 10am every day except Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
You can book either a single attraction ticket, a ticket covering 3 attractions in 12 months or the Ultimate Explorer which lasts 12 months and covers ALL the attractions at Portsmouth Historic Docklands including a harbour tour! Save money by booking your tickets online.
Be aware that the Mary Rose museum is located within Portsmouth Naval base and full bag searches are in place as soon as you enter the historic docklands. Don't bring anything you wouldn't take to an airport, and tripods are also not permitted on site.
Disclosure: We were gifted free entry to the Mary Rose museum in return for this blog and Instagram content, but we were not paid to post and as always, all opinions are our own!