1545, WHO SANK THE MARY ROSE?

Reviewed by: DAVID CHILDS

No one knows more about the warship Mary Rose than the archaeologist Dr Peter Marsden.  He wrote and edited two of the five volumes that make up the massive (2,300 pages) detailed Archaeology of the Mary Rose and his determination to share as much of that encyclopaedic knowledge as possible is most evident in this well illustrated book.  The result is like being fed vitamin enriched porridge, bowls of which have to be consumed before one gets a chance to taste the toast and marmalade which is the answer to the question posed on the cover.  In fact, the title is erroneous.  Seeking to come up with a modern catchy phrase the publisher has veered away from a truer indication of content which might be All you ever wanted to know about the Mary Rose and a lot more Besides for one has to wait until Chapter 19 for the Hercule Poirot moment.  Neither is it just the Mary Rose that benefits from the author’s eye for detail:  we learn a lot about Francis I of France and eight pages are devoted to the peregrinations of the Imperial Ambassador, Van der Delft, as he wanders from London to Portsmouth to witness the arrival of the French prior to the Battle of the Solent in which Mary Rose was lost.  There is, thus, a mind-boggling amount of detail in this book which, pouring through the open portals of the eyes, threatens to overwhelm in much the same way as the inrush of water through her open gun ports overwhelmed Mary Rose.

This is the heart of the matter. When Herald of Free Enterprise capsized off Zeebrugge in March 1987 it was obvious that the disaster had been caused by the fact her bow-doors had been left open – the real question was, why?  The same applies to Mary Rose.  The evidence shows that she foundered following an ingress of water through her open gun-ports:  the real issue is why were they left open when the ship heeled violently during a planned tactical manoeuvre?

Since her discovery on the sea-bed many researchers have concluded that, contrary to contemporary and near-contemporary portrayals, each of Mary Rose’s castles had only one deck.  The author sleuths out a couple more which not only solves the problem of accommodating the more than 400 men embarked but also gives an indication that the ship was probably top-heavy and unstable when she sailed on her last short voyage.  Certainly, an increase in her heavy armament following a refit in 1536 would have caused her lower gun-ports to become closer acquainted with the water-line so that when she did heel over it is estimated an angle of only about 14 degrees was needed for the water to pour in.  A well-trained crew would have been aware of this danger and would have had a drill in place to ensure that the ports were slammed shut as soon as the order to ‘ware ship’ was given.  Yet Marsden exonerates the crew, so ‘who sank the Mary Rose?’  For your reviewer to provide the answer would be to act as a spoiler, so suffice it to say that the author concludes his forensics by stating, ‘The loss of the Mary Rose was due to her being modified beyond her safe capabilities…’.  By whom?  On the orders of whom? That is where this lengthy chase leads us but I would not expect many general readers to hold on until the denouement.