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Lived here: 500 men and a dog

Georgia Grimond steps aboard the Mary Rose

Georgia Grimond | May 31st 2013

All I knew of the Mary Rose was that she was a Tudor warship that sank off the south coast of England and 30 years ago she’d been hauled from the seabed and given a temporary home in Portsmouth. Friends had been on family outings and school trips and reported back that they had seen her being doused in water, like a beached whale. Then I heard she had a new home, a purpose-built dry dock, carefully constructed around her. I went expecting a museum, and hopefully a gift shop.

Low, curvaceous and covered in slick, grey cladding, the museum itself looks like that washed-up whale. Inside, the ship is still damp, and will be for another five years while she is slowly dried out. What remains of her sits in an air-tight chamber with exhibition spaces at the bow and stern. The missing side has been recreated so visitors feel as though they are standing in the hull. The lights are dim, the ceilings low and it is surprising small, particularly when I found out that there had been close to 500 men crammed on board—and a dog.

The Mary Rose is a veritable treasure chest, a moment in 1545 when the clocks stopped. As well as a section of the hull, over 19,000 objects have been recovered from the seabed, from skeletons to shoes, from rope to peppercorns. There is no other comparable snapshot of Tudor life.

What was it like on board? Fairly hellish: rats, rickets, no room to eat or sleep, fierce hierarchy and the French navy just over the water. What transports us back, so vividly, are the objects, many of which have been perfectly preserved. 

  • Combs 82 in fact, some with their very own Tudor nits

  • Games: crude games were scratched into barrel lids, but a forerunner to a backgammon set was found in the Carpenter’s cabin. It’s made of oak, larch and yew and would have once had hinges made of iron

  • Beads: the Mary Rose sailed during the Reformation yet many of the crew were secreting rosary beads aboard

  • Jars: one of them, the barber surgeon's jar, was made of pewter and filled with a eucalyptus concoction. When it was pulled up it still smelt minty fresh

  • Cannons: the inscription on one reads: “King of England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and France”. Listing France was a statement of hope by Henry VIII, rather than fact

Some of the plainest exhibits are the most powerful. In 1982 Christopher Dobbs, a maritime archaeologist who has dived the Mary Rose since the late Seventies, pulled one very ordinary item from the orlop deck. Not many people can have held a wooden shovel in their hands knowing that the last person to touch it was a Tudor sailor. 

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