The new Mary Rose Museum opened this year, and while I haven’t had the chance to visit yet, it’s a good moment to look back at its fantastic history. BBC News broadcast a short documentary about the raising of the ship and the years of conservation work and this one is really worth a watch because you get some great behind-the-scenes access. It’s really made me consider conservation as a career – if I could only go back to uni!
In the first few decades of Henry VIII’s reign, he devoted a great deal of time to building up the English navy from its weak position, in order to enter the global military stage. Henry wished to relive the glorious victories of England’s past by engaging in war with France. He oversaw the construction of several new ships, including the Mary Rose, the Peter Pomegranate and the Henry Grace a Dieu.
The Mary Rose was built in Portsmouth and launched in July 1511. She was built primarily of oak and weighed 500 tons. While it is a common story that she was named after Henry VIII’s sister Mary, historians assert that it is much more likely that the name was based on the Virgin Mary.
Immediately after construction, the ship engaged in battles with the French in the First French War, first in 1512 and then in 1513. In July 1514 she was placed in reserves for maintenance and subsequently took part in the Second French War, before being kept again in reserve from 1522 to 1545.
The last battle of the Mary Rose was the Battle of the Solent against the French in July 1545. The ship was not sunk due to damage, but right at the start of the battle a malfunction caused it to lean heavily to the right, allowing water to enter. This could not be corrected and the ship began to be damaged by water and falling equipment. The Mary Rose sank very quickly, giving men trapped by nets and equipment no time to escape.
In 1985, three years after the ship was salvaged, Patrick Wright wrote about the Mary Rose in his book On Living in an Old Country: The National Past in Contemporary Britain:
The fact that it sank due to what one commentator admits must have been ‘gross mismanagement’ before even engaging with the threatening French fleet does not appear to have prevented this from being recognised as the real stuff of history by the thousands who followed and celebrated the recovery.
Secretary of State William Paget ordered the ship to be salvaged soon after its sinking and while some guns, rigging and other equipment were retrieved, the hull could not be raised. The Mary Rose then lay forgotten on the bottom of the Solent for nearly 300 years until in 1836 it was rediscovered by fisherman.
The Victorian period saw many objects retrieved from the wreck and while some deteriorated due to inadequate preservation techniques, sketches were made of many objects and interest in the Mary Rose grew.
Modern efforts to salvage the ship were instigated by the Southsea branch of the British Sub-Aqua Club in 1965. The Royal Navy and the Committee for Nautical Archaeology in London were also involved in the project. By 1974 the Committee had support from the National Maritime Museum, the Royal Navy, the BBC and Prince Charles.
The wreck was extensively surveyed and more objects retrieved. Plans for the salvage of the surviving section of hull began to be prepared, drawing on lessons from the salvage of the Swedish warship Vasa in the early 1960s. The methods of raising the wreck were highly contested due to fears that it would not hold together out of the water.
In Spring 1982, the plans began to be put into action. The frame was attached to the hull and slowly eased away from the seabed, before being lifted by a crane onto a specially designed cradle. On 11 October 1982, the full salvage began and the ship broke above the surface at 9.03am. Patrick Wright:
The Mary Rose is raised into the present social imagination, and it makes its entrance from the parallel realm of ‘nature’. It comes into society as if from nowhere.
The notion of the time-capsule situates the Mary Rose in a narrative structure which comes up again and again in various and diverse fables of nationalism.
The conservation process began immediately after the ship reached the surface. The hull and its objects were very sensitive to deterioration after air exposure due to their long rest underwater and so each artefact was immediately stored according to the material it was made of.
The initial aim of most of the conservation was to ensure that none of the material was allowed to dry out, before more permanent methods of preservation could be achieved. So the hull was constantly sprayed with water and kept at a low temperature. Then between 1994 and 2010, the hull was sprayed with polyethylene glycol, a substance commonly used for preserving old wood. Over the sixteen years, this substance replaced the water in the timbers with wax. Since 2010, the hull has been in a phase of controlled air drying.
The hull was on display to visitors during this process, however it was only visible from behind a glass barrier in a covered dry dock. A separate museum was opened in the 1980s to explain the history of the ship and display artefacts. The new museum opened in May this year, finally uniting the hull with its objects and the history of the ship and its crew.
Efforts have been made to reconstruct the lives and physical attributes of the lost crew members, to make the ship and its era seem more real to the public. Even though only part of the hull remains, the museum reconstructs the other sections to give a better impression of the entire ship. Patrick Wright:
Is the Mary Rose still the Mary Rose? While the actual planks remain the same, there can be little doubt that, like the Ship of Theseus, this is a boat which has been thoroughly remade.
With so much reconstruction necessary and so much of our modern own historical consciousness applied to the Mary Rose, there is some truth in Wright’s words. However he was writing long before this new museum was opened, so I hope that when I visit I will find that his cynicism is proved wrong.
1 thought on “The Mary Rose – a miracle of conservation”
Do go, and allow plenty of time for your visit. All beautifully lit and imaginatively displayed, coherent narratives and – other museums please take note – captions in a size, colour and font that are easy to read.