The Secret of the Solent

The Last Battle of the Mary Rose

As the hot summer days of July 1545 droned on, rumor spread rapidly throughout Portsmouth that another war with France was eminent.

The dockyard, granted its first royal charter under King Richard I in 1194 and the construction of its dry dock, perhaps the world’s first, ordered by King Henry VII in 1495, was bustling with energy, making ready the Mary Rose, King Henry VIII’s flagship, which had its birth in 1509.

The thirty four year old carrack-type warship of the English Tudor Navy was strong and fast and played important roles in all three of Henry’s wars with France.  She had been refitted and commissioned to lead the English fleet in battle once again.

Capable of firing broadsides, she was one of the first purpose-built wooden sailing warships, a concept that would continue without basic change for three centuries.

Her crew, idle for many months, had dwindled, and so the captain gave orders to his officers to assemble new crews. Press gangs were sent ashore to gather hands, not always a pleasant experience, for those they gathered, usually against their will, were often in various stages of drunken stupor.

A rabble bunch, they were taken to the ship where they were conscripted into service for an unknown duration, their names gathered quickly and inserted into the captain’s log.

On the morning of July 19th, 1545, all hands were assembled and at the ready.

From the bridge, the captain addressed those gathered, his undisciplined and unruly crew of characters.

“My name is Captain Roger Grenville, and I am here to tell you your days of idling are over.”

“You have a mind to fight, then yes, you shall have your fill.”

He continued.

“Recently His Majesty received communication from Paris. The revolutionary government of France has declared war on Britton. The old adversary may wear a new face, but whatever mask he hides behind, he is still a Frenchman, and we will beat him as we have always beaten him for there is no power on earth that can withstand the might of the British navy!”

“God save the king!”

He then ordered his midshipmen prepare to set sail.

Certain of the dockies boarded tug boats, 13 to a boat, 12 positioning themselves at their oar, plus one pilot. There were four boats in all, two at the bow and two at the stern of the mighty warship.

As orders were given, the ship, pointed northward in Portsmouth Harbor, with the aid of the tugs, gently swung away from the dockside catching the current of the out-going tide.

The tugs assisted her until she was headed straight out of the harbor. Her sails held in tight bondage by their yardarm captors high overhead yearned to breath in the salt filled sea air to slake their unquenchable thirst. But they had to learn patience, as the narrow mouth of the arbor between Gossport to port side and Sallyport, starboard, leading to the open seas of Leigh-On-Solent, would prove a treacherous passage should they be unleashed too soon.

The ship had been readied for battle, fortified with an additional forty-two new canons.  All decks were netted and ready making her impossible to penetrate by an enemy she might engage on the high seas.

As she left the mouth of the harbor and was tugged in a south-easterly direction, her thirsty sheets were at last unfurled.

Hungrily, they embraced the wind and the ship lurched forward in response. The knot master shouted, “three knots” while in the distance, drums and bugles could be heard in a cacophony mixed with the raucous shouts of an excited public.

In a moment of glory, she proudly sailed toward the lead position before the English fleet which had been dotted in the Solent awaiting the arrival of this great and loved warship. It was once again to lead them into battle against the French.

On her port side, she sailed passed the well-fortified Southsea Castle where King Henry VIII and his noblemen had gathered atop the castle tower which was decorated with great pageantry. Flags of every size and color fluttered like jewels in a castle crown. Soldiers on horseback attended the King.  The townspeople of Portsmouth, too, had gathered as far as the eye could see along the shoreline. Waving their flags, they celebrated the presence of the King and the great maritime event, the gathering of the entire English fleet taking place before them.

With ropes creaking, the ship strained at its tethers as the bough cut through the cold waters of the Solent picking up speed.

The captain ordered the 1st mate to tighten up the main and correct three degrees to port.

“Aye, aye, Sir” the 1st mate responded as he made the course correction.

There are many differing accounts of what was to happen next on this day. No one can say for sure….but, after much consideration, the following is my theory.

The captain wished to honor the King and thus, as they came about, ordered his men to fire a 21 gun salute displaying the power and might of the newly fitted ship.

The unprepared crew, having not enough sailing experience, and being unmanageable and unaware of procedures, fired simultaneously from the port side. This action coupled with their having left the starboard side gun doors open, proved a fatal mistake.  The ship heeled too far starboard and allowed water to gush into the hull through the open doors.

This much loved and prized ship commissioned as one of the first acts of a newly crowned King Henry VIII in 1509 at the tender age of 18, and some say named for his sister then 13 and the Tudor House of Rose, both over laden and overmanned, sank in full regalia 34 years later to the bottom of the Solent in full view of all those present.

Thus, on that calm summer afternoon in 1545, a French invasion fleet lay at anchor off Portsmouth Harbor and poised to attack England. On that day, Henry VIII’s favorite ship, the Mary Rose, sailed into her final battle.

As the King watched helplessly from the shore, she heeled over and sank in 400 feet of water, taking with her her captain and seven hundred men. Only 32 survived.

Chroniclers record that the King even heard the cries of his dying sailors as she sank scarcely a mile off shore.

The Mary Rose was lost for more than four centuries.

Sadly, some report that depth charges were dropped on her grave to clear the narrow channel during World War II. This had devastating consequences.

When the Mary Rose Trust was formed in 1979, divers from all parts of the world volunteered to help the trust’s experts in a massive task of removing the historical treasures of the ship and unlocking her secrets.

With Prince Charles, himself an enthusiastic amateur diver, as the President of the project, the work grew into the world’s most ambitious underwater archaeological project and perhaps the biggest diving operation ever seen.

On October 11, 1982, the remains of the Mary Rose were raised from her watery grave, and they, along with hosts of artifacts, may now be viewed in the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard Museum just south of another famous 19th Century wooden battle ship, the HMS Victory.

by Natalie Bloxham

Select all writings of  Natalie Bloxham

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