The Tudor Society

19 July – The sinking of the Mary Rose

On this day in Tudor history, 19th July 1545, Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose, sank right in front of his eyes in the Battle of the Solent between the English and French fleets.

But why did the Mary Rose sink?

In today's talk, I share the various theories on the sinking of the Mary Rose, as well as talking about the salvage operations over time, her raising in 1983, and the work of the Mary Rose Trust. See for details on visiting the ship and the museum.

Also on this day in Tudor history, 19th July 1553, the reign of Queen Jane (Lady Jane Grey) was brought to an end when Mary, the late King Edward VI's half-sister, was officially proclaimed queen in London. Hear contemporary accounts of how the news was celebrated in last year’s video:

Also on this day in history:

  • 1543 – Death of Mary Stafford (née Boleyn), other married name Carey. It is not known where she was buried and there is also controversy regarding her date of death.
  • 1551 – Marriage treaty between King Edward VI and Elizabeth, daughter of Henry II, King of France.
  • 1584 – Death of three year-old Robert Dudley, Baron Denbigh, son of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and his wife, Lettice, at Wanstead. He was laid to rest in the Beauchamp Chapel of St Mary's Church, Warwick, and his tomb pays tribute to “the noble imp”.
  • 1596 – Death of Sir Francis Knollys, courtier, politician, privy councillor and Treasurer of the Household in Elizabeth I's reign. He was buried at Rotherfield Greys, Oxfordshire. Knollys was married to Catherine Carey, daughter of William Carey and Mary Boleyn.


On this day in Tudor history, 19th July 1545, Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose, sank right in front of his eyes in the Battle of the Solent between the English and French fleets.

The English fleet had moved out to attack the French fleet in the late afternoon of the 19th July as “a fitful wit sprang up” and something went wrong as the ship carried out a turning manoeuvre. The Mary Rose sank along with her the majority of her crew.

But why did a ship whose illustrious career had started in 1512 sink to the bottom of the Solent on that fateful day in 1545? Well, there is still speculation over this question today with the following reasons being put forward:

- Her sinking was caused by a French hit – According to the French fleet, they hit her and she sank after they lured the English ships within range of their main fleet.
- She heeled over in the wind and water entered her gun ports – Van der Delft, the Imperial ambassador, told of how she sank, drowning just under 500 men, and how he “was told by a Fleming among the survivors that when she heeled over with the wind the water entered by the lowest row of gun ports which had been left open after firing.”
- Human Error – According to Sir Peter Carew, brother of the Vice Admiral of the Mary Rose, Sir George Carew, who died when the ship sank, his uncle Sir Gawain Carew had sailed past the Mary Rose as she began to heel and asked Sir George what was wrong. Sir George replied that “he had the sort of knaves whom he could not rule.” It was also Sir George Carew’s first naval command, so he was inexperienced.
- The Mary Rose had become unseaworthy – Some people believe that modifications over the years had added to the weight of the ship and made her unseaworthy.
- Carew’s crew may not have understood his orders, with some of the, being from overseas.
We just don’t know for sure.

Henry VIII’s secretary of state, William Paget, ordered a salvage operation within days of the sinking but operations in 1545, 1547 and 1549 only managed to raise some guns and rigging. Nearly 300 years later, on the 16th June 1836, a fisherman snagged his gear on the wreck and John Deane, a diver exploring a nearby wreck, agreed to help the fisherman disentangle his gear in return for a half share of whatever the gear was caught up on. Dean found the Mary Rose and between 1836 and 1840 was able to recover a number of items including iron guns, bows and timbers. The ship, though, was left lying in her watery grave.

In 1965, 420 years after the sinking, Alexander McKee decided to try and find the wreck of the Mary Rose. With the collaboration of Professor Harold E Edgerton and John Mills, and their sonar systems, a sub-seabed anomaly was found in 1967 and confirmed in 1968 by a sonar survey. Dives were carried out in the area between 1968 and 1971 and divers found timbers and an iron gun. Then, on the 5th May 1971, Percy Ackland discovered three of the port frames of the Mary Rose.

In 1979, The Mary Rose Trust was formed and an archaeological team led by Dr Margaret Rule CBE began to excavate the Mary Rose wreck. This culminated in the raising of the Mary Rose on 11th October 1982 by a team of Royal Engineers. The wreck was placed in a dry dock with a relative humidity of 95% and a temperature of 2-6ºC. A preservation programme then began in earnest.

On the 4th October 1983, just under a year after she was raised, the Mary Rose was put on public display in Portsmouth and a museum was created to display some of the artefacts found in the wreck. In 2013, a new museum was opened after further conservation work was carried out. The Mary Rose is well worth a visit and I’ll give you a link to find out more about visiting it - You can also meet Hatch the dog, well, his remains anyway. He was the ship’s dog, the resident ratter.

By the way, it is a myth that the ship was named after Henry VIII’s sister, Mary Tudor, Queen of France. There is no evidence that Mary was ever known as Mary Rose, and, as the Mary Rose Trust points out, “It’s more likely the ship was named after the Virgin Mary, who was also known at the time as ‘The Mystic Rose’”.

Only 1 comment so far Go To Comment

  1. R

    I think this is what happened

    The Mary Rose with the rest of the fleet had been tied up because there was no wind all morning. By the afternoon the fleet could engage. The French and German low gallowas long gunboats could get in close and a shot hit the Mary Rose low below the water line. When she sailed and engaged by then her crew were trying to repair a hole as tools were found down there. The Mary Rose fired all of her guns, but for some reason, which we can only speculate on, in a moment of confusion, the ports were not closed. The wind got up and either as she made a sharp turn or tried to get to the sand banks as she was already taking on water a strong gust keeled her over, having been damaged by enemy fire. There is some evidence that a rescue was going on but nobody could help her. Peter Carew was killed so we can’t ask him afterwards. His words may be prejudiced and after the fact but there is an explanation. The crew was made up from mercenaries from the Mediterranean and Flanders as well as Englishmen. Carew was inexperienced as a commanding officer. Communication may not have been easy in the chaos of battle and noise and smoke and a mix of languages. A babble of voices from everyone and everywhere, orders, swearing, running about, maybe panic over the water and open ports, men stuck below deck because of the safety netting, just about every kind of chaos. His brother probably wanted to preserve his good name.

    No matter the reason it was a dreadful and horrible sight to see the flagship going down with the loss of all but 30 to 35 people on board. Men were trapped, maybe there was fire, they were hurt and drowned. A truly horrific way to go. The King saw this as well as the wife of Peter Carew. Henry was left comforting her but was also known to have said: “Oh my men, my poor brave men” showing his feelings. What a terrible thing to witness, what a terrible loss of life.

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19 July – The sinking of the Mary Rose