Battleships – Mary Rose

Until the reign of king Henry VIII of England (1509-47), warships were mainly troop transports, which captured enemy ships by closing and boarding. But Henry VIII ordered the building of carrack-type warships armed with batteries of cannon, firing through ports cut in the ship’s sides, to break the resistance of enemy ships by bombardment. His “great ships”, Great Harry and Mary Rose, were the first battleships. Unfortunately, Mary Rose’s armaments made her top-heavy, and she sank. The accidental sinking of Mary Rose on July 19,1545 was a tragedy at the time, but a wonderful gift to history. In 1982 the buried starboard half of Mary Rose was raised along with thousands of weapons, tools, and pieces of equipment, giving a clear picture of what an early sixteenth century battleship was alike.

Originally built in 1509-11, Mary Rose – and Great Harry – had been rebuilt in 1536-40 to carry more guns and troops. Guns were added to her towering bow and stern castles to shatter enemy attempts at boarding. Unfortunately, they also helped make the ship dangerously top-heavy. Mary Rose carried 91 guns in all, from small hand-held “hailshot” guns for use against enemy boarders to heavy bronze and iron “bastards” and “culverins” mounted on wheeled carriages. Added to her normal crew of 415 were 285 soldiers, including archers skilled in the use of the English longbow. Some 139 longbows were recovered from Mary Rose , and 2,500 arrows. So were the instruments used by the ship’s surgeon to treat the sounded.

Today preserved at Portsmouth in a special museum, with all the guns and other finds excavated from the site of her wreck, Mary Rose is on public display along with Nelson’s famous Victory (see 1650 To 1850), and the no less historic ironclad warship Warrior.