Raising of bow may solve mystery of the 'Mary Rose'

Historians have been baffled as to why Henry VIII's flagship foundered and sank in the Solent off Portsmouth in 1545, watched by the monarch, as it set sail to repel a French invasion force. But after a painstaking two-year project to recover the central part of the ship's bow, which also resulted in the raising of its massive anchor, specialists will have one of the final pieces in the Mary Rose jigsaw. Until now, the design and shape of the front of the ship has been unknown.

Yesterday's success prompted jubilation in the recovery team. John Lippiett, chief executive of the Mary Rose Trust, said: "This is a wonderful day and it's very exciting. We are seeing things for the first time in 460 years - this is the last piece in the puzzle."

The return of the 2.3-ton stem timber and the discovery of parts of the ship's heavily fortified, multi-storey forecastle have sent a wave of excitement through the world of marine archaeology. Raising the forecastle itself remains, however, a distant dream. While yesterday's operation was funded by the Ministry of Defence to make way for a deep-water channel in the Solent, the cost of recovering the forecastle would be in excess of £1m.

It is the first time since the Tudor wreck was raised 23 years ago that a major remaining element of the vessel has been brought up.

It is thought the bow became separated from the rest of the ship while Venetian salvors, brought in by Henry VIII, tried in vain to refloat the vessel.

The ship was built in 1509-11, fought in four wars (three against France and one against Scotland) and sank while manoeuvring in a battle against a French invasion fleet of 220 vessels - almost 50 per cent bigger than the Spanish Armada. Hundreds if not thousands, of Tudor artefacts must still lie buried in the seabed - including a gold chain of office presented by Henry VIII to the vice-admiral of the fleet on the morning the Mary Rose sank. The vice-admiral, Sir George Carew, was on board the ship when it went down.

After being brought ashore, the 10-metre-long stem timber was placed, for preservative purposes, in a giant tank filled with polyethylene glycol where it will remain for up to five years.

After drying out it will be reunited with the 50 per cent of the vessel which survived the centuries and is now on show in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.