The smooth polished wood of the Tudor longbows looks almost too perfect. That is because, I am told, despite being more than 450 years old, they are effectively brand new. Packed into boxes at the Royal Armoury in the Tower of London some time before the summer of 1545, they were loaded on to the orlop (lowest) deck of King Henry VIII's flagship, the Mary Rose, before she sailed into combat with the French in the Solent. They were unpacked from those same boxes nearly half a millennium later when they were raised from the bottom of the sea in the biggest maritime archaeological excavation ever. Carefully preserved, they are now reunited with their ship and much more of its contents in the extraordinary new Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth.
The £35m museum, which opened on Friday, has been constructed around the warship. The starboard half of the Mary Rose – lifted from the sea in the most complex operation of its kind in front of 60 million television viewers in 1982 – sits in a dry dock just metres from where she was built in 1510-11 and only a few miles from where she sank, in full view of the distraught king, on 19 July 1545. Lying on her side on the seabed, her uppermost (port) side was washed away, but her starboard side sank deep into the seabed. Quickly covered with silt, the timbers and contents were sealed from the eroding effects of waves and oxygen. She had become what David Starkey calls "the English Pompeii".
Entering the darkened walkway of the Main Decks Gallery, I find myself peering through a window on to the decks of the Mary Rose, the only 16th-century ship on view anywhere. Her timbers, shape, and seven-storey height are clear to see despite the tubular dryers keeping her wrapped in a steady flow of warm air. After 30 years of constant spraying with fresh water and then chemicals that has kept her out of public view, the drying process will take another four or five years. Then the wall between the viewer and the hull will be removed, realising the museum's intent, that we walk through the ship herself.
Even now, though, the idea is effective. With the ship's starboard decks to my right, I have to my left a reconstructed port side displaying in mirror image the actual objects found on the upper decks: staggeringly well-preserved great guns, in iron and bronze, mounted on their own wooden carriages; knives and jugs; stone cannon balls and leather fire buckets.
Next to the guns are the surgeon's amputation bench, syringe and jars of ointment. I put my nose to a replica bottle – when archaeologists first examined the contents of the surgeon's cabin, and pulled the corks from some of the bottles, they could still smell the Tudor menthol within. Also in the gallery of the Men of the Main Decks, I find the master carpenter's belongings – his mass of tools and personal items including his pocket sundial, nit comb, backgammon set with two tiny dice and even his carved-bone manicure kit.
What's more, I can look him in the face. The skulls of nine crew members have been closely examined by forensic experts to create detailed sketches of their faces. Records suggest there were about 500 men on board the Mary Rose when it sank and no more than 35 survived. Remains of 179 people have been recovered, including 92 near-complete skeletons.
The human remains are a rich resource for historians and scientists. The crew was made up of mostly healthy men between the ages of 12 and 40 who have proved to be not much shorter than men today. In fact, one of the archers, whose waxwork I meet in the Science Gallery, was a strong 5ft 10in. Some men had healed fractures and one – whose skull is displayed – had a perfect round arrow hole in his head (that did not kill him). Several had arthritis of the spine – probably archers damaged by the force they exerted repeatedly pulling back their powerful longbows.
And it is only because of the Mary Rose that we understand what sort of force that was. The bows brought up from this ship – more than 130 in total – are the only period longbows in existence with reliable historic provenance. Examination of the weapons has shown that archers could pull about twice the weight previously thought, giving the weapon far greater range and power and rewriting the history of battles in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.
There are many other history-defining items. In the captain's cabin, a full set of musical instruments was found, along with a pewter dinner set (initialled G C for George Carew), quill nibs marked with ink and gold coins. The instruments include a couple of the oldest fiddles on earth, flutes and the world's only douçaine. This metre-long wind instrument was previously thought not to have been invented until 50 years after the Mary Rose keeled over. Now we can not only date it, but see it and, thanks to accurate replicas, at the touch of a button, we can even listen to its oboe-like tones.
At the touch table, I run my hand over a Tudor cannonball and lift a weighty chunk of tar-hardened rope once hauled by the ship's crew. On the lower decks I am halted by the galley, its stove rebuilt from the original bricks, bone remains of meat and fish once waiting to be cooked, the peppermill complete with highly prized peppercorns, and even the logs waiting to go on the fire – and it's all original.
In all, 19,000 artefacts were brought up with the Mary Rose. Thousands are now installed in the museum, but this is also a work in progress. As conservation progresses, more will be added to the displays. The museum claims that the Mary Rose offers, "the finest insight into life 500 years ago – anywhere," and it isn't hard to believe.
The Historic Dockyard is just a few minutes' walk from Portsmouth Harbour railway station, served by South West Trains (08457 484950; nationalrail.co.uk), and The Hard coach and bus station (nationalexpress.com; greyhounduk.com; uk.megabus.com; firstgroup.com; stagecoachbus.com).
The Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, Hampshire PO1 3PY (02392 812931; maryrose.org). Open daily 10am to 5.30pm (until 5pm, Nov to Mar), adults £17, children £12.50. Admission is included in the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard all-attraction ticket of £26 for adults and £19.75 for children.
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard: historicdockyard.co.uk
Portsmouth Tourist Office: visitportsmouth.co.ukReuse content