Mary Rose: Ship-shape in Portsmouth Harbour

Henry VIII's flagship has a spectacular new home that brings to life her fascinating history. Juliet Rix got a sneak preview

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.

Travel essentials

Getting there

The Historic Dockyard is just a few minutes' walk from Portsmouth Harbour railway station, served by South West Trains (08457 484950;, and The Hard coach and bus station (;;;;


Visiting there

The Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, Hampshire PO1 3PY (02392 812931; 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.


More information

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard:

Portsmouth Tourist Office:

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Melissa and Joan Rivers together at an NBC event in May 2014
peopleDaughter Melissa thanks fans for 'outpouring of support'
Life and Style
Life and Style
Life and Style
One in six drivers cannot identify a single one of the main components found under the bonnet of an average car
motoringOne in six drivers can't carry out basic under-bonnet checks
The giant banner displayed by Legia Warsaw supporters last night
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
Pupils educated at schools like Eton (pictured) are far more likely to succeed in politics and the judiciary, the report found
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash
tvSimon Cowell blasts BBC for breaking 'gentlemen's agreement' in scheduling war
peopleWrestling veteran drifting in and out of consciousness
Arts and Entertainment
Shady character: Jon Hamm as sports agent JB Bernstein in Million Dollar Arm
filmReview: Jon Hamm finally finds the right role on the big screen in Million Dollar Arm
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone