Henry VIII was a man of ambition, and one of his chief desires was to increase the number of English warships to support his military ambitions. At the start of his reign, there were fewer than ten royal ships that could be used for war, by the end of it, there were some two hundred. Their duty was to keep the Channel clear of enemy shipping, particularly during Henry’s French wars, and to transport troops.
One of Henry’s most famous ships was the Mary Rose. Laid down in 1510-11, she served as a troop-carrier and fighting vessel, ferrying troops north to the Battle of Flodden, and guarding the seas during Henry’s passage to the Field of Cloth of Gold. After thirty-four year of service, she sank during the Battle of the Solent in 1545, for reasons that remain unclear.
Repeated efforts were made to recover her, but by the end of Henry’s reign, she had been abandoned. It was not until 1982, in a stunning archaeological triumph that transfixed the world, that she was raised. Now, around half of her hull has been recovered, and is the centre-piece of one of the most fascinating museums in Britain, the Mary Rose Museum at Portsmouth. The 19,000 artefacts that have been recovered give an unparalleled insight not just into Tudor warships, but every aspect of life – food, clothes, entertainment, religion and people.
Isotope analysis of eight skulls has provided evidence that some of the crew came from as far afield as Spain, Italy and Africa. One crew member, nicknamed Henry,although his isotope analysis shows an upbringing in south-west England, had African heritage – probably being the son of a North African man. This supports historians’ belief, based on archival analysis, that there were more individuals of non-European ancestry in Tudor society than is commonly known.