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Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2000

OUT OF THE DEEPS

Wreck and return of the Mary Rose


By MARC PAYDON

The man o' war, moving gracefully under billowing canvas sheeting, moved purposefully through the water. The pride of King Henry VIII of England's navy, HMS Mary Rose was a state-of-the-art warship tasked with repelling a French invasion across the Channel.

HMS Mary Rose went down off the Solent in an accident in 1545.

With the ship in the vanguard of the counterattack, on July 18, 1545, the Tudor realm was safe and the French would surely be driven back across the Channel, the king's military advisers whispered in his ear.

King Henry was watching the naval battle unfold from the shore of the Solent, the narrow neck of protected water that leads from Portsmouth -- home of the Royal Navy since its inception -- out into the open sea.

The disaster struck without warning.

The Mary Rose slowly heeled over, the wind apparently catching the vast sails, until water poured in the lowest row of gun ports, open in preparation for the anticipated duel with the French. The king's despair as the vessel quickly sank -- leaving only a widening circle of debris floating on the surface -- can only be imagined.

And that was the last that most people saw of the Mary Rose until 18 years ago.

Some artifacts recovered from the wreck

On Oct. 11, 1982, the hull of the vessel was raised from the silt of the seabed on a cradle lined with protective air-bags, a collaboration of archaeology, diving and engineering.

The recovery was the final stage in a long process of underwater study of the precise technique needed to raise what remained of the hull.

When the ship first sank, expert salvage divers from Venice were asked to try to recover the vessel, but only managed to recover a few of its guns.

Over the years, a combination of the sea's strong currents and biological organisms had eroded and weakened the ship, with its exposed port side eventually collapsing and being washed away.

Gradually, a layer of clay and crushed sea shells was deposited over the once-proud Mary Rose, sealing it to the spot where it had settled on the seabed.

Divers began to explore the sire originally in the late 1960s, using sonar to locate the warship before further dives surveyed and photographed what remained.

Christopher Dobbs, head of the publications and events division of the Mary Rose Museum, was one of the 600 divers involved in the excavation work.

"It was an incredible feat and wonderful to finally see the hull being raised, but the next challenge was the process of preserving the ship for the future," he said.

A continuous spray of water-soluble wax is gradually soaking in to preserve the sea-sodden remaining timbers of HMS Mary Rose.

The hull needed to be constantly sprayed with fresh water to stop it drying out, a task that was only changed 12 years later, when the treatment was changed to the application of a water-soluble wax, used to stabilize and support the waterlogged wood.

This process of active conservation continues to this day, almost 24 hours a day, and is likely to continue for at least another five years, Dobbs said. Regular biological and physical tests are also carried out to ensure that there is no decaying.

King Henry would be pleased at all the attention that is being paid to one of the largest warships in his fleet.

After coming to the throne in 1509, King Henry embarked upon a program of rearming the navy, including the commissioning of the construction of the Mary Rose -- named after his favorite sister, Mary, and his royal emblem, the Tudor rose.

The six-times married king was a threatening and sometimes morbid character, but he was eager to emulate Henry V's past victories over the French, England's long-standing enemy.

This ambition was all the more pressing as the French remained a threat from not only across the English Channel, but also from Scotland, where a pro-French faction was headed by Cardinal Beaton.

England was effectively fighting a war on two fronts, being forced to suppress the challenge from north of the border when the Scots tried to invade England, abetted by the French.

Although a successful English counterattack devastated large areas of Scotland, and Cardinal Beaton was assassinated, the French faction remained in power in Edinburgh.

Sailing out to meet the French threat to the south of King Henry's realm and counter the troops that France had landed on the Isle of Wight, just 1 km off England's southern coast, the Mary Rose was swamped 2 km from Portsmouth harbor.

There were few survivors among the crew and the vessel was consigned to history.

Four centuries later, its hull broke the surface of the Solent at an angle of 60 degrees, exactly as it had lain on the seabed for 437 years, before it was placed on a tender and towed into Portsmouth harbor and placed in the No. 3 dry dock.

Portsmouth's Royal Navy base houses both the dry dock and the Mary Rose Museum, where numerous weapons, items of clothing, plates and dozens of other items recovered from the site are on display.

A section of the cabin used by the surgeon (an important person aboard a ship sailing off to war) has even been recovered.

Visitors to the museum can experience what life was like aboard a 16th-century warship, where the majority of the young and robust crew existed cheek-by-jowl.

Based on their discoveries at the bottom of the Solent, historians have concluded that they ate reasonably well, dressed comfortably and that backgammon and dice games were both popular.

"The museum gives access to all walks of life," said Dobbs. "Visitors can read about the Mary Rose in languages ranging from Japanese to Swedish, to learn what the sea yielded 18 years ago."

The Mary Rose Museum, College Road, H.M. Naval Base, Portsmouth PO1 3LX, Great Britain. For information call (in Britain) (023) 9275-0521 or see the Web site at www.maryrose.org


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