Mary Rose artifacts on display for the first time

The Mary Rose was Henry VIII’s favorite ship. It was the first ship that could fire a full cannon broadside and although it’s small by today’s standards at 126 feet (38.5 meters) in length, it was the largest ship in the Tudor fleet.

Mary Rose on display in Portsmouth's historic dockyardIt sank off the coast of Plymouth in July 1545 before Henry’s very eyes. Nobody knows exactly why, although of course everyone’s got a theory. Five hundred hands went down with her, along with a huge amount of treasure and every day Tudoriana. Only 35 men survived, the ones in the rigging above the deck when the ship went down.

The wreck was pulled out of the ocean in 1982, and since then has been on display upright in a dry dock at very low temperature and very high humidity of 95% in the Mary Rose Ship Hall in the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

Until September 20th you could go see it, but the hall is closed now as they begin to build a new $55 million museum that will suit the particular needs of the wreck and its 19,000 artifacts.

The museum will reflect the original ship’s structure with Nelson’s HMS Victory, docked alongside.

It [the Mary Rose] will continue to be sprayed with preserving polyethylene glycol – a water-based wax solution – until 2011 and then it will be carefully “baked dry” into 2012, when the new museum is due to open in time for the Olympics.

The Mary Rose will be on display in the new museum protected behind glass barriers while the conservation work is completed. The glass is set to be removed in 2016.

The 19,000 artifacts have been in temperature-controlled storage, mainly, with only a few displayed at various times. As part of a fundraising push to get the last $6 million needed for the museum, the Mary Rose Trust has allowed more artifacts than ever before to be filmed.

And what an amazing grouping it is. It includes everyday items like 70 nit combs, some with dead nits still in them, the oldest known fiddle, beer tankards, shoes, boots, stylish manpurses, manicure sets, and this seriously scary metal syringe sailors used for injecting mercury into their urethrae as a cure for syphilis.

Mercury! Injected into your peehole! Spyhilis must have been truly heinous for people to embrace such a cure. Here’s the syringe in question accompanied by two packets of field bandages:

Mercury syringe and field bandages

It’s remarkable how many easily perishable items like those bandages were found on the wreck. Here are some Tudor sailor accessories:

Sailor's kit, aka, a manpurse A sailor's boot Sailors' shoes

Here are some personal grooming effects:

Over 70 nit combs A nit comb with dead nits still in the tines A manicure set

Then there’s the tankard in which a sailor would receive his daily ration of beer, which may sound a little weird to us today, but the beer was likely weak enough not to dehydrate and was certainly less teeming with pathogens than any water they could have carried on board.

Wooden beer tankard

To find out how you can help preserve this incredible slice of Tudor life in a proper museum deserving of its awesomeness, see the Mary Rose Trust website.

They’ve got a neat initiative asking for 500 individuals, schools, businesses and organisations to become the Mary Rose’s “new crew”. Each crew member pledges to raise £500 (ca. $790) towards a £250,000 goal, all of which goes to the new museum.

14 thoughts on “Mary Rose artifacts on display for the first time

  1. Even the scary peehole syringe is an important and cool find! I think beer and wine were common, every day, drinks…not unlike some of us moderns drinking pop or coffee daily.

    1. Beer, definitely. Wine was a little more rarified in places like England where vineyards are uncommon.

      Very true that all these finds, including the nits, are of major importance. The Mary Rose is considered the “Tudor Pompeii” because it’s such a rich slice of life.

      1. I always kind of assumed wine was common, due to my maiden name- which is English- and refers to those who lived near the vineyards (the name is concentrated in Wiltshire county). Vineyards are also mentioned in the Domesday Book.

        My ancestors came to the US in the 1600’s.

        Now I need to do some more research instead of going by my assumptions…thanks 🙂

        1. The Normans were more into wine than beer or ale, so they made particular note of the vineyards in Domesday. For the bulk of people, though, beer and ale were the beverage of choice.

          There were certainly vineyards in England from Roman times, mainly concentrated in monasteries, but between plague and climate change, British wine making declined drastically after the 13th c. Henry’s hate-on for Catholic institutions didn’t help either.

  2. Day before yesterday I went to the Vasa Museum in Stockholm. Incredibly cool — one of the best museums I’ve ever been to, and mostly because of the presence of the ship itself: huge, ornate, menacing. I hope the Mary Rose gets a venue to do it justice too.

    1. Oh man, jealous! The Vasa was kept in a temporary museum for years before it got the sweet new digs too.

      From what I can see from the pictures, it’s in an open room. Is it behind glass or anything? How close can you get?

      1. It’s in a huge open building, but with climate control stuff underneath (and presumably inside) it. You can’t quite touch it, but you can get within a couple of metres. In fact you can get right up under the bow, with the enormous bowsprit projecting way out over you.

        Of course it’s tiny for a ship nowadays, but the fact that it’s entirely visible, plus the fact that it’s made of great slabs of wood, make it seem vast. A sublime experience.

  3. Hmm, so when did the use of mercury to treat syphilis start? I’d only come across it before in an 18th or 19th century context. If syphilis was indeed brought back from the New World, it hadn’t been around that long.

    1. According to Jared Diamond of Guns, Germs and Steel fame, the first documented outbreak of syphilis was with French sailors at the siege of Naples in 1495. It was pretty much fatal until it European immune systems seemed to have gotten used to it right around the era the Mary Rose sank.

      They tried mercury to cure it right away. Mercury was considered the first metal, the one from which all others sprang, so it loomed large in medical/alchemical nostrums.

      It even seemed to help in some cases, although it may have just been spontaneous remission.

  4. oh my god they still exist 😮 😮 😮 😮 😮 😮 😮 😮 :ohnoes: :facepalm: :facepalm: :confused: :confused: 🙁 🙁 🙁

  5. Mary Rose sank off the coast at Southsea, near Portsmouth, not Plymouth as stated in the blog.
    Just thought it was worth correcting. Good blog.

  6. I have a tiny bottle, in a tightly fitted leather covering, within a crochet bag presumably to hang round their neck. It contains a small amount of mercury. The only history I have is that has come
    L in the family, from Jersey Ci. I was told it belonged to a sailor several generations back.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.