Ships 2

Mary Rose

Ships 3

Mary Rose

Mary Rose Was World’s First Active Gunship

By James Donahue

While it was the second ship of the English Navy to carry cannon that could be fired on enemy ships at sea, the 126-foot –long Tudor carrack warship Mary Rose was the first to openly engage in battle and was designed to fire a full broadside of cannon.

The ship was originally equipped with 78 guns and later was refitted to carry 91 cannon. She was King Henry VIII’s pride of the English naval fleet and served as flagship under Admiral Sir Edward Howard. During her 35-year career the Mary Rose was actively engaged in the Italian Wars and later battles against the French at the Battle of St. Mathieu and a lengthy blockade of the French ships at Brest.

In 1545, King Francis I of France launched an invasion of England with 30,000 soldiers in 225 ships. During one of the sea battles that occurred, known as the Battle of the Solent, The Mary Rose unexpectedly foundered and sank with an estimated loss of about 380 sailors, soldiers and gunners. Only 35 members of the crew survived the sinking.

There were many theories as to why the Mary Rose sank in the way it did. The ship, under command of Vice Admiral Sir George Carew, had gone through a major refitting and now carried 91 guns and some say an extra gun deck had been added thus making the ship top heavy and unmanageable.

Extensive research conducted in recent years, including the raising and restoration of the wreck for a British museum and a television documentary that involved testing an exact scale model of the ship revealed that the ship was turning under a wind that forced the lower gun ports below the water line. If the ports were open, this flooded the ship.

It was found that the gun ports were cut too low in the ship’s side. Warships that came later were equipped with a freeboard and ship’s load line to assure that the cannon and the open gun ports would not put the ship in jeopardy.

The Mary Rose and a larger contemporary, the Henry Grace a Dieu, popularly known as the Great Harry, were thought to have been the very first warships designed to carry cannon that could be used in battle at sea. Thus they were, in a sense, experimental craft in their day. The Great Harry was a much larger ship and it may have rarely seen battle. The vessel was considered a showpiece of the English Naval fleet. It often appeared with golden sails raised.

The invention of waterproof gun ports allowed for the construction of these two unique warships. Gun ports were or doors that could be dropped on the side of a wooden ship’s hull so cannons could fire through the hull at nearby enemy ships. The heavy iron canons of that time were so heavy they had to be mounted on the lower decks, near the ship’s water line, for fear of making the vessel top heavy.

The carrack’s of that period were built with many decks extending high out of the water. When in battle the high decks made it possible for men with long rifles and bow and arrows to fire down at enemy ships during an engagement. Before they could fire cannon and cause extensive damage to the other ships, warfare at sea involved shooting at one another and then physical combat between soldiers once the two vessels joined.

Even though she carried enough cannon to fore a deadly broadside against any marauder, the Mary Rose also was built with the standard high decks and equipped to carry a battery of soldiers for the standard style of warfare at sea.

Thus the Mary Rose was a transitional ship between the mediaeval floating castles and the mighty galleons launched for the English Navy under Queen Elizabeth I. The ship also is the only one of its kind to have been salvaged and restored for public viewing. Visitors to the historic Portsmouth Dockyard can visit the museum where this ancient relic now rests.