What was life like for sailors who manned the decks when Britannia truly started to “rule the waves”? We went to Southampton, England, to take a look.
This is the second of several short travel memoirs written in the English west-country, where I stayed with my London family at a small village cottage. My purpose here is to let readers know about some of places of interest in Thomas Hardy country, which are often left out by tourist day-trip excursions that may range out only as far as Stonehenge before returning to London. Tourist information on these sites including lodging is easily accessible by Internet. This post and the next describe two remarkable ships at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, starting with the Mary Rose.
For many centuries Southampton has been the operational headquarters of Britain’s Royal Navy, confronting the European continent from the center of the southern “foot” of England. And it still is, with at least one very sleek, new, business-like missile, communications and tracking cruiser in port when I came to look. Frigates and coastal defense/policing vessels are there too, with all the special moorings and equipment needed to provision, fuel, and arm them for action at sea. Half a dozen old cruisers lie at anchor in the distance on “rotten row,” waiting their fate.
But today we were interested in an earlier history, when England realized how vital it was to take control of the seas that completely surround Britain and which had already brought so many invaders, from Vikings to Normans and more. This was during Elizabeth I’s time, when forests of oak were stripped for the building of great fleets destined to lock horns with Napoleon in the middle of the 16th century.
I was eager to get back to Portsmouth. I had seen the remains of Henry VIII’s great ship the Mary Rose nearly two decades ago, after the rear two thirds of her starboard hull was raised and placed upright in a huge specially-prepared compartment where it could be cleaned of dirt and salt, to be viewed from behind glass by hordes of fascinated visitors. After drying it was preserved with polyethylene glycol (PEG) for posterity. A mirror-image double of the find is being built, with the expectation that the two will be united, possibly near the current site at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.
Broadly speaking, the ship’s remains were preserved by more than five centuries of burial in 15 feet of the mud where it sank in the Solent, the waterway between the Isle of Wight and the English mainland. There have been numerous attempts to raise her or salvage her contents, some of which were partly successful. The wreckage we now see in Portsmouth was rediscovered in 1971 and salvaged in 1982.
The Mary Rose met her fate after 34 years of service on July 19, 1545, while helping defend England from assault by a French fleet. She had 400 to 450 men aboard at the time, and the popular theory is that, despite her long service and the experience that went with it, she was swamped while heeling over in an over-confident maneuver that officers below-decks could not correct. The lowest gun ports were perilously close to the sea, so that water could flood in easily if they were not closed and secured in time. Probably because of poor communication or insubordination, the ports were not secured and the ship quickly sank. The high death toll – a very small percentage of the crew survived – is blamed on the terribly ironic fate caused by a tent of netting that hung over the deck to prevent the entry of enemy boarders. Hundreds of sailors were trapped in their own ship.
In a master work of maritime archaeology, the ship was raised along with a treasure of her equipment, ranging from cannon to medical instruments, the remains of crewmen, and even the skeleton of the ship’s dog. Today a large, state-of-the-art museum – complemented with souvenir shop and cafeteria — permits visitors to view the entire remaining wall of the ship from the inside. We were introduced intimately to the three decks, peering through holes at the great wooden beams and cannon ports, enjoying film and real-life demonstrations of shipboard life, demonstrating the muscle-power needed to operate longbows and muskets. The objects recovered from the wreck give an idea of 16th century life at sea even before one reads the descriptions – footwear, jerkins, huge ropes, ominous looking saws in the doctor’s kit, guns and gun carriages, books, longbows and pikes, musical instruments, pewter for the officers to dine from, even a few pieces of jewelry. Only relatively delicate pieces of metal, such as knife blades, are commonly incomplete.
Portsmouth Harbour is easily accessible from London, and the Mary Rose Museum is superb. With a host of other naval museums around it, with cafes, gift shops, a cruise around the harbor, and a special corner for children, it is hard to get around in a single day. So stay overnight! I recommend it heartily.
The next Tyndale blog post will take readers back to Southampton for a visit to Admiral Nelson’s HMS Victory, which famously led the British victory at the Battle of Trafalgar and secured British domination of the seas. If it were not for Nelson you might be reading this blog in French!