Meeting Report: The Missing Link: The Mary Rose Excavations 2004–06

26 October 2012
Dr Douglas McElvogue

Members of Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society were delighted and honoured when Doonhamer Dr Douglas McElvogue, a very experienced marine and shipwreck archaeologist based in Portsmouth, agreed to speak on the subject, The missing link: the Mary Rose excavations 2004–6. The fact that his parents live at Kippford helped to secure the engagement.

The Mary Rose was one of two new ships commissioned by Henry VIII, soon after he came to the throne in 1509. The Great Harry was the more famous in the King's lifetime. The situation is now reversed.

Originally written as Marye Roose, the sailing ship, completed in 1511, was taken to London for fitting out 1511–12. Hostilities with France broke out 1513–14. Serving as a Channel Guard, she took up a position at Brest and was involved in battle.

In June 1520, she took Henry to a meeting with Francis I of France near Calais, the legendary Field of the Cloth of Gold. Despite signing treaties, the two nations were at war again a couple of years later.

In the period 1536 to 1545, modification of the Mary Rose took place. Gunports had originally been created low down in her side to equip her like the Scottish ship, the Great Michael. New heavy guns, placed high up for strategic reasons and causing the removal of part of the forecastle, had been ordered by Henry, despite the warning that such a change would weaken the ship.

Further hostilities broke out in 1543. The Mary Rose was positioned in Portsmouth Harbour for the purpose of protecting Southampton and Portsmouth from the French. She moved out with an offshore wind. In manoeuvring, she sank in July 1545 in fairly shallow waters, about a mile from where she was built. There were only 36 survivors because netting, designed to stop boarders, trapped about 500 on board.

Her loss was catastrophic for the King looking on. He ordered a salvage attempt which failed. Over time, the ship, lying on her starboard side, trapped silt and was buried, helping to preserve her starboard side but with the port side eroded away.

Millions watched on television in 1982 as the Mary Rose was raised. Her bell was one of the last objects to be raised before she was lifted. The bow, shaped like a wishbone, was cut off for operational reasons. At that time, Douglas was only a youngster. After he became involved, he met some of the original crew and divers. Douglas was appointed as a Senior Research Fellow 2001–2006 to help with an in-depth archaeological publication. Although surveys had been done previously, he became engaged in recording the finer detail of the parts of the ship and collating all the research. He was accordingly well able to take the audience on a fascinating pictorial tour of inspection of the vessel.

He revisited the site from which the Mary Rose was moved at Portsmouth when a new dredging channel was made. The aim was to find what had been left behind. As a nautical archaeologist, Douglas, using special underwater paper, made records 60 metres down on the sea bed. He made a drawing of the stem post, the crucial missing link, which was later raised. Amongst the many other finds were one or two trenails (long wooden pins or nails for fastening the planks of a ship to the timbers), coins, an anchor, rigging and bits of caulking.

Computer studies have brought about a reappraisal of this vessel of 500 tons, which was later increased to about 700 tons. Ballast, it is suspected, moved to the starboard as she hit the sea-bed. The big guns did nothing to counteract it. That is part of the cause why she sank. The inspection carried out by Douglas found shot impact sites but no definite evidence of French cannon shot. The suggestion that she might have been hit on the side now missing can be discounted because one would still expect to find evidence.

The conservation process involves spraying with fresh water to keep her wet until about 2013. She will be coated with polyethylene glycol wax, which will dry off. Then she will be air-dried slowly. The year 2016 is the date when the new Mary Rose Museum will open alongside the famous ship. Thousands of artefacts, ranging from weaponry to surgical equipment to dice and beer tankards, will go on show.

The missing link from this report is the ability to show the fascinating photographs, which accompanied a great talk.