Mary Rose ship had multi-ethnic crew, study shows

Steven Morris
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA</span>
Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

One is thought to be an archer raised in the Atlas mountains in north Africa, and another may have been a carpenter who grew up in south-west Spain. Others hailed from closer to home, possibly the bustling ports of the English west country or the Thames estuary.

The most in-depth study yet of a group of men who drowned when Henry VIII’s favourite warship, the Mary Rose, sank off Portsmouth has provided fresh insight into the makeup of the crew, and the diverse nature of society in Tudor England.

By combining evidence about where in the ship the men’s remains were found when it was brought to the surface with state-of-the art analysis of their teeth, researchers have been able to peer into the lives of eight crew members who died almost five centuries ago.

Alexzandra Hildred, the head of research and curator of ordnance and human remains at the Mary Rose Trust, said the number of objects recovered from the ship that were not made in England had suggested that some of the crew were foreign.

“However, we never expected this diversity to be so rich,” she said. “This study transforms our perceived ideas regarding the composition of the nascent English navy.”

The Mary Rose sank on 19 July 1545 during the Battle of the Solent with the loss of most of its 415-strong crew.

In 1982 the ship was raised and the remains of at least 179 crew members were found, together with thousands of objects ranging from weaponry to tools and games.

The excellent preservation of the men’s skeletal remains and knowing the precise time and circumstances of their deaths has given scientists the chance to dig into the backgrounds of the crew.

For this latest study, researchers from Cardiff University, the Mary Rose Trust and the British Geological Survey used a technique called multi-isotope analysis on teeth to investigate where eight crew members spent their early years.

Four of them have been nicknamed the archer, the cook, the officer and the purser because of where in the ship they were found or objects found close to them. They and a fifth – known as the young mariner – were almost certainly from Britain.

The archer may have come from a port in south-west England, such as Plymouth in Devon or Fowey in Cornwall, and the cook is thought to have come from a West Country coastal area. The officer could have grown up in the southern end of the Midlands or Wiltshire, while the purser may have been raised on the banks of the Thames estuary.

As was revealed two years ago, the young mariner was also from the West Country and thought to have been of African heritage.

Mary Rose never ventured beyond British coastal waters but three of the eight crew members studied almost certainly grew up in more southern climes.

One of the crew members is known as the gentleman because his remains were found close to a chest containing a carved bone panel similar to those produced in northern Italy in the 14th and 15th centuries. The researchers believe he may have come from the Mediterranean coast.

Objects found in the carpenters’ cabin including Spanish coins and Spanish-style tools suggested at least one of them may have come from the Iberian peninsula. Analysis of remains of the seventh man, who was found near the cabin, suggest he came from inland south-west Spain.

The eighth crew member is known as the royal archer because he had a leather wristguard bearing the symbol of a pomegranate, associated with Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife. He is now believed to have come from the Atlas mountains or possibly Spain.

Richard Madgwick, of Cardiff University’s School of History, Archaeology and Religion, said: “We used five isotope methods in all to provide information on geology, coastal proximity, climate and diet. We already know quite a bit about these characters in terms of profession etc, so this study reconstructs biographies in unparalleled detail.”

  • Diversity aboard a Tudor warship: investigating the origins of the Mary Rose crew using multi-isotope analysis is published in the journal Royal Society Open Science