Henry VIII’s Battleship: the End Game

Photo source: Wikipedia

Photo source: Wikipedia

Imagine – just for a moment – that you found a treasure box in a sea-cave, buried deep in a pool.

And just suppose it was hundreds of years old, from the time of bluff King Hal himself.

You wouldn’t want to go drying it out.

Because wood gets used to water. The two become accustomed to one another. And if you take the water away from the wood, suddenly, the wood will pine after it, and warp, and shrink terribly. And this is not advisable with a box worth a small fortune.

No. This is what you would do: you would seal it in a polythene bag to prevent the moisture escaping. And after this -called passive storage –you would begin a phase where you sprayed the wood with polyethylene glycol, a substance which could restore the moisture directly to the cells of the wood. And this, I think, might have to happen for a long time. And I’m talking years here.

And then, after all those years of patient restoration you would switch the polyethylene glygol to a different type which strengthened the outer layers of the wood.

Finally, after being a stranger to air for centuries, the box could be air-dried. But not in a trice. It would take years, once again.

But eventually, once a final layer of wax had been applied, you could hold the cool, dry wood in your hands as Hal might once have done. It would be priceless.

How much more so, then, one of Henry’s great oak battleships.

The story goes that in the battle of the Solent, off the South Coast of England,  in 1545, a state of the art battleship, the Mary Rose, was giving the French what for. It had been in service to His Majesty for 34 years. But while it was swaggering – having just fired the guns from one side, and turning sharply to present the other side to the enemy – it leaned over to the starboard side.

And someone had left the gun ports open.

The ship began taking on water and rapidly, that glorious vessel sank, taking at least 173 souls and the ship’s dog, a ratcatcher, to their doom.

They tried to salvage it, of course they did. They employed 30 Venetian mariners and a Venetian carpenter, served by 60 English sailors; but it was no use. No amount of skill and brawn could shift a battleship which had settled at a 60 degree angle in the clay of the Solent.

And so folks forgot it. Given, some fishermen rediscovered it in 1836 and got a few early divers to salvage some guns. But it was not until the 1960s that members of the Southsea branch of the British Sub-Aqua Club began to look for it again, as part of a project to locate all the shipwrecks in the Solent.

Found in 1971, it was not until 1982 that they settled on an ingenious method for  lifting the Mary Rose, attaching a frame to the hull and slowly jacking it up on four legs.

And then, like a treasure box, it must be preserved, yet plastic bags were not an option. It was sprayed constantly with recycled, filtered water to stop it drying out.

That began 19 years ago. And finally, on May 2nd, they turned the polyethylene glycol sprays off.

The air drying has begun.

And though it will take another five years to remove the hundred tonnes of water from the oak frame, and impregnate it with a wax coating which will stop the wreck crumbling and make it good for the next 70,000 years: we are in the end game.

And the conservators celebrate with the opening of a new museum – which was built around the hull and its air-drying ‘hotbox’.

The museum opens on May 31st, 2013.

Last one there’s a rotten egg.

You can find out more about the ship, its conservation and the museum here.

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33 thoughts on “Henry VIII’s Battleship: the End Game

  1. Reminds me of the two thousand year old boat that they found at the Sea of Galilee. They went through a very similar process. It was really cool to see it in the museum there. I have a picture of it in my September 8, 2012 post.

      1. Thanks for taking a look and putting a link into your comment. It was a very interesting experience to see the boat. We had just finished a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee and I am glad that we were in a little bit bigger boat.

  2. This is incredibly exciting Kate! I haven’t heard one word about this, and now I’m hooked on how it will all turn out. I’m counting on you to keep me informed. I’ll look forward to the June 1st post! 🙂

    1. It is very exciting: there was a great fuss when the Mary Rose was first brought up out of the Solent, but we forget when the painstaking spraying has been going on year after year. But the new museum will mean a huge surge in interest, I feel sure.

    1. Kate, that’s quite a video they put together. I just passed all the links for a friend who will be in London around the time the museum opens.

      Thanks again. Delightful.

      1. I do hope your friend gets to see it, Jamie! Portsmouth is a fair two or three hour ride from London, but you do get the HMS Victory thrown in next door. Memorable stuff.

      2. She’s British-American and grateful for the info. I just found out she’s staying at the Cotswolds, not London. One would assume that some excursions are on the agenda. So jealous. 🙂

        Thanks for all, Kate. So love your blog.

  3. How far is admiral Sir George Carew to blame for sinking her? Researching his article for Oxford DNB, I hedged my bets.

    1. I think you dealt with it beautifully, and what a treat to have a contributor ot the ODNB commenting here today, John, thank you! There were some damning sources, weren’t there: “she was laden with much ordinaunce, and the portes left open, which were low, & the great ordinaunce unbreached, so that when the ship should turne, the water entered, and sodainly she sanke.”

      The Hall Chronicle, could I find it, would make great reading, I suspect.

  4. Just wonderful. I worked from a studio in Southwark, Duthy Hall, for some years in the 80’s. The owner of the studio, Malcolm Russell, was one of the divers on the “Mary Rose” project. I remember him telling me, first hand,about the dramas of raising the ship, What a wonderful photograph you’ve put on the post.

    1. It’s from the website, Roger- I’m not sure they let you take photos in there, what with flash and all that. It is not a stable object. I heard of arrows which were salvaged, despite their being the consistency of custard.

  5. Yet another thing to add to my list of things I need to do on my next trip to the UK. It’s amazing how fast an object can deteriorate once it’s been removed from the water. Whenever I see a documentary about raising shipwrecks or objects from the ships, they always have to hustle to get the objects back into water so they can start the preservation process.

    1. The preservation has been masterly when you consider what they have been up against, Weebles. I was just mentioning to Roger the arrows which, when they went to move them, were found to have the consistency of custard.

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