Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Ships: Henry VIII's Man-of-War

As has been pointed out by scholars for some time, warfare begets technology. Either we’re inventing more efficient agents of death or we’re improving our knowledge of medicine and surgery. Sometimes, as with the Crimean and American Civil Wars, we’re doing both. Today’s ship is an example of the kind of technological leap forward that quite literally changes everything and its like would not be seen again until the rise of the ironclads. We’re talking about Henry VIII of England’s Mary Rose, a formidable ship that was named after the king's little sister.

Prior to the launch of the original Mary Rose in 1511, warships were of the cog or carrack. They featured high fore and aft castles that served as protection for first archers and later gunners who pelted enemy crews prior to large scale boardings. The idea of using cannons against another ship for anything but the killing and maiming of men did not occur and was, in fact, virtually impossible due to the lack of gun ports. Because cannon were heavy, they needed to be set low in a ship to ensure stability in the water; without water tight gun ports, such armament was not feasible.

This all changed when just such a technological breakthrough was achieved in the early 16th century. The Mary Rose was a virtual prototype for this new way of carrying and using great guns. The cannon could now be used not only against rigging and men, but also for battering and sinking ships.

Initially, Mary Rose was the flagship of Lord Admiral Edward Howard’s fleet of 20 ships which, along with a compliment of Spanish allies, blockaded the French coast from Calais to Brest. The Admiral was killed in an engagement in April of 1511 but his brother Thomas quickly took up command. Mary Rose and her sister ships were instrumental in landing English troops at Calais, but Henry VIII’s burning hatred of the French king Francois I saw the ship called back to Plymouth for a rebuild that would improve her fire and man power. Her 105 foot hull would be strengthened and, when she was again launched in 1536, she would carry 91 guns; 13 more than in her previous incarnation.

As John Batchelor and Christopher Chant point out in The Complete Encyclopedia of Sailing Ships, Mary Rose’s compliment of not only arms but men speaks a lot to the sea change in naval warfare that her new design was heading up. When first launched, she carried 200 sailors, 185 soldiers and 30 gunners. By comparison, the compliment of her contemporary, Sovereign, numbered 400 soldiers to only 300 sailors and not a gunner in sight. When she was relaunched in 1536, she probably carried somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 men, with the numbers skewed toward sailing and gunnery once again.

When England’s war with France hit a fever pitch in 1545, Mary Rose was in the thick of it. Francois I planned to invade Portsmouth with a superior fleet of over 200 ships to Henry’s 60. On July 19th, the two sides engaged with the French targeting the larger Henry Grace a Dieu. A change in the wind allowed the English fleet to advance on the French and it looked as if Mary Rose might lead the charge to beat the French ships back. Historians are still debating what actually happened but the general theory is that Mary Rose’s inexperienced crew threw open her gun ports too soon, she heeled to starboard and her lower decks flooded almost instantly. She foundered and sank with the loss of all but 35 souls. One of the most interesting creatures to go down with her ship was Hatch, Mary Rose’s dog and rat catcher.

An attempt to salvage the ship was made once the French fleet had been chased back to Le Havre, but only a few cannons were raised. It wasn’t until 1982 that a large portion of the ship along with innumerable fascinating artifacts and Hatch’s intact skeleton were raised from the deep. A permanent home for the ship and museum dedicated to her and her seafaring era are still in the works. Find out more at the Mary Rose 500 Facebook page here.

Mary Rose, though she may not seem so now to modern eyes, was a technological marvel whose design would change the way all European nations approached warfare at sea. And that is undeniably impressive.

Header: Mary Rose by Bill Bishop via The Mary Rose Project


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Technology is great. You just have to know how to use it. This story reminds me of when I have a problem with the computer... Usually the problem is between the chair and the keyboard.

Charles L. Wallace said...

Fascinating, Pauline - thank you for sharing with us. Hadn't really thought of her in quite this light, but that makes a lot of sense, both in her revolutionary approach (ship-killing, versus attriting the crew only) and her shocking exit (inexperienced crew leaving gun ports open as she heeled over).

Sometimes, great drama ensues when revoultionary technology is unveiled (USS PRINCETON, 1842 and the gun explosion, the ironclads, for certain, and the CSS HUNLEY come to mind); sometimes the drama is less exciting (HMS DREADNOUGHT introduced, which prompted still more spending on capital ships). I wonder where the Littoral Combat Ship will fall on such a spectrum...

Pauline said...

Yeah, well, I've got the same problem, Timmy!

Some great examples there, Wally, and I agree with you; it will be interesting to see how the Littoral does going forward. Something to keep an eye on.