Hail, Star of the Sea: One museum sheds light on English Catholicism

A rosary on board the carrack Mary Rose

The cries, it was recorded, could be heard on shore. The piteous shrieks of men “drowning like rattens.” They were the crew of Henry VIII’s beloved flagship, the Mary Rose, the pride of the English Navy Royal, which sank before his very eyes during the Battle of the Solent on July 19, 1545.

Just why the Mary Rose, the “noblest ship of sail,” sank is a mystery. Too many bodies and armaments aboard, some claimed. A sudden gust of wind caused her to list, allowing the seawater to gush into her open gun ports, said another. Whatever the reason, of the estimated 500 crewmen, no more than 35 survived. Most were trapped below decks or snared beneath the antiboarding netting that covered the main deck.


This past spring, on the feast of Corpus Christi, the official opening ceremony of the magnificent new Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth Dockyard, right next to where she was built, brought a form of closure to the ship’s strange, eventful history. The creation of the museum also marks the first time the hull of this 16th-century warship and its artifacts will be reunited. More than 19,000 artifacts and the crew’s mortal remains were recovered from the wreck (179 identified individuals).

In the ceremony, the ship’s bell was solemnly conveyed from over the wreck site, where the ship had lain for 437 years, and was the final object to be installed in the museum. The museum is dedicated to the crew, and one unknown sailor is buried in Portsmouth Anglican Cathedral, originally the parish church of Portsea and the first church dedicated to St. Thomas Becket, just a few years after his martyrdom.

The excavation and “resurrection” from the deep of the Mary Rose in 1982 remain unparalleled coups in the field of maritime archaeology. Almost 28,000 dives took place in the world’s largest underwater historical salvage operation. Each object in the museum has been carefully conserved through a groundbreaking process that is still ongoing.

Domini exaudi orationem meam et clamor meus ad te veniat” (“O Lord, hear my prayer, and let my cry come unto thee”). These words of a soul in distress, from Psalm 102, were inscribed in Latin around the border of the most ornate book cover to be recovered from the wreck. What could be more apt? Or more prophetic? The drowning men would surely have called upon God, and a great many would, it appears from objects recovered, have called upon the Virgin Mary and the saints as well.

Henry VIII had broken with Rome several years earlier, and the English Reformation, driven from above, was slowly extending its official grip on the nation. Following the dissolution of the monasteries, Henry’s coffers were replenished, and he was able to afford a substantial and expensive refit of the Mary Rose in 1536.

The Mary Rose was engaged in sea-battle with the ships of Catholic France when she sank, yet, intriguingly, no fewer than 10 rosaries were recovered from the wreck. Mechanical rosary praying had been banned in 1538 (and all use of the beads was condemned in 1547), yet deeply ingrained Catholic practices were still clearly being observed. There was popular resistance to the new religious prescriptions. The beads are made variously from boxwood, coral, brass and silver. Two chaplets have cone-shaped beads with three dots drilled into them, representing the Trinity.

As well as the rosaries, or paternosters as they were familiarly called, archers’ wrist guards from the ship bear religious symbols and prayers. Two are inscribed with words of prayer to the Blessed Mother: “Ave Maria gracia [sic] plena dominus tecum...” (the first words of the Hail Mary in Latin); and, almost certainly, this poignant line from the Salve Regina: “Et jesum benedictum fructum ventris tui nobis post hoc exilium ostende” (“and after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus”). Until the Reformation, England was known as Our Lady’s Dowry.

Another wrist guard depicts the crucifixion, and another carries the crossed \\keys associated with St. Peter (and the papacy), although this was also the heraldic device for the Diocese of Exeter, from which several of the bowmen may have come. An ornamental serving flagon carries the motto in Latin: “If God is for us, who can be against us” (Rom 8:31). Due to the difficulty of storing water, the crew were allocated one gallon of ale a day. Henry had constructed four breweries in Portsmouth to supply his fleet.

The ship’s very name recalls a happier time before the rift in Christendom. When the ship was first built in 1511, Henry was a loyal son of the church. Indeed, a few years later, he was honored with the title Defensor Fidei for his defense of orthodoxy against Luther.

It was long held that the Mary Rose was named after Henry’s sister, Mary Tudor, and after the Tudor rose. But no direct evidence for this exists. Now it is argued that the ship’s name revered Our Lady, the Mystical Rose. There was a long-standing tradition of such pious naming and two of Henry’s other great ships were called Henry Grace à Dieu and the Peter Pomegranate, the pomegranate being Catherine of Aragon’s royal emblem.

The museum design, built around the venerable oak hull of the Mary Rose, has been ingeniously conceived as a finely crafted wooden jewelry box. And infinite treasures lie within under strict environmental conditions. Lights are dim. The space evokes the feel of a shrine, with exhibitions glimmering over several subterranean floors, while the sound of creaking timbers and the clanging bell cast the visitor once more onto the briny deep.

Thanks to facial reconstruction, visitors can look certain members of the crew—a carpenter, a cook, a master gunner—in the eye and discover their personal and professional belongings.

It is both moving and amazing to discover these men, their lives and this great ship through all the precious relics on display. Hatch, the ship’s dog, is now an alert skeleton. Combs come complete with nits and human fleas. There is a pewter bleeding bowl and a syringe, courtesy of the barber-surgeon. From the galley we have a four-legged stool used for chopping meat, the backbone of a cod and even charred fuel logs from the oven, untimely quenched. There are precious peppercorns, a type of early backgammon board and tiny dice; a mighty cannon and an array of weaponry, including a great many longbows, which we learn were pulled at almost twice the weight previously thought. A bowman’s skeleton reveals a repetitive strain injury to his shoulder and a twisted spine.

John Lippiett, a former senior Royal Navy officer now chief executive of the Mary Rose museum, said: “Maritime might started with the Mary Rose.” Indeed, she marks a turning point in history. She was almost certainly the first ship to fire a broadside in anger, but one of the last to use archers and longbows to shoot arrows. Following her loss, the Navy redesigned its ships to make them less top-heavy and also altered its tactics to fight in open water.

Entering the rarefied Admiral’s Gallery at the end of the tour is like entering into Hans Holbein’s painting, “The Ambassadors.” Here are astonishing musical instruments: two violins, tabors and a shawm (an early form of clarinet). There is fine pewter ware to eat and drink from, fashionable garments and books to read, including, it is believed, the Bible in English.

Lippiett summed up the Mary Rose as “the world’s finest insight into life and death five hundred years ago. When their world ended, our story began, and yet we have barely scratched the surface of what we can learn from the collection.”

Here’s to further explorations.

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