On 19th July 1545 the Mary Rose, the pride and joy of King Henry VIII and the flagship of the Royal Navy, sank during the Battle of the Solent. Of the roughly 500 crew on board only 34 would survive. It was a national disaster and a serious embrassment for the Crown. It is said that King Henry, who had watched the ship sink from the battlements of Southsea Castle, could actually hear the cries of the drowning men.
For centuries the cause of this catastrophe has preoccupied numerous authors, historians and scientists who have all proposed various theories in books and documentaries, trying explain what could have happened.
But in recent years the emphasis of the research has shifted. There is now much more interest in the lost crew, in trying to learn as much as we can about the unfortunate men that went down with this great ship.
And it might surprise you to learn that in one way or another many of the crew of the Mary Rose may have been connected to Cornwall.
“The Mary rose was Britain’s Pompeii, a moment of life frozen in time.”Dr Hugh Montgomery, diver on the Mary Rose in 1982
In January 2022 I visited the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth to see this incredible wreck, and the treasures recovered from it, with my own eyes.
I had been led there by Roger Grenville, a man from Stowe near Kilkhampton in Cornwall, who has been frequently named as the captain of the Mary Rose. What I discovered however was something of a puzzle and subsequently I contacted the museum’s expert staff to help me to unravel the mystery.
This article I hope will reveal some fascinating truths and also put to bed one rather important mistake, all while adding to our knowledge of another part of Cornwall’s incredibly diverse history.
Pressganged Spaniards in Falmouth?
There are a number of theories as to why the Mary Rose sank.
Some say that she was unbalanced, top-heavy after a recent refit, and had toppled over when she tried to make a sharp turn during the battle. Another suggestion is that she had too much sail set and that this error tipped the balance. One of the most popular causes for the sinking however, and the one that it seems has become generally accepted, is that the Mary Rose had just fired on the enemy and her open gun-ports, which were only about a metre above the level of the water, were flooded as the ship leaned into the turn.
But there is another factor, another element behind these ideas. That the cause was human error and that her own crew were somehow to responsible.
There is a report, often repeated, which states that in the midst of the battle, in those final moments before the Mary Rose sank, her commander, Vice Admiral George Carew, had complained to another English ship’s captain, who had passed within hailing distance, that the crew were:
“the sort of knaves that I cannot rule!”
The suggest is that, for whatever reason, the crew of the Mary Rose perhaps would not or could not obey Carew’s instructions. Which leads us to the question, why? . . .
A few months before the sinking, in January or February 1545, nine ships had sought refuge in Falmouth harbour during a storm. The state papers of King Henry VIII describe how these ships had been sailing down the channel “from Seland [Zealand in Denmark] towards Biscay” carrying around 600 Spanish soldiers. And these men were not in the best situation, they were apparently very short of money and hungry.
It is said that officials in the Cornish port seized the opportunity to press them into service for King Henry VIII as he now found himself short of manpower having sent most of his army to France in 1544 for the Siege of Boulogne.
Some even say that the ships were deliberately impounded in Falmouth so that the crews could be requisitioned. Whatever the case there is a theory that at least some of these Spaniards ended up amongst the crew of the Mary Rose. That they were the “knaves” that Carew could not rule because they either didn’t understand the orders, speaking little or no English, or were simply insubordinate to their new foreign masters.
“Sources suggest that Spanish mariners who had landed at Falmouth early in 1545 were ‘absorbed’ into the King’s ships.”The Many Faces of Tudor England, University of Portsmouth & the Mary Rose Trust, 2017
But this is by no means the only connection between the Mary Rose and Cornwall.
Reading the Bones
The Mary Rose sank in relatively shallow water, in fact the tops of her masts were left sticking up above the surface of the Solent, but in spite of this the death toll was horrendous. This was partly due to the speed in which she went down but also because the anti-boarding netting, meant to prevent the enemy from being able to invade the ship, had trapped the men below deck. They were simply unable to escape as the water poured in.
“The oak hull was like a giant coffin for the men of the Mary Rose.”Margaret Rule, The Search for the Mary Rose, National Geographic, May 1983
During the painstaking excavations of the wreck in the early 1980s nearly 10,000 human bones were recovered from 179 individuals. From these remains scientists were able to piece together 92 complete or partially complete skeletons. Some of the lost crew of the Mary Rose.
In the last few years the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth has embarked on a truly amazing and ground-breaking study of those bones. It is hoped that the physical remains of the crew will be able to tell us more than ever before about the men on board that fateful day and also advance our understanding of Tudor society as a whole.
Isotopic analysis is being used to trace their ancestry and determine where they lived and grew up. And alongside DNA testing, which can provide features like hair and eye colour, they are using facial reconstruction so that we can, after nearly 500 years, start to see forgotten faces.
The study has already determined that most of the men on board were aged between 18 and 30, though there were a few younger cabin boys, perhaps only 12 or 13 years old. And from contemporary documents we know that the crew consisted of roughly 185 soldiers and archers, 200 mariners and 30 gunners, who were in charge of the cannons.
But the study of their bones is turning statistics into individual people. It has identified the physical stresses that these men endured as part of their daily lives on board the ship, helping us to postulate what their role within the crew was, as well as more individual features such as whether they were partial to sweets or smoked a pipe, their childhood illnesses and signs of malnutrition or healed injuries.
Bit by bit their stories are being pieced together.
The environmental conditions in which the Mary Rose lay for hundreds of years not only preserved the bones of the crew but also thousands of objects, both personal and functional.
As Dr Hugh Montgomery says “the Mary Rose is Britain’s Pompeii”, and gazing into the glass cases in the museum you really can see a snapshot of Tudor England frozen in time.
Chests of tools littered the decks and some 250 longbows, each made from a single piece of yew, were recovered. There were brass cannons in their original wooden carriages and more than 1200 pieces of shot.
But there were also the crew’s belongings – leather shoes, bone combs and gaming dice, medicine bottles and manicure sets, books and simple wooden bowls with initials scratched in them. There were tiny pocket compasses and a backgammon set. Even the skeleton of ship’s dog was found in the carpenter’s cabin alongside his woodworking tools.
From these objects we can start to make certain assumptions about the crew’s lives, their interests and beliefs but it is hoped that their bones can tell us even more.
Because despite this incredible wealth of artefacts and the stories that the bones are slowly revealing we are still only able to put names to two crew members, George Carew and Roger Grenville.
The Cornish Captain of the Mary Rose?
“There must have been a great many west-countrymen who went down with her, like Sir George Carew, her commander and the young Roger Grenville, her captain . . .”A. L. Rowse, Tudor Cornwall, 1941
Roger Grenville was born at Stowe near Kilkhampton in Cornwall in 1518, the son of Sir Richard Grenville and his wife Matilda (Maud) Bevill. The Grenvilles had been living in the parish for around 600 years and built the parish church which still holds the family vault.
They were an illustrious Cornish family that I have written about before and no doubt will again.
Sir Richard, Roger’s father, was the Sheriff of Cornwall and at one time High Marshal of Calais, while Honour Grenville, mother of Anne Basset, mistress of King Henry VIII, was his aunt. In 1542 aged 24 years Roger married Thomasine Cole and the couple had three sons, Richard, Charles, who died as a baby, and John. His eldest son Richard would become a famous privateer, explorer and heroic naval officer in his own right in the years after Roger’s death.
It is unclear when exactly Roger joined the King’s navy but it seems that when the Mary Rose sank he was on his way to establishing a fine maritime career. Undoubtedly in some part due to his influential father Roger was said to have recently attained the rank of captain at the age of 26.
And if you turn to almost any history book written about Cornwall in the past hundred years that mentions Roger Grenville it will invariably tell you that he was captain of the Mary Rose.
[The Mary Rose] heeling to starboard, filling through her open lower gun ports and sinking . . . . only about 30 survived, the rest are trapped by the anti-boarding netting and drowned, including the Vice Admiral for that engagement Sir George Carew and her captain Roger Grenville . . .”A. J. Stirland, The Men of the Mary Rose, 2000
However, to confuse matters, some authors refer to him as a master gunner and others as a senior officer and in the Mary Rose Museum itself I discovered that he is just referred to as simply ‘an officer’.
Determined to clear up these inconsistences I contacted the museum’s researchers and asked them why our Cornishman Roger had seemingly been demoted in the past few years.
Dr Alexzandra Hildred, the Head of Research and Curator of Ordnance and Human Remains, kindly responded and has allowed me to quote her here.
“We have no evidence of him [Roger Grenville] ever being captain [of the Mary Rose]. We have the fleet orders for July 1545 listing Sir George Carew [as captain]. Of the 61 ships listed all have named captains, tonnage and number of men on board . . . This lists 700 tons for the Mary Rose, 500 men with Carew as captain . . . no mention of Roger Grenville as captain for any vessels in 1545.”
Dr. Hildred calls this “The Grenville Mistake”, a mistake she says that was debunked or decoded a few years ago by the Mary Rose historian, Charles Knighton.
It seems, to simplify the situation, that it was a case of ‘Chinese whispers’ stemming perhaps from the fact that Grenville had reached the rank of captain, just not captain of the Mary Rose.
- 1545 Fleet Orders list Carew as the captain.
- 1560 Cooper’s Chronicle – clearly states that Carew was captain and that “many gentlemen drowned by great folly”.
- 1602 Carew’s Survey of Cornwall – mentions that Roger Grenville died on the Mary Rose, but no rank given.
- 1757 Biographia Britannica – “Sir George Carew, who commanded her [Mary Rose], Sir Roger Grenville and many other gentlemen were miserably drowned.”
- 1838 Davies’ Parochial History of Cornwall – “Roger [Grenville] who was himself a captain in the navy and lost his life . . . on the unfortunate Mary Rose.”
- 1868 Lakes, A Complete Parochial History of the County of Cornwall, Vol II – “Roger [Grenville] entered naval service and became a captain but was drowned . . . in the Mary Rose.”
- 1890 Dictionary of National Biography – “Sir Roger Grenville who commanded and was lost on the Mary Rose.”
- 1941 Tudor Cornwall – “Sir George Carew, her commander and the young Roger Grenville, her captain . . .”
By the time we reach the early 20th century Roger Grenville is being referred to as the captain of the sunken ship.
So to be clear, our Cornishman, Roger Grenville, was on the Mary Rose when she sank. He did die alongside the hundreds of other ill-fated crew but he was not her captain and his rank on board is still unknown.
But one thing we can say is that in all likelihood he was not the only Cornishman there that day.
The Westcountry Men
As the historian A. L. Rowse points out the fact that Grenville (from Cornwall) and Carew (from Devon) were both Westcountry men there was a good chance that many of the crew of the Mary Rose, following their commander, hailed from this part of the world too.
This idea has been borne out, in part, by the skeletons that the Mary Rose Museum has examined in detail, though the exciting range of ancestry has been a revelation too. (For more on this see the Channel Four Documentary ‘Skeletons of the Mary Rose‘.)
“Although there is a long tradition of seafaring in the West Country it cannot necessarily be assumed that the majority of the crew member’s on the King’s ships were from Devon and Cornwall. Both Carew and Grenville came from the region and may have brought some of their own men with them but men were also brought from many other places to serve the King.”A. J. Stirland, The Men of the Mary Rose, 2000.
One skeleton, who has been given the nickname of Henry, has provided researchers with a number of surprises. His remains tell the scientists that he was aged between 15 and 19 years old when he died and sadly his bones were already showing the physical effects of the tough work he was employed to do.
Surprisingly Henry’s DNA also shows that his ancestors were actually from North Africa. He is most genetically similar to present day Moroccans or the Berbers from Algeria. But analysis of Henry’s tooth enamel suggests that he actually grew up on the south west coast of England, most likely Devon or Cornwall.
The skeleton known as the ‘Arthritic Archer’ because of the wrist-guard found on his lower arm and his enlarged radius bone also had values of sulphur, oxygen and strontium in his teeth that suggest he was too from somewhere on the south west coast of England or possibly Wales.
And another member of the crew, found lying between two iron guns on the main deck, may have come from much further west.
This man was wearing a leather belt with a silver buckle and was carrying a knife, close beside him was a silver whistle known as a ‘Bosun’s Call’ which would have been used to relay the captain’s instructions to the crew through a series of high pitched signals. This skeleton has therefore become known as ‘the Bosun’.
The Bosun was an older man in his late 30s or early 40s when he died and analysis of his teeth also tells us that he grew up beside the sea somewhere in the southwest of England. Forensic Anthropologist Lynn Bell narrowed this further, suggesting that the Bosun was from the west of Cornwall, in the area around Penwith or perhaps Mount’s Bay.
Author’s Note: I can’t help wondering if in those final moments it was this Cornish Bosun that was desperately trying to signal to the crew, what may have been a majority foreign crew, to close those open gun-ports . . .
Dr Bell’s work also suggested that a high percentage of the crew were not native Britons, a theory backed up by more recent study. She concludes as much as 60% could have been foreign.
And finally, although as I have said we only know the name of two of the crew, George Carew and Roger Grenville, it is possible that the excavation of the Mary Rose has revealed the name of one more – the cook.
A skeleton was found in the ship’s galley alongside the remains of a brick-built oven, butchered bone and cooking utensils. The skeleton still had his shoes and socks on, a comb, dagger, spoon, knife and there was also a large wooden bowl. On the bowl were carved the words – Nye Coep Cook.
So was Nye the ship’s cook? Analysis of his bones has suggested that he hailed from the West Country too, perhaps the Plymouth area . . .
Final Thoughts – Lost Loved Ones
The magic of modern science is revealing the incredible diversity of the Mary Rose‘s crew and therefore suggesting that the genetic make-up of Tudor England was far from straightforward and far more cosmopolitan than we had perhaps previously assumed.
As well as Henry’s possible Moroccan roots another skeleton known as the ‘Royal archer’ is also thought to have come from a hot climate, perhaps North Africa, and there are some personal items that imply that some of the crew had links to Europe, Portugal or Italy for example. We can only guess what further research will uncover.
However, one of the mysteries that has really stuck with me during my time researching this article is that although, in the weeks and months following the sinking, a huge effort was made to raise the ship and to salvage the cannon onboard it appears that the bodies of the crew were just left to their watery grave. I can find no record or reference to any bodies being brought back to land and given a proper burial at the time. (Although I feel that some surely must have washed ashore.)
And despite some records to the contrary Roger Grenville’s body was never found.
He was never buried in the family vault in Kilkhampton (I have checked the original parish records). Needless to say Roger’s father was apparently deeply shaken by his death and his young sons of course grew up never knowing their father. And although his young wife Thomasine did eventually marry again we can assume Roger’s death was a tragedy that stayed with her for the rest of her life.
The sinking of the Mary Rose is a tragic story of human loss.
And Roger’s story is just one of many hundreds of others that have been forgotten, the hundreds of men who will forever remain nameless.
But progress is being made. The outstanding work of the Mary Rose Museum is not only fascinating and historically and socially invaluable, it is also incredibly moving as it is going some way towards giving those men who died on 19th July 1545 their identities back.
And who knows one day perhaps Roger Grenville’s remains will be identified and he can at last be laid to rest in his family tomb in Cornwall.
I provide all the content on this blog completely FREE, there's no subscription fee. If however you enjoy my work and would like to contribute something towards helping me keep researching Cornwall's amazing history and then sharing it with you then you can DONATE BELOW. Thank you!