When Henry VIII stared with field glasses from his castle in Portsmouth, England, the British and French were shooting cannonballs and arrows at each other.
We can imagine that the fat king ripped off a strip of foul language when his prized sailing vessel, the Mary Rose, tilted back and sank out of sight except for the tallest masts and sails. The weight of her cannons, mounted too high for good balance, was a factor in the vessel's demise. No one imagined that the Mary Rose would ever again see the light of day, but much of the lower part of this mid-1500s ship has been discovered and lifted from its grave.
When I planned the itinerary for one of my Christian College (now Columbia College) bicycle tours in Europe, I included a visit to Portsmouth harbor so the students could walk the decks and view the interior of Lord Nelson's flagship, Victory. It stood proudly silhouetted against a backdrop of lesser ships and a gorgeous English sunset. Several years later, on a family tour, we visited the Victory just before closing time and saw another beautiful sunset. As we drove out of the parking area, we read signs advising, "Don't Miss the Mary Rose," but ignored them as we hurried to locate a hotel for the night.
At breakfast, I said, "Those Mary Rose signs haunted me, and I recall reading about an ancient sailing vessel being lifted out of the Portsmouth harbor. The busy waitress stopped and blurted out, "Yes, it was right here, and we all went up to the third floor to watch out the windows. Prince Charlie was here, and they made a sort of cradle around her and ... ." Obviously we went back to the museums.
It was not as much the ship itself that interested me; it was the contents. In the museum, we saw the huge well-preserved cannons, which had been in the silt for centuries. Henry VIII watched the ship lean back and sink, at an angle, into the shallow harbor's deep silt. That silt preserved metal, leather, gold, wood and ceramic jars and dishes. These items were cleaned polished, refinished and are displayed for all to see, near the water where the ship went down.
Water erosion for more than 300 years has destroyed the Mary Rose's masts, sails, part of her wooden hull and other items that were not in the silt. Much of the ship's hull was, however, protected as were the sailors' watches, the barber-surgeon's jugs of medicines, other pottery, the archers' long wooden bows and arrows and more.
The wooden bows, most of them 6 feet in length, are cleaned, refinished and fitted with new bowstrings. The arrows have been "fletched" with new feathers that were attached in a special way to make the arrow rotate on its trip to the enemy. The bows are made of straight yew wood and are flexible in spite of spending centuries under water. A placard stated, "These bows have been tested and have cast arrows for 300 yards!" When I taught archery at Christian College, only the advanced students shot as far as 50 yards.
A special building was constructed for the ship's wooden hull, which requires a salt-water spray to keep it from drying out and crumbling. Temperature and humidity are carefully controlled. We stood in that dimly lit, humid structure, viewing a miracle -- a relic raised from the dead and admired by all who view her. I had an eerie feeling that King Henry VIII might be there with us, too.