Why Did the Mary Rose Sink?

by Heather R. Darsie, J.D.

Dear reader, my father asked me after he was diagnosed with cancer to write something about wind shear causing the Mary Rose to sink. The article below holds my findings. Please note I am neither a meteorologist nor a nautical historian, but merely a girl who tried to fulfill her dying father’s wish. The first anniversary of his passing was 10 April 2021. I hope he likes what I came up with.

Introduction

In 1509, Henry VIII came to the throne when he was not quite eighteen years old. One of Henry’s earlier acts was to order the building of the war-carracks Mary Rose and Henry Grace a Dieu, or Great Henry, in 1510. Mary Rose served Henry VIII for thirty-five years, fighting in numerous battles. On 19 July 1545, Mary Rose sank into the Solent during a battle with the French. There is no one answer as to why she sank, but there are several theories.

It is undisputed that Mary Rose’s gun ports were open, and that water surged into the ship through the gun holes when the crew tried to turn the ship. The Mary Rose completed firing her first offensive round of shot from the starboard side before turning to fire from her port. To make this maneuver, the Mary Rose could have let go of her anchor and raised her sails so she could turn more quickly. Presumably, this tactic was used during prior battles and did not create any great danger to Mary Rose. Another element considered in the sinking of the Mary Rose is that she was recently remodeled, adding a great deal of height to her forecastle and summer castle. The additional height raised the ship’s center of gravity, making her more susceptible to tipping over.

Interpretation of the Mary Rose.

Reasons for the Mary Rose Sinking

Generally, there are four theories as to why the Mary Rose sank. First, an inability of the crew to quickly communicate: osteoarchaeology shows that crew members came from all over Europe and Northern Africa, meaning that there could have been serious language divides during an emergency, combined with Sir George Carew having been put in command only a couple days before. A second reason given is that Mary Rose was overloaded. The third reason is that French guns sank her, but thus far no archaeological evidence supports this theory. The fourth reason is that Mary Rose sank because of a sudden gust of wind catching her sails, combined with her newly renovated and enlarged fore- and summer-castles. It is unknown whether the forecastle truly did have up to three levels, but contemporary images do show these massive, absurd proportions which would have made Mary Rose extraordinarily top-heavy.

The fourth reason, Mother Nature, will be explored here. In at least one account, it is mentioned that there was a gust of wind right before Mary Rose took on water. If there were literally a perfect storm, there is the very real possibility that the meteorological phenomenon known as wind shear could have played a large role in the sinking of Mary Rose. Compound the emergency of war, inability or unwillingness of the captain and crew to communicate, and an arrogantly proportioned war-carrack with sudden wind shear, and the consequences could be nothing but swift and deadly.

Wind Shear: What it is and What it does

Wind shear manifests in several different ways, such as vertical, like a downburst, or horizontal, creating a strong gust of wind.  Both types of wind shear are dangerous to sail-propelled ships, due to the potential strength of the wind and sudden change in direction. Wind shear occurs in a variety of situations, including along weather fronts and close to coastlines. Additionally, wind direction and speed can differ greatly between land and sea. Wind shear takes place over a short distance, and is a sudden change in direction of the wind. Wind shear impacts boats by creating differing directions and speeds of wind along a ship’s masts. In short, if wind shear catches a ship’s sails and isn’t addressed quickly enough, it could have a devastating impact.

Weather the Day Mary Rose Sank

To discern what weather concerns were present the day Mary Rose sank, both English and French accounts are taken into consideration. Lisle wrote a letter to Henry VIII whilst aboard the Henry Grace a Dieu on 21 July 1545, discussing the wind conditions and how those conditions were likely to impact the French fleet gathering around the Isle of Wight. Lisle appears to have been tasked with discerning a reason for the Mary Rose’s sinking. Lisle spoke with Surrey, and learned that,  

“a “purpose” suggested to him by a gale of wind from the west which they [the English?] had for a while yesternight. The masters say that the French fleet ought to be able to ride out such a gale…but if we came under sail towards them [the French] they must loose anchor and abide us under their small sails; and, once loosed they could not with that strainable wind fetch the Wight again… Asks whether to try this, if such a wind chance; for, the King being so near, he will enterprise nothing without his Highness’ privity, from whom he has learnt all he knows.”

Lisle’s letter to Henry VIII tells two things: first, that there was indeed strong winds at around the time of the Mary Rose’ sinking. Specifically, on 20 July, the day after Mary Rose sank. Second, the wind came out of the west, indicating a cold front and increasing the possibility of a shear line manifesting the day before, on 19 July.

Mary Rose - Anthony Roll
Mary Rose, 1540s, from the Anthony Roll.

A second account by the Frenchman Martin du Bellay describes the Battle of the Solent, including mention of the wind. The account describes that on 18 July,

“The army of the enemy [English] was sixty ships, and very well ordered in the war, fourteen of which, thanks to the wind of the land, came out of [Portsmouth] with great speed, and in such a good order that it was said that they waited for our [French] army to fight it.”

Again, a wind is mentioned, and given the direction from which the French were approaching, it can be deduced that the wind driving the English fleet out of Portsmouth came from either the west or north, or even northwest. This again shows that a cold front was moving in on 18 July 1545.

The French account continues that on the morning of 19 July, the sea was “calm without wind, nor rage of current”. Additionally, the English “could not move with help of the wind” on 19 July. That evening, at around 5:00 PM, a breeze arose which was favorable to the English.

A third account was given by a Flemish sailor who survived the sinking. On 23 or 24 July, the Imperial Ambassador to the English court, Van der Delft, wrote a letter to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. It contains what might be the only statement to be had from a survivor of the Mary Rose’s sinking,

“Next day, Sunday [19 July 1540] while the King was at dinner on the flagship, the French fleet appeared. The King hurriedly left the flagship and the English sailed to encounter the French, shooting at the galleys, of which five had entered the harbour while the English could not get out for want of wind. Towards evening the ship [the Mary Rose] of Vice Admiral George Carew foundered…. Was told by a Fleming among the survivors that when she heeled over with the wind the water entered by the lowest row of gun ports which had been left open after firing.”

The report of the Flemish sailor specifically mentions the ship heeling over with the wind on the evening of 19 July 1545. It is also reasonable to assume that the Mary Rose’s sails were at least partially raised so that she could turn to fire at the French from her other side. This would put the Mary Rose at risk of catching a sudden breeze or wind off the land and making the massive carrack difficult to control.

Cowdray Engraving

The Cowdray engraving, one of five engravings created between 1545 to 1548 for Sir Anthony Browne, shows the position of the French and English ships on the day Mary Rose sank. It shows the sails being down on most of the ships in both fleets. A few of the larger ships, including the Great Henry, are depicted with their sails up and heading east. The masts of the Mary Rose are depicted as well, with the masts tilted in such a way that it looks as though her starboard side sank first.

The remains of starboard side of the Mary Rose were recovered in the 1980s. This further supports that the Mary Rose heeled onto her starboard side. Some, if not all, of her ordnance was fired, likely from the starboard side, leaving the gun ports open. When she heeled over, the Mary Rose most likely took in water through her gun ports.

Wind Shear Contributes to the Sinking

Looking at the French, Flemish-Imperial, and English accounts, it is certain that there was wind present before, during, and after the Mary Rose sank. The French account speaks of a wind coming from off the land helped quickly sail the English reinforcements out of Portsmouth and into the Solent on 18 July. This wind most likely came from the north or northwest, because the wind was described as coming “off the land”, and the nearest land was to the north or northwest. The Flemish account specifically blames the wind as part of the reason for the Mary Rose heeling over on 19 July. According to the English account, gale of western wind was present on 20 July, the day after the Mary Rose sank.

The different directions of the wind further reinforce that a cold front was coming through the area. By coming from the north and west, it can be deduced that a low-pressure system was coming. With cold fronts can come wind shear along the shear line between the low-pressure and high, or higher-pressure system.  An actual storm need not be present for there to be wind shear.

If wind shear did strike the Mary Rose suddenly while she was turning, it would not have necessarily been detectable by the other ships which were some distance away from her. Wind shear seems possible due to the shifting of wind from the north or northwest on 18 July to a full western gale on 20 July, giving additional indication of a low-pressure system. Because wind shear can happen very suddenly and over a small distance, and because most of the other ships in the English fleet were facing east with their sails down, a powerful gust of wind could have hit the Mary Rose without anyone on the other ships taking any notice of the wind’s strength.

Wind shear can develop off coastlines, too, and be undetectable on land. From the extant accounts of the Mary Rose’s sinking, there is no mention of a strong wind in Portsmouth. That does not mean there was not wind, but rather that it was not enough to be remarkable to someone on land. From the Flemish account, the Mary Rose was unable to contend with the wind.

Conclusion

It is possible that a weather event pushed over the Mary Rose enough to cause her sinking. Given the mention of winds from a couple different directions, onto which side the Mary Rose sank, and a survivor’s account of wind causing the Mary Rose to heel over, the precipitating event which sank the Mary Rose could be wind shear, white squall, a downburst, or a microburst. It could have been even a simple gust of wind, without the force of the other aforementioned weather phenomenon. Moving forward, a fifth cause for the Mary Rose sinking, namely Mother Nature, should be considered when evaluating the culmination of circumstances leading to the loss of Henry VIII’s ship.


Love learning about the Early Modern period? Are you interested in Tudor history or Women’s history? Then check out my book, Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’, a new biography about Anna of Cleves told from the German perspective!

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Sources & Suggested Reading

  1. Bellay, Martin Du, et al. Mémoires De Martin Et Guillaume Du Bellay. Renouard, 1908. Vol. 4, p. 286-87.
  2. Gairdner, James and R. H. Brodie. Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII. Vol. 20, Part 1: January -July 1545. No. 1237. (
  3. McElvogue, Douglas. Tudor WarshipMary Rose. Bloomsbury Publishing PLC (2015).
  4. “Why Did the Mary Rose Sink?”  https://maryrose.org/why-did-the-mary-rose-sink/, Retrieved 12 January 2020.
  5. Schwing, Franklin B., and Jackson O. Blanton. “The Use of Land and Sea Based Wind Data in a Simple Circulation Model.” Journal of Physical Oceanography, vol. 14, no. 1, 1984, pp. 193–197., doi:10.1175/1520-0485(1984)014<0193:tuolas>2.0.co;2.

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