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Book Review, NRJ 65.3

August 28, 2020 12:00 PM | David Eddy

1545: Who Sank the Mary Rose?

Peter Marsden

There have, to date, been several published volumes focused on the sinking and archaeological excavation of Mary Rose, King Henry VIII’s great warship, and a number of them have been helmed by the author of this new publication, Who Sank the Mary Rose?. This text does not fall within the line of technical volumes published by the Mary Rose Trust, but instead provides a more general summary of the history of the service career of the vessel and the final moments on board as reconstructed from the archaeology. The most significant stated goals of the book, however, are to prove that Mary Rose had one more deck than previously thought, which meant the vessel would have been more unstable than previously acknowledged, and that it was actually King Henry VIII who was responsible for the instability that resulted in the loss of the vessel.

Who Sank the Mary Rose? provides a thorough, and easily accessible historical timeline of the lengthy thirty-plus years of service of the vessel, as well as detailed historical contexts for the shifting political and military situations of the early sixtenth century. For those readers who are not already well-versed in the history of Mary Rose, this book provides a clear overview in a handful of chronological chapters. The first half of the book is taken up by this historical overview, which for some readers might feel overburdened with details that do not contribute to the overall narrative of the sinking of the vessel, however the clear organization of the chapters into distinct historical periods make it easy for the reader to focus their attention on the desired information.\

While Who Sank the Mary Rose? provides a detailed historical context and an archaeological summary, it is a text that is more suited to a lay audience than an archaeological professional searching for technical explanations of the theories proposed by Marsden. The author does summarize his arguments for proposing an additional deck for the vessel, but some of the supporting pieces of information for these arguments seem to be glossed over, and not given the space for the technical detail that would invite archaeological discussion, and only two appendices are included: the dimensions of the masts and spars (with no discussion of the source of the ratios that produced them), and a catalog of the skeletal remains.

The overall conclusion of the book, that Henry VIII was ultimately responsible for the sinking of Mary Rose, feels at times like a grasp for sensationalism, tenuously connected with the rest of the narrative of the vessel. The myth of the meddling king is always a popular one, demonstrated by the specter of King Gustavus Adolphus haunting the doomed warship Vasa in many retellings of the history of that particular vessel. However, taking into account the service history of Mary Rose, and the realities regarding vessel stability (including the scientific understanding of vessel stability of the period), it is difficult to buy into the idea that the blame for the sinking of Mary Rose really does unequivocally lie at the feet of the English monarch.

Who Sank the Mary Rose? is an excellent summary, and entertaining read, for those who wish a manageable dive into such a complex subject. With a lack of jargon, and a clear narrative, it presents a compelling tale for the lay audience interested in the great warship of one of the most famous Tudor monarchs. 

  • Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing, 2019
  • 7” x 10”, hardcover, 304 pages
  • Illustrations, drawings, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. $49.95
  • ISBN: 9781526749352

Reviewed by Annaliese Dempsey, Texas A&M University

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