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Science uncovers the diverse crew of the Mary Rose 4

colour illustration of man with dark skin and dark hair

The Mary Rose crew Archer Royal Revised from new research © Oscar Nilsson and the Mary Rose Trust

New research is revealing the faces of the crew of the Mary Rose

Thanks to the extraordinary wealth of material that sank with it in the Solent in 1545, The Mary Rose has been slowly offering up its secrets to archaeologists, scientists curators and the public in its new berth at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

But until recently theories on the crew’s identity have been based on where they were found and what possessions surrounded them.

Records preserve only a few names of those who worked on the Mary Rose over her 34 years of service, and we will never know the identities of most of those who lost their lives on 19 July 1545, the day the Mary Rose sank fighting the French in the Battle of the Solent.

Now new scientific research, an exhibition and a TV programme are about to reveal some of their faces and where they came from.

colour illustration of man with light skin and brown curly hair

The Mary Rose crew Gentleman © Oscar Nilsson and the Mary Rose Trust

colour illustration of man with light skin and short brown hair

The Mary Rose crew Cook © Oscar Nilsson and the Mary Rose Trust

The Many Faces of Tudor England exhibition explores the latest scientific and genealogical findings into the crew courtesy of research by experts at Swansea University, Cardiff University and the University of Portsmouth.

“The Many Faces of Tudor England delves not just into the crew’s physical appearance and roles on board the Mary Rose but deeper into their lives,” says Dr Alexzandra Hildred, Head of Research and Curator of Ordnance and Human Remains at the Mary Rose.

“Based on new scientific evidence derived from isotope analysis as well as DNA testing of teeth and bones, the exhibition takes you on a journey of discovery, exploring the backgrounds of a number of the crew.

“It also considers what the finds from the Mary Rose can tell us about diversity and globalisation in Tudor England, 500 years ago.”

‘Henry’, one of the most complete of the 92 reconstructed crew skeletons, is among the most intriguing discoveries. His bones and teeth tell us the story of his life. He was aged between 14 and 18. His left shoulder blade had deep depressions where the ligaments attached, and he had well-developed muscles. His spine showed signs of osteoarthritis and degenerative disease.

colour illustration of man with light skin and short brown hair

The Mary Rose crew Carpenter © Oscar Nilsson and the Mary Rose Trust

colour illustration of man with light skin and dark hair and beard

The Mary Rose crew Bosun © Oscar Nilsson and the Mary Rose Trust

colour illustration of man with freckled skin and ginger hair and beard

The Mary Rose crew Archer © Oscar Nilsson and the Mary Rose Trust

Oxygen isotope analysis of his teeth suggests that he was raised in Britain, in areas of high rainfall – the West or South, whilst his sulphur value suggests that he was born within 50km of the coast. This is consistent with his strontium isotope ratio, which suggests he was raised in an area of Palaeozoic geology, such as is found in North Devon.

His nitrogen value is high, so he ate lots of animal protein, whilst his carbon value points to more of a land-based rather than marine-based diet. Analysis of Henry’s rib shows similar results to his teeth, so he probably didn’t have any great change in his diet in adolescence.

However, one of Henry’s teeth was extracted for DNA analysis and his nuclear DNA (information coming from both parents) suggest that he came from North Africa, making Henry genetically similar to current day Moroccans, Mozabite Berbers of Algeria or individuals from the Near East.

His mitochondrial DNA (passed almost exclusively from mother to offspring through egg cells) is consistent with this ancestry but may also suggest that his mother hailed from Britain.

Another particularly surprising discovery is that of the Archer Royal, who was found trapped under the rear axle of a bronze cannon on the main deck, his longbow beside him.

Because of the famed longbow skills of English forces, it has always been presumed that this archer was English. In his early 20s and standing 5ft 10in, he was taller than most of the crew. Although well-built and with particularly strong legs, the centre of his spine was twisted, a common feature of the Mary Rose crew found with archery equipment.

colour illustration of man with light skin and mid length blonde hair

The Mary Rose crew Archer Royal Original © Oscar Nilsson and the Mary Rose Trust

colour illustration of man with light skin and short brown hair

The Mary Rose crew Purser © Oscar Nilsson and the Mary Rose Trust

A high-status individual, he was found wearing a leather wristguard decorated with the Royal Arms of England and Katherine of Aragon’s badges – the triple turret of Castile and the pomegranate symbol of Granada.

Oxygen isotope analysis on his teeth provided a value much higher than the British norm – one of the highest ever to be recorded in Britain – suggesting he was not born in Britain.

The higher oxygen value leads experts to believe he grew up in a hotter climate. His sulphur value was very low so he was not raised near the coast.

His nitrogen, carbon and sulphur values suggest a terrestrial diet with little or no marine food. His high nitrogen suggests he had diet rich in animal protein and his strontium isotope ratio could relate to limestone areas, which exist across Europe and parts of North Africa. It is now believed that this Royal Archer may have come from inland North Africa, over 50 km from the coast.

Dr Sam Robson, Senior Research Fellow and lead bioinformatician on the project, at the University of Portsmouth, says this research “has been an incredibly interesting story to be a part of, and we have learned a huge amount along the way.

“Being able to take a snapshot of the past and uncover previously unknown information about these characters from centuries ago has been very insightful.”

Given that the new discoveries point to a much more multicultural crew than previously thought, the question arises: what further insights might a study of the remaining crew provide and what does the Mary Rose crew say about British national identity today?

The Many Faces of Tudor England is at the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard from 18th March – 31st December 2019. 

Skeletons of the Mary Rose: The New Evidence will be shown on Channel 4 on Sunday 17th March 2019 at 8pm and will be available for catch-up on All4 shortly after.


Explore the remains of Henry VIII’s favourite ship, recovered from the seabed in one of the most challenging archaeological excavations of all time. See thousands of genuine Tudor objects, from the large bronze and iron ship’s guns, to personal items like wooden bowls and nit combs, which recreate life on…

4 comments on “Science uncovers the diverse crew of the Mary Rose

  1. Sandra on

    I am in my 70 th year and l can honestly say that the visit to Portsmouth Docks was the best ever. The exhibition area has so much to offer besides the Mary Rose, the war ship lthink was called the Warrior you could actually go aboard. Very well done and well worth a visit.

  2. Diane on

    Very interesting article on the expanded research into the crew remains.
    The watercolour drawings of crew accompanying the article are very beautiful. The artist is not identified, nor are there any comments whether these are just imagined fabrications of human faces, or perhaps based on reconstructed skulls?

  3. Linda Averill on

    Amazing what science can tell us these days. I went to see the Mary Rose earlier this month and found the details about the crew and their possessions to be fascinating. It is an extraordinary museum experience and well worth the admission fee.


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