Mary Rose Sat on a Pin…


…Mary rose.

Remember that TV programme about the Mary Rose getting screwed over by those awful foreign types? The press coverage at the time referred to a forthcoming journal article. Well, that’s now been published;

The sinking of the Mary Rose warship: a medieval mystery solved? (via sciencedirect – free for now at least)

Its contents mean I have to revise my previous verdict – but not retract it. There is still nothing like enough evidence presented in favour of the “language barrier” sinking hypothesis. Let’s take a look at what’s presented:

The great bulk of the article is given over (naturally enough for a science journal) to the science itself of showing that there were indeed southern Europeans on board that ship. The results are not (for me at least) in question. It’s their conclusions I have reservations over. We do get more detail on the methodology – there are two different climate-related baselines that can be applied to the tests made. One uses modern-day data, the other is a best guess attempt to use values that might more accurately reflect the climate of the 16th century. This means that the two-thirds figure cited on TV and in the press is an upper limit, not a definitive figure. Using the present-day data, the number of non-Britons on board falls to one-third. So the actual percentage could be anywhere between 33% to 63% of those on board being non-Brits. This doesn’t destroy the hypothesis on its own, but it does diminish it, and increase the chance (as I pointed out in the previous piece) that the individuals identified were not sailors but mercenary soldiers (and so not responsible for any misunderstood order or failure of seamanship).

Another clarification is that the samples were taken from all over the ship, which the authors point out makes the results representative of the whole crew. This is true. However, as they also point out, the skeletal remains have been scattered all over the ship. Bearing in mind that just under half the ship’s complement were soldiers, it is perfectly possible that every one of those European skeletons was a soldier. It is of course possible that some or all of them were sailors, but this has simply not been proven.

The hypothesis itself really comes only in the conclusion, and demands just as much of a leap of logic as the watered-down media version we’ve already seen. Even taking for granted that the figure is indeed 63% and not 33% or somewhere in between, here is what this team has NOT given any evidence for:

  • That a significant number of those men were sailors.
  • That some or all of them were not conversant in English (which really stretches credulity IMO).
  • That there was an order issued that was misunderstood (i.e. to close the gunports or to make a shallow turn).
  • That there was an order issued to BE misunderstood*
  • That any such order would have been issued verbally and not with the bosun’s call (conveniently ignored in the article).
  • That Sir George Carew’s famous quote has anything to do with foreigners (“knaves” being pretty much an equal-opportunity insult of the day).

*The original TV claim involved a misunderstood order to close gunports, but the article does not go out on this particular limb. Instead it cites a general “state of disarray” and “maelstrom of miscommunication” leading to an overly steep turn that along with open waterline gunports and a gust of wind, is thought to have sunk the ship.

Here we have yet another logical leap. There is no clear connection between any proposed breakdown in communication, and the crew executing too hard a turn. They would have to not only be poor English speakers, but poor seamen as well. Tsk, those dastardly foreigners, eh? The Daily Mail would approve of the level of confidence on display about the competence of these supposed overseas mariners.

The authors do admit that;

“…this suggestion was at first contentious and it prompted further historical enquiries.”

So what about those enquiries? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and so far none had been presented. Was there hidden history to back up the claims? It might have been an idea to consult a professional historian or two to find out. Instead one of two historical consultants in this case appears to have been the producer of the documentary armed with an internet connection. The supposed new evidence “uncovered…at the British library” turns out to be the same royal letters (specifically nos 106, 326, and 345) that I linked to in my own write-up before the article was published. Far from showing that foreign sailors were used, these refer exclusively to infantry. They can (at a stretch) be described as “mariners” (as claims the article) only up to the point at which they are recruited as soldiers. And as I suspected, far from being new evidence (as claimed), this material has been available for a hundred years, most recently online! One academic was consulted – an archaeologist and Mary Rose specialist. She expressed initial surprise at the idea of non-Englishmen on board ship, but accepted it after checking the literature and finding mention of European survivors from the wreck. How she knew these survivors to have been mariners, I do not know, but the conflation of soldier and sailor as “crew” continues to plague this story. In any case, this is the sum total of the scholarly research conducted to support the hypothesis.

Verdict? Sound science, not so sound history.

2 thoughts on “Mary Rose Sat on a Pin…

  1. Foreign or not, the crew would have trained extensively before battle and you can be sure that old Henry would not fill up his best ship with a poorly trained crew that was unable to understand commands reliably, whether shouted or whistled. I too find the language theory implausible, though, in the noise and fury of battle misunderstandings will happen even if the comrades speak the same language fluently. Happens all the time as modern incidents of “friendly fire’ show but language disaster a-la Fawlty Towers? I don’t think so but then stranger things have happened.

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