The Cowdray engravings and the loss of the Mary Rose

Dr Dominic Fontana

Department of Geography University of Portsmouth

The centre section of the engraving showing the sinking of the Mary Rose during the battle in the Solent off Portsmouth on 19th July 1545.

The Cowdray engravings are a set of images recording Henry VIII’s campaign in France during the summer of 1544 and the events of 19th July 1545 in Portsmouth, the Solent and the Isle of Wight, showing the attempt by the forces of the French King, Francis 1st, to invade England and wrest the crown from Henry.  One of the most notable events that occurred during the “Battle of the Solent” was the loss of King Henry VIII’s vice flagship, the Mary Rose, and her sinking is clearly shown in this picture.

The 1545 image of Portsmouth presents a birdseye view looking from north to south across the southern part of Portsea Island towards the Solent and to the Isle of Wight beyond. In the left-hand side of the image is the French invasion fleet represented as a mass of ships drawn up in St Helen’s Roads around the eastern end of the Isle of Wight.  In the central upper right-hand area of the image are the ships of the English fleet which are set to oppose the French invasion attempt by occupying the anchorage of Spithead, which is part of the Solent between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight. With the English ships anchored in this location their guns denied the French access into the Solent and in particular the deep water quayside within Portsmouth Harbour.

The whole of the engraving showing the battle in the Solent off Portsmouth on 19th July 1545. The ships on the left are the French fleet with the English ships in the centre and to the right of the picture  The land in the top of the image is the Isle of Wight and the southern shore of Portsmouth is at the bottom. The sea in the middle is the Solent.

The original image was probably painted between 1545 and 1548 for Sir Anthony Browne who was Master of the King’s horse.  He was a wealthy and well-connected man. He is shown prominently in the centre of the image riding a fine white horse following just behind King Henry VIII who is also mounted.  Next to Sir Anthony Browne is Sir Charles Brandon, first Duke of Suffolk who was commanding the English land forces at Portsmouth.

King Henry VIII followed by Sir Anthony Browne
and Sir Charles Brandon 1st Duke of Suffolk

Prints of the Cowdray engraving are available from

The picture was one of a set of five, which adorned the walls of the dining hall at Cowdray house in Midhurst, Sussex. This was the home of Sir Anthony Browne since he inherited it from his half-brother in 1543. It remained one of his principal residences until his death just five years later in 1548.

The five paintings on the walls of the dining hall were entitled: --

  • The Departure of King Henry VIII from Calais July XXV MDXLIV

  • The Encampment of King Henry VIII at Marquison July MDXLIV

  • The Siege of Boulogne by King Henry VIII MDXLIV

  • The Encampment of the English forces near Portsmouth, Together with a view of the English and French fleets at commencement of the action between them on the XIXth  July MDXLV
  • The riding of King Edward VI from the Tower of London to Westminster on 19th February 1547
Prints of the Cowdray engravings are available from

Sir Anthony Browne greets King Henry VIII outside Calais July 1544.

Besides mere decoration of the wall the most likely purpose of the paintings was to recall the great events in which Sir Anthony Browne had played a part.  Their location in the dining room might suggest that Sir Anthony intended these images as “visual aids” to support his storytelling at dinner. Certainly, they were painted to represent accurately the events in accordance with the requirements and perceptions of Sir Anthony Browne.  The events of the summers of 1544 and 1545 as well as his prominent role in the Coronation proceedings of Edward IV in February 1547 were clearly important to him.

The images, as we have them today, are in the form of printed reproductions made from copper engraving plates.  The Society of Antiquities of London commissioned the Sherwin brothers to make a watercolour copy of the original wall painting of the Portsmouth scene and this was completed by 1775 (Nurse, 2007).  Recording the image had been made at the suggestion of Sir Joseph Ayloffe (c. 1708 – 1781) who read paper to the Society about the wall paintings at Cowdray house in 1773 (Ayloffe, 1775).  Although there was some opposition to the project by members of the Society, because of the likely cost, the picture was engraved and published as the second in a series of historical prints and distributed to members of the Society.  It is a very large picture, being over 6 feet wide, and due to limitations of the reproduction method it was engraved on to two separate copperplates. The engravings were made by James Basire of Great Queen Street, London, who was engraver to the Society. Basire specialized in antiquarian subjects and used a very painstaking, carefully drawn style of copper plate engraving intended to faithfully reproduce the subject as could best be achieved within the limitations of the technology. According to Ackroyd, (1995, p35) his was a rather old fashioned style of engraving at the time.  William Blake, painter and poet, was apprenticed to Basire in 1772 and he lived in Basire’s household until 1778 when he completed his apprenticeship and left to pursue his studies at the Royal Academy Schools. It is likely that William Blake was involved in the engraving of the Cowdray image depicting the Battle of the Solent as this engraving was published in 1778. The four other wall paintings from Cowdray House were copied by Samuel Hieronymous Grimm (c. 1733 – 1794) in 1785 and subsequently engraved by Basire, these being published in 1788 (Nurse, 2007).

Cowdray House was largely destroyed by fire in 1793

Unfortunately, Cowdray House was largely destroyed by fire in 1793 (St. John Hope, 1919) and with it, amongst much other material, went the original wall paintings from the dining hall. Consequently, the images we have today are Basire’s carefully made monochrome engravings. There were a few notes made by Sir Joseph Ayloffe and published in his paper for the Society of Antiquaries (Ayloffe, 1775) about some of the colours used in the original paintings but beyond this we have no further information regarding the colour. A few copies of the engravings were hand coloured at some time, possibly when newly printed in 1778 or shortly afterwards, but it is not known exactly when or if the colours chosen were based on those used in the original images. At least two of these coloured examples are known still to exist.

It is important to see the 1545 Battle of the Solent picture, which shows the sinking of the Mary Rose, as one of a set of images rather than simply an entity entire within itself as this is how they were originally conceived to be viewed and employed by Sir Anthony Browne.

The Departure of King Henry VIII from Calais

Detail from the departure of King Henry VIII from Calais in July 1544 with English ships in the harbour and Calais Castle above.

The image shows the departure of King Henry VIII from Calais in July 1544. There are identifiable features in the landscape and high on the hill to the south of Calais, in the top right-hand section of the image, is Sir Anthony Browne greeting King Henry VIII with these events being witnessed by many of their troops. Importantly, in the foreground of this image as there is also a four masted ship, which is equipped with nine guns on its main gundeck, each fitted with lidded gunports. The fifth gun on the port side is being fired, probably in announcement of the ship’s arrival at Calais. It is not unreasonable to suppose that because the loss of the Mary Rose was an important event shown in the Portsmouth painting, Sir Anthony Browne would have required an image within the set of paintings which depicted the Mary Rose as she had been before she sank. This is therefore most probably the last Tudor image made of the Mary Rose afloat.

A four masted ship announces her arrival off Calais in July 1544 by firing the fifth gun on her main gundeck. This image is in the foreground of the Cowdray engraving entitled "The Departure of King Henry VIII from Calais July XXV MDXLIV". It is quite possible that this is the Mary Rose shown before she sank in the Battle of the Solent in July 1545.

The Encampment of King Henry VIII at Marquison

The camping of the King at Marquison (modern day Marquaise). Note the large storm.

The second picture in the series shows the camping of the King at Marquison (modern day Marquaise) which is situated between Calais and Boulogne.  This image is interesting because it depicts a significant weather event which must have been of some considerable note to those who had been there at that time.  There is a large storm in progress and one can see that the tent wall surrounding King Henry VIII’s enclosed camp is being blown around by the wind and there are what appeared to be hailstones falling from the sky.  What makes the recording of this incident particularly important is that in several of the written descriptions recounting the events surrounding the sinking of the Mary Rose writers have suggested that the Mary Rose was over set by a strong, sudden and unexpected breeze.  However, the Cowdray engraving depicting the events at Portsmouth shows no sign whatsoever of any particularly unusual weather within the image whereas this is clearly shown in the Marquison picture.

The Siege of Boulogne by King Henry VIII

A detail from the siege of Boulogne in 1544

The next image in the sequence is a very large one, it is the same size as the sinking of the Mary Rose picture, and it depicts the events involved with the siege of Boulogne in 1544.  In this particular image Sir Anthony Browne plays a very small part indeed.  His encampment is shown in the top left-hand side of the picture although Sir Anthony himself is not identifiable. However, it is interesting to note that one Knight, acting as Standard Bearer for Sir Anthony Browne’s army, is quite prominently shown. It is likely that this soldier is Sir John Berkeley.  He is recorded, in a letter from John Dudley, Viscount Lisle to the Privy Council 24 June 1545 (Knighton and Loades 2002, pp. 115-116) as having been injured in the shoulder on 21st June 1545 by a malfunctioning saker which exploded whilst engaging some French vessels in the English Channel striking him with a shrapnel fragment “…not so much as half the quarter of a hazel nutshell, struck him besides the pap and out at the top of the shoulder.”  He died by September 1545 but may well be represented in the Portsmouth picture onboard one of the English Galleys with his arm in a sling. Such heroism would have been an important aspect of the story that Sir Anthony Browne would have undoubtedly wished to record. 

Is the figure standing on the poop deck Sir John Berkeley with his arm in a sling?

Henry VIII is shown quite prominently in the centre of the siege of Boulogne image where he is dressed in full armour inspecting the operations.  It is particularly notable in this image that there is an extensive trench system, similar to those employed during the First World War, which has been dug around Boulogne to enable English troops to advance quite closely to the walls of the town.  It is also important to understand that this image shows that considerable effort had been taken with the logistical element of the military operation and there are large quantities of artillery being employed to batter the walls and town of Boulogne.  In addition to the significant quantity of artillery there is also a concentration within the image on the provision of supplies to the guns and the troops.

Henry VIII reviews the seige of Boulogne

The 1544 campaign engravings (Calais, Marquison and Boulogne) are engraved in a different style to the 1545 Mary Rose picture showing Portsmouth. They are reproduced only in simple line work without any of the complex hatching and shading which renders much of the detail in the 1545 Mary Rose engraving. This choice of a simpler approach may have been an attempt at moderating the considerable skill and hours required to create the fully shaded copper engraving and thereby meet the Society of Antiquaries’ need to reduce the costs of reproduction. Although simpler in their presentation these images still hold a great deal of information.

The Encampment of the English forces near Portsmouth - The Mary Rose Picture

There is considerable topographic detail which can be clearly identified within the Mary Rose engraving.  For example the narrow entrance of Portsmouth Harbour is quite clearly shown in the engraving and there are some English ships passing through the passage to join the rest of the English fleet at Spithead. This seabed configuration is almost exactly as it exists today and indeed, the slightly deeper water channel across the sandbanks adjacent to the entrance to the harbour (called Hamilton Bank and Spitbank) is still in use today and is frequently employed by the Isle of Wight car ferries.  This channel is known today as the Swashway.

The Round Tower.  A circular stone built structure originating from the 1530s to 1540s

Similarly, in the built environment there are many identifiable features within the engraving.  For example, on the Portsmouth side of the Harbour entrance is the Round Tower.  This is a circular stone built structure originating from the 1530s to 1540s and designed to provide artillery protection for the Harbour entrance.  The Round Tower is still extant.  On the Gosport shore opposite the Round Tower is Fort Blockhouse.  In the 1584 map of the Portsmouth fortifications (British Library Cotton MS Augustus I ii 117) a boom chain extending across the Harbour entrance from the Round Tower to Fort Blockhouse can be seen. This provided additional protection for the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour as it could be raised from the seabed to close the harbour entrance to enemy ships. This is also referred to in John Leland’s Itinerary (born about 1506, 'King's Antiquary' to Henry VIII, 1533) (Written c. 1535-43) where he writes: --

“There is at this point of the haven Portesmuth toun, and a great round tourre almost doble in quantite and strenkith to that that is on the west side of the haven right agayn it: and heere is a might[y] chaine of yren to draw from tourre to towrre.”

Interestingly, Williams (1979) suggests that the chain was not available for the 1545 battle which may have given rise to considerable anxiety within the English command. This could explain why the capstan for winding it tight is shown in the Cowdray image adjacent to the Round Tower but that the chain itself is not evident in the picture.

The Square Tower (Right), originally built around 1495 of earth and timber and rebuilt of stone during Henry VIII's strengthening of Portsmouth's defences

Other Old Portsmouth structures are also clearly visible in the Cowdray engraving such as The Square Tower which was originally built around 1495 of earth and timber and was rebuilt of stone during Henry VIII's strengthening of Portsmouth's defences. Similarly, the walls of the southeast corner of Portsmouth are still extant although heavily modified from the Tudor originals particularly through the work of Sir Bernard De Gomme in the 17th Century.

Lumps Fort which now encloses the Southsea Rose Garden

Further along the Southsea shoreline the smaller outlying posts of Eastney Fort and Lumps Fort are also clearly shown. Lumps Fort now encloses the Southsea Rose Garden and Eastney Fort was later incorporated into the Royal Marines Barracks part of which currently houses the Royal Marines Museum.

The four Brewhouses: Dragon, Lion, White Hart and The Rose. Note the "pond" over which they are built.

Within the town walls there is also considerable detail shown which can be compared with the data presented in the 1584 map of Portsmouth. (British Library Cotton MS Augustus I ii 117) For example, the four Brewhouses: Dragon, Lion, White Hart and The Rose are clearly shown on the map as being located around a pond.  This is most probably the freshwater spring required to provide the plentiful water supply essential to the brewing process. The Cowdray engraving shows four timber framed buildings located above a pond.  If these positions are plotted into a modern map they indicate that the brew houses were located on the site of what is now St Jude's Primary School in St Nicholas’ street.  Interestingly the land at this place dips down quite markedly so that it is just below the level of the surrounding streets and is certainly a low point in the local terrain where water would tend to form a pond even today were it not for modern drainage.

The Mary Rose having sunk to the South of Spitbank

Even the appearance of the Mary Rose on the Cowdray engraving showing the Battle of the Solent presents what is likely to be an accurate depiction of the ship resting on the seabed having sunk. All that we see are the highest parts of two of the ships masts protruding above the surface of the sea complete with their fighting tops. We can also see the foremast mainsail floating on the surface of the water surrounded by a number of drowned sailors. The image also shows one man clinging to the underside of the fighting top of the main mast with two men on the foremast, one clinging to the mast itself and the other standing on the fighting top waving animatedly. This depiction of the masts would suggest that the Mary Rose had been proceeding in a northerly direction at that time that she sank and also that she was rigged with the mainsail on the foremast set. It is interesting to note that there is no suggestion within the image of the mainsail on the main mast which may imply that this was reefed at the time of the sinking. This is a similar sail configuration to a number of the English vessels shown on the engraving.  These other English vessels are shown as having their bowsprit sails rigged and their lateen sails on their rearmost mast set which would provide forward motive power from the bow sail with the stern sail providing some directional control.

A contemporary image of the wreck of the Royal George, which sank at Spithead on the 29th of August 1782 close to where the Mary Rose sank. (The source of the original is unknown.)

Comparing the general appearance of the sunken Mary Rose with to a contemporary image of the wreck of the Royal George, which sank at Spithead on the 29th of August 1782 close to where the Mary Rose sank, (A reproduction of which in the author’s collection. The source of the original is unknown.) it can be seen that the masts of the sunken Royal George protrude above the surface of the sea in a similar fashion and to a comparable extent to the depiction of the Mary Rose's masts in the Cowdray. Clearly, this is another indication of the great care which had been taken to present the elements of the scene in a truthful and detailed fashion.

The internal evidence shown within the image strongly suggests that the Cowdray engraving presents quite a detailed and probably reasonably accurate pictorial representation of the battle scene at Portsmouth on the 19th July 1545. It was decided therefore to examine the image further by attempting to establish the originating viewpoint and to explore the topographical presentation within the image.  This was done by creating a digital elevation model for the whole Solent region including both the land height and the bathymetry. From this model it was possible to scale and rotate the landscape and iteratively to refine the settings until it recreated reasonably closely the viewpoint as it is presented in the Cowdray engraving and then from this model to establish whether the topographical accuracy may be suitable for advancing the study further.

Above: A Digital Terrain Model of the landscape. Looking towards the South showing the southern shore of Portsmouth and The Solent with the Isle of Wight beyond. The image has been rotated and scaled to model the view as presented by the Cowdray Engraving.

The whole of the engraving showing the battle in the Solent off Portsmouth on 19th July 1545. The ships on the left are the French fleet with the English ships in the centre and to the right of the picture  The land in the top of the image is the Isle of Wight and the southern shore of Portsmouth is at the bottom. The sea in the middle is the Solent.

The image presents a considerable number of known locations within it and these were then used to assist with the process of developing a suitable plannimetric map from the data. Essentially, the fixed items of infrastructure such as the forts and landscape features contained within the engraving were used a reference points from which could be estimated the positions of the more movable objects, such as the ships and other events depicted within the engraving.

The position of the Mary Rose is known from its archaeological site and similarly the positions of locations such as Southsea Castle, Lumps Fort, the Round Tower, Fort Blockhouse, St Helens Church, the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour, as well as the more general features such as the coastlines themselves are all known. From these fixed positions it was then possible to estimate the locations of all other places and objects within the Cowdray image including the more ephemeral events that are shown.  This approach provides some reasonable degree of certainty about the accuracy of these locations.

The position of the French fleet could be established along with the positions of the advanced party of galleys that had entered further into the Solent with the probable intention of attacking some of the English ships.  Similarly, it was then possible to establish the positions of the English ships themselves.  Their probable positions become even more clearly defined when the bathymetry is taken into consideration as there are a limited number of locations where the deep draught English vessels could anchor or operate safely within the Solent without danger of running aground.

Interestingly, the locations for the advanced party of French galleys, which could operate more freely in shallow water than the much larger English vessels, suggest that they were very close to the shallow sandbank area called “No Man's Land”.  The name is used for this location on all of the charts subsequently made of the Solent.  We do not have any charts which predate the Battle of the Solent and so it is not possible to establish whether the name “No Man's Land” was in use prior to 1545 however, it seems a most appropriate name in the light of the disposition of the English and French fleets during the battle as this marked the point between the opposing forces in similar fashion to the area of the same name between the frontline trenches of the Western Front during the First World War.

200m buffer zones were created around the points which represent individual ships to ensure that they were not placed too close together as each warship would need 100 - 200m of free space between themselves and the adjacent vessels to allow the ships to swing on their anchor cables with the changing tide and wind so that they would not collide.

This map shows the positions of the English and French fleets in relation to the shallow areas of the Solent and the areas of the sea which were protected by gunfire from the shore based forts. The green zones are 250m concentric buffers indicating areas which were within range of the guns and therefore were areas into which the enemy ships would not venture lightly.

Positions of individual ships could then be estimated from the Cowdray engraving and plotted into their appropriate location on the Geographic Information System (GIS) map layer. In order to ensure that individual ships were not placed too close together 200m buffer zones were created around the points which represent each individual ship.  Each warship would need 100 - 200m of free space between themselves and the adjacent moorings to allow the ships to swing on their anchor cables with the changing tide and wind such that they would not collide with one another. Plotting the number of ships as depicted on the Cowdray engraving and allowing sufficient free space indicates quite exactly where the ships would have to have been located given the constraints of the seabed topography and their need for a moderately safe anchorage with a suitable safety margin.

Having earlier established the positions of the fortifications lining the shores of Southsea, Gosport and Nettlestone on the Isle of Wight it then became possible to use the Geographic Information System to further investigate their influence on the battlefield. The GIS was employed to create buffer zones around each of the forts indicating the potential areas of gunfire they could achieve. These were drawn as concentric zones based on a sequence of 250 m radius rings.  Experimental archaeology using a modern replica of one of the Mary Rose's bronze guns, cast using traditional techniques and materials, suggests that its range was possibly as much as 1.5 miles and that considerable damage could be expected to any vessel within 750 or 1000 m of the gun and therefore these zones may be considered as areas into which enemy vessels would not care to venture lightly.

It can be seen from the map, showing the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour and its approaches, that the navigable channel is very narrow and runs parallel with the Southsea shoreline.  It can also be seen that the zones of potential fire from the forts along the Southsea and Gosport shorelines provide coverage throughout most of that approaching channel and therefore any enemy ship attempting to run the gauntlet would probably come under some considerable bombardment during its passage.  It should also be remembered that the tidal currents prevalent in the approach channel to Portsmouth Harbour are at times very strong and can cause sailing ships some considerable difficulty when trying to enter the Harbour.

On a falling tide there is very strong outflow from the Harbour and it often becomes impossible for a sailing ship to make any progress along the channel such that it could enter the Harbour at that time.  At other stages of the tide it is possible for a vessel to make an approach, although sometimes this can be very slow. It depends on the particular combination of tidal current, wind direction and strength. The approach can only be reasonably easily made on a rising tide where the inflowing current will carry the vessel directly into Portsmouth Harbour.  However, although the flood tide can propel the vessel it should be noted though that this can be quite a difficult manoeuvre as without the ship making way within the water (forward motion relative to the flow of the current) it is almost impossible to control the directional movement of the vessel.  In other words, a ship's master needs to ensure that his vessel has sufficient sail set so that it achieves a forward speed in excess of the velocity of the tidal current such that the ship remains within his directional control. With engine powered vessels this is not too much of a problem but with sailing ships there are all of the associated difficulties of setting the sails to provide forward thrust from the available wind direction and strength whilst ensuring that the ship remains on track within a very confined channel. This is not an easy task in straightforward conditions but would be very hard to achieve under sustained gunfire from the shore and would be even harder when there are several vessels in the channel attempting to enter Portsmouth Harbour in quick succession. A mistake by one of them would rapidly escalate the range and severity of problems for the subsequent following vessels making such an approach a very risky venture. Indeed, Du Bellay in his account
records that the French Naval Commanders were well aware of this difficulty and for this reason strongly advised against an attempt at a direct naval attack on Portsmouth Harbour.

Having established the locations of the various ships shown in the Cowdray engraving it was then possible to consider what kind of manoeuvres some of the ships may have been undertaking during the battle. When one considers the positions of the fleets, the advanced party of galleys, the areas covered by shore-side batteries and the areas that are too shallow for the larger ships then there are surprisingly few practical possibilities for locations suitable for so many ships to anchor or manoeuvre.

The archaeological position of the Mary Rose would suggest that she was heading in a northerly direction towards Portsmouth. It is also clear that she was, at the point of sinking, approximately 600m south of the shallow area of Spitbank. This is a strange location for the Mary Rose to have sailed into and it is quite likely that her sailing master was fully aware of this situation. Had she continued her passage in this northerly direction, she would have undoubtedly run aground on Spitbank. Therefore, we can reasonably assume that she was either attempting to make a turn to port or starboard such that she would avoid the shallow water above Spitbank or alternatively she was deliberately heading towards the sandbank with the intention of running aground. She had no other alternative to these possibilities other than simply attempting to stop although this would not have been easy for a sailing ship in the prevailing current. This raises some interesting questions. Why was the Mary Rose in this part of The Solent? What were her intentions? Was the Mary Rose already in trouble at this time and, if so, how had this happened?

It is reasonable to surmise that her commander and crew would have wanted to inflict damage on the enemy with her big guns. They must have been very aware that the King was watching them closely. To achieve this she needed to bring her broadside mounted guns to bear on the attacking galleys.  There are two broadside possibilities from her guns mounted along the main gundeck, those on her port or starboard sides. There are also a few guns mounted high in the stern castle which were capable of firing forwards. These were longer range bronze guns, powerful but on their own not as destructive as the weight of shot that could be released from a full broadside.  In the Cowdray engraving the Great Harry is shown as firing the forward-most of her guns mounted on her main gun deck towards the advanced party of the galleys. These guns could be angled to aim forward to a limited extent but their primary mode d’ employ was as part of a broadside at right angles to the ship’s direction of travel. If we conjecture that the galleys would be attempting to attack at least some of the English ships it would seem reasonable that they would attempt to attack in such a way that their advantages (of greater speed, wind-independence, shallow draught and superior manoeuvrability) would be maximised.  In these circumstances the galleys could manoeuvre independently of the wind and could sustain a reasonable speed in calm water for sufficient length of time such that they would be able to rush into an attack and then attempt to speed away from the larger, better armed but relatively cumbersome English vessels.  It would also be important that the galleys should make best use of their armament. In the Cowdray engraving this is shown as being two forward firing guns mounted in the bow of the vessel and, in one case at least, two rearward firing guns mounted in the stern.  Therefore it seems likely that the galleys would attempt an attack against the English ships by rowing at maximum speed directly towards them, firing their forward facing guns when they are at an appropriate range, rapidly putting about, firing their rearward firing guns from the stern, if fitted, and then rowing away as quickly as possible to get out of range of the English ships.

The tide

Clearly, a battlefield at sea is a dynamic environment which requires the commanders to be aware of many factors and not the least of these is the tide as it conditions the currents which control the possible movements of the ships during the engagement.

The tide for the day of the battle can be calculated from the Moon phase for 19th July 1545 as the tide in the Solent is usually directly related to each stage of the Lunar cycle. There is a complication imposed by the change of calendar which took place in Britain in 1752 from the Julian Calendar to the modern Gregorian Calendar. Consequently, normally we must add 10 days to the Tudor date to compensate for the change. However, this changing calendar has already been taken into account in the Moon phase model developed by NASA (available at: -- and consequently the date used for the Lunar phase and tidal calculation for the battle itself is 19th July 1545. The Moon was full on 23 July 1545 and therefore the day of the battle was four days before the full Moon. This suggests a high tide at around 09.00 GMT hrs in the morning and low-water at about 1500 GMT. (Local solar noon is about 12.11 GMT so local time is approximately 11 minutes later than GMT). This tidal condition would provide a tidal range (the vertical difference between high water and low-water) between the maximum of a Spring tide and minimum of a Neap tide ensuring that the tidal currents would be reasonably strong but not quite as fast as they would be for a Spring tide. Low tide would have been at around 14.45 hrs in the afternoon and that consequently the tidal current would have flowed from East to West from around 08.00 hrs to around 12.00 hrs.

0700 GMT Slack Water Low

0800 GMT

1000 GMT

1200 GMT

1300 GMT

1400 GMT

1500 GMT

1600 GMT

1700 GMT

1800 GMT

Above: Tidal flows from 0700 hrs GMT on 19th July 1545 Julian

In these circumstances throughout the morning and early afternoon the French galleys would have had a considerable advantage as they would have been able to bear down on the moored English ships with considerable speed provided by their own oar power and assisted by the tidal current, attack the English ships and then to escape by rowing away to the East. At the same time the English vessels would have been held in a “bow-on” attitude to the attacking French galleys by the flow of the tidal current and they would not have been able to aim easily their broadside firing guns at the enemy as the whole ship would need to be brought beam on to the tidal current. This situation would have been exacerbated by the lack of wind required by the English vessels for their propulsion and directional control. In other words the English ships were relatively defenceless against the swift head-on attacks from the French galleys and they could only reply with their guns mounted in the forward facing positions in the upper Stern Castle and, even these, could not fire directly forward but only to one side of the Bow Castle structure. The account by Du Bellay (Stone, 1907) records:-

“[the admiral]…ordered the galleys to take up a position in the morning where they could maintain a hot cannonade with the enemy and during the engagement retire towards our fighting line in order to, if possible, draw on a general engagement and entice them outside the narrows. This order was very daringly executed, but the changeable weather so varied the danger that one could not judge in so short a space of time to which side fortune had shown herself the more favourable, ourselves or our enemies, for in the morning, favoured by the sea, which was calm, without wind or strong current, our galleys were able to manoeuvre at their pleasure and to the disadvantage of the enemy who, not being able to move for want of wind, remained exposed to the fire of our artillery, which had greater power on the ships than they had on it, the ships being higher out of water and more bulky; added to which, our galleys, by using their oars, could retire out of danger and gain the advantage. In this manner fortune favoured our arms for more than an hour…”

Therefore, during the late morning and early afternoon the French were in a position to attack the Mary Rose and other ships within the English fleet. Du Bellay tells us that the French galleys maintained “a hot cannonade” against the English. It is at this time that there is a distinct possibility that the French holed the Mary Rose close to the waterline, probably near the stern on her Port side. Unfortunately we do not have the Port side structure of the hull as this was lost to marine erosion over the centuries that she rested on the seabed and consequently we have no positive archaeological evidence to support the theory of a French hit. However, on the Starboard side there is possible shot damage to the muzzle of one of the Mary Rose's big guns (M10) and fragments of lead shot found outside the vessel but within the Tudor archaeological layer. These provide some tantalising evidence for there having been an exchange of fire.

If they were under fire from the French it is reasonable to suppose that the English ships too would want to make most effective use of their available armament.  The big guns which were capable of firing aft were mounted in the stern transom either side of the rudder. There were also guns mounted high in the castle but these were small anti-personnel weapons and could not easily achieve sufficient range to score hits upon the low, small and fast moving galleys to cause significant damage. Therefore, for the English, the best armament that could be brought to bear on the attacking galleys would be the full broadside mounted on the main gun deck. This required that the English vessels raised their anchors and got underway.  Given that the Mary Rose, the Great Harry and most of the English fleet were entirely driven by sail the ships’ masters would need to be certain that the passage of their ship would be sufficiently fast to ensure that directional control could be maintained, whilst pursuing a path that would enable the main armament to be brought into full effect. This could not be achieved during the morning or early afternoon as the tidal current was unfavourable and the wind was most probably unavailable. However, in the mid-afternoon the situation would have changed as the tidal current turned to flow from West to East and the afternoon breeze, which often occurs in the summer, began to blow. At this stage it would be both possible and desirable for the English to turn the tables on the French and hit back.

In the confined waters of the Solent manoeuvring to attack would be no mean feat for a large wind powered vessel opposing much more manoeuvrable and faster galleys. Hence we have a situation in which the attacking vessels are relatively lightweight, can manoeuvre independently, are faster and can fire their guns in the direction travel or alternatively in their direction of retreat whilst the English ships needed to harness the wind in order to make way and thereby gain directional control and at the same time ensure that the vessels proceeded in a direction which enabled the broadside guns to point in the right direction -- at the attackers.

Du Bellay (Stone, 1907) describes such a situation:-

“…They [the English] would have sustained still more notable losses had not the weather turned in their favour, which not only freed them from this peril, but also enabled them to attack us, by the rise of a land wind, which bore them with the tide full sail against our galleys; and so sudden was this change that our men scarcely had time or opportunity to turn their prows; for during the calm I have mentioned, and in the heat of the engagement, the galleys were so hotly attacked, the ships coming down on them so suddenly and at such speed, that unavoidably they would have struck them below the water line and sent them to the bottom had they not, by the presence of mind of the commanders, and the address and experience of the sailors and convicts, been turned with a will and quickly….”

This can be plotted out within the GIS and potential scenarios can be visualised. It is also possible to develop gunfire zones around the vessels in a similar way to the forts defending Portsmouth Harbour.  In turn, from this it is possible to calculate the potential distance of track along which the Mary Rose could have been in the potential conflict area with the attacking galleys.  By assigning an average speed to this distance the time period over which this conflict may have taken place may also be calculated.

Starting Position of Mary Rose about 1600 GMT

Phases of Mary Rose Final Passage

Above: The possible route that the Mary Rose took from her position at anchor to her final sinking position shown by the red star symbol. The track has been divided into phases of the passage denoted by the coloured lines.

The Mary Rose's potential route may be divided into a run-in phase, a conflict phase, a post conflict phase and finally an extension of the Mary Rose's possible route had she not sunk progressing to the safety of the English fleet aided by the current. There is also a route shown suggesting the potential path that the sailing master may have wished to follow in order to ground the Mary Rose on Spitbank if she had been holed and was shipping water.

Assuming that the Mary Rose had been making about three knots, which would be quite a practical speed given the weather conditions and the space available in which to manoeuvre, the GIS calculates that the run-in phase would have taken approximately 12 minutes, the engagement phase would have taken around nine minutes, the post engagement prior to sinking phase would have taken just 6 3/4 minutes.  Had the Mary Rose been able to follow its possible intended path taking a turn to port back into the main body of the English fleet this section would have taken around 15 minutes. The potential path from the point at which she sank to a point at which she could have run aground on Spitbank would have taken around six minutes at 3 knots.

To organise and navigate the ship in these very difficult conditions would not have been easy.  To add to the complications there would have been the problem of Vice-Admiral Sir George Carew as he had been appointed to his post only the day before, and would not have had time to develop his managerial relationship with the ship’s master nor would he have had the opportunity to rehearse any manoeuvre or commands with the crew.  He would also have been acutely aware that his every move was being watched directly by the King.  Henry VIII was watching the engagement from Southsea Castle and had a clear view of the entire battlefield.  Therefore, Sir George Carew in command of the Mary Rose knew that the King could see any action that he took and he would, most likely, have been anxious to impress with suitably aggressive posturing.  On the other hand, the master of the Mary Rose would have known the waters in which they were sailing well and would undoubtedly have known that the Mary Rose's northerly passage would shortly ground the vessel unless a turn to starboard or to port was made very rapidly.  He would also have been aware that to turn to port would have been easier for the ship than to turn to starboard given the direction of the prevailing current, wind and the possible set-up of the sails at that time.  He would also have been aware that turning to starboard could have left the Mary Rose isolated, separated from the main English fleet and in a position where the attacking galleys would have probably had the upper hand at least for a few moments.

So, there were 12 minutes in which to plan these manoeuvres followed by around nine minutes of frantic action and then about six minutes in which to secure the safety of the ship. This would be extremely difficult to achieve under optimal conditions with a well-organised, practised crew and command.  Clearly, something went wrong at this point because the ship sank. It is possible that the ship heeled to starboard when making an attempt at a sharp turn to port and that this would have pushed the open gunports close to the sea surface such that water came onto the main gun deck. This situation would have been made considerably worse if the hull had been holed earlier in the action and water was accumulating in the bilges. We can be reasonably certain that once seawater had begun to enter the gunports along the gun deck that it would only take a few seconds for sufficient weight of water to flow into the hull creating a “free surface effect” similar to that which capsized the Townsend Thoreson ferry, Herald of Free Enterprise, off the Belgian Port of Zeebrugge in 1987. In this condition the rapidly moving mass of flowing water would dramatically alter the balance point of the vessel. It would take only a few seconds to severely degrade the stability of the ship and would thereby overturn the ship very rapidly. Therefore, it is possible that ingress of water into the hull had compromised the ship's stability and it is probable that confusion and lack of clear lines of command were significant additional elements in the combination of unfortunate circumstances that resulted in the final sinking event.

Although the Mary Rose had sunk it was not the end of the battle. There was a significant French invasion fleet moored off the Isle of Wight with its army more than twice the size of Henry VIII’s force still threatening England. However, the French could not remain at St Helen’s Road for long, it is not a very sheltered anchorage and keeping soldiers aboard ships is not good for their continued effectiveness or their morale. The French could not land the troops from the transport ships at the deep water quaysides of Portsmouth as they had probably hoped and could only get men ashore in small numbers via the ships’ boats. This precluded any possibility of a massed landing against determined English opposition in Portsmouth or elsewhere on the mainland, consequently several landings were made on the Isle of Wight where the opposition was more manageable. Du Bellay (Stone, 1907) reports that discussions took place regarding the possibilities of further naval engagement and of the full-scale capture of the Isle of Wight but these were decided to be too risky or too expensive to succeed. The French therefore opted to take their army to Boulogne and attempt to disrupt the English re-supply of the town, which they had captured the previous summer. On their way along the English Channel Du Bellay (Stone, 1907) records that some of the French troops landed, probably in Sussex, and carried out small undisciplined raids and these were not without loss to the French.

Further research

There is more research to be done integrating the documentary and archaeological evidence so that it is possible to understand and model the sinking more exactly.  There are also a number of other aspects which are presented within the Cowdray engraving and other documentary sources which warrant continuing investigation. For example, there is a statement in the Calendar of State Papers Foreign and Domestic referring to the Privy Council meeting held in Portsmouth on 22nd July 1545 (Item 2144)

“…A Frenchman saved in a ship sunk by Blakye of Rye sent to my Lord Admiral to be examined.”

This would imply that a French vessel was sunk at some stage during the action in the Solent.  William Blakye was captain of the Mawdalen, one of the boats of Rye. It was probably quite a small vessel having a crew of just 37 men. It is recorded as having taken part in an action on 10th August 1545 off Camber Castle near Rye. (Cooper, 1864)

There is also this statement in a letter from John Lord Russell to Sir William Paget, Principal Secretary to King Henry VIII, written from Bodmin on the 23 July 1545 where he states:-

“…at the writing of your letters, 17 of the galleys came in the order of battle to the fight, of the which one was sunk, and the ships began to retire, which I believe will not come again. . . .”

(Knighton and Loades, 2002, Letter 61, pp117 – 118)

A partly sunken French galley within the main body of the French fleet. (With thanks to Ted Sutton for pointing it out to me.)

This too suggests that there was a French vessel, most probably a galley, which was sunk during the engagement in the Solent. Examination of the forward portion of the French fleet shown in the Cowdray engraving does indeed; show the image of a galley with it is bow low down in the water.  Unfortunately, this is partly obscured by a flag prominently marked with the cross keys of St Peter flown from the stern of another of the galleys thereby presenting us with another tantalizing vignette from the Battle of 1545. Its potential position can be quite tightly determined and it would certainly be worth undertaking some remote sensing searches of that area of the Solent as this may reveal further archaeological evidence for the events which took place on that day.  How wonderful it would be to have not only the wealth of information provided by the archaeological evidence of the Mary Rose but to have further data gathered from one of her opponents as well.


Thank you to

Kester Keighley and Leon Reis for providing the high quality scans of the Portsmouth Cowdray image. Alexzandra Hildred for her advice and support over many years. Stephen Foote for the invaluable discussions about the sinking. Chris Dobbs for keeping an appropriately sceptical eye on my theorising. Former Queen’s Harbour Master Portsmouth Kendall Carter for advice and assistance with the tidal calculation. Robert Pegler for help in understanding the sailing winds of the Channel and the Solent. Ted Sutton for bringing the sinking French galley to my attention. Thank you also to Damien Sanders for bringing to my attention the NASA correction to the Julian and Gregorian calendar Moon phase calculations.

Prints of the Cowdray engravings are available from


Ackroyd, P., (1995) “Blake” Vintage, Random House, London

Ayloffe, Sir. Joseph, (1775).  An account of some ancient English historical paintings at Cowdry, in Sussex.  Archaeologia, Vol. 3, 239-272.

Cooper, William, Durrant (1864) Notices of Winchlesea in and after the Fifteenth Century, pp 201 – 234, in Sussex Archaeological Society (1864) “Archaeological Collections relating to the History and Antiquities of the County”, Sussex Archaeological Society, London, Vol VIII, p208 – 209

Knighton C.S. and Loades, D., (2002) Letters from the Mary Rose, Sutton Publishing, Thrupp – Stroud – Gloucestershire.

Nurse, B. (2007) Caption to item 113, p156, in Gaimster, D., McCarthy, S. and Nurse, B., (eds.)  Making History, Antiquaries in Britain 1707 – 2007, Exhibition Catalogue. Society of Antiquaries, London.

Williams, G. H. (1979), The western defences of Portsmouth Harbour 1400-1800. The Portsmouth papers ; no.30, Portsmouth City Council, Portsmouth

St John Hope, Sir William H (1919) Cowdray and Easebourne Priory in the County of Sussex. Country life, London

Stone, Percy G. (1907) “Two Accounts of The French Descent on The Isle of Wight Under Claude D'annebault, July, 1545. Extracted From The Memoirs of Martin Du Bellay, 1513-46, and from the Mss. of Sir John Oglander, 1585—1655, With A Digest of The Two Accounts” The Isle of Wight County Press, Newport, Isle of Wight