There's another, less well known 500th anniversary this year, and that's the birthdate of King Henry's favourite warship, the Mary Rose. Construction began on this four-masted gunboat in 1509, in the world's first ever dry dock (in Portsmouth). Her keel was elm, her heart was oak, and a crew of dedicated sailors kept her afloat. A long and successful maritime career ensued, including a refit or two to install greater and heavier weaponry, and the ship engaged in several battles against the French over the ensuing decades. But the Mary Rose engaged once too often, and in 1545 preparations for a skirmish in the Channel proved unexpectedly catastrophic.
Nobody's quite sure why the Mary Rose sank. The weather was OK, and she was only a couple of miles out of Portsmouth Harbour when she started taking on water. Maybe the ship was too heavily laden and lower in the water than normal, and maybe the Solent started lapping in through the gunports. Perhaps a too-swift turn caused her to capsize, or maybe a rogue French vessel managed to get close enough to fire a cannonball into her hull. Whatever the cause, the ship wobbled and toppled and floundered and sank, taking 500 sailors down with her. King Henry VIII was watching from the shoreline, and was both appalled and embarrassed to see so great a catastrophe happen before his very eyes.
Over the centuries the precise location of the carcass of the Mary Rose was forgotten (and occasionally discovered, then forgotten again). It was only in the 1960s that a team of divers pinpointed the wreck, and set in slow motion an amazing rescue operation that continues to this day. Excavation on the seabed began in 1971, and it became clear that much of the starboard half of the hull remained preserved beneath the mud. It wasn't until 1982 that the wooden remains were raised to the surface (in front of a global TV audience), and two more years followed before anyone dare tilt them upright. Even in 2009, a quarter of a century later, the Mary Rose is still heavily protected beneath a metal quayside dome. But not for much longer.
I have to say, even though I sort of knew what to expect, my first glimpse of the preserved ship wasn't quite what I was anticipating. I'd collected my audio guide from the front desk, then passed through a couple of connecting doors to reach the chamber where the Tudor flagship is housed. The gallery was very dark, and it took a while to become accustomed to the view through the misty-ish glass. But there, across a damp artificial chasm, lay the timbers of the world's only surviving 16th century warship. A few decks-worth of wood were semi-visible, from almost bow to almost stern, with each level labelled with its name (orlop, main, sterncastle, etc) in big chunky letters. And gushing down across the wreck was a cascade of white frothing water - a polyethylene glycol solution, so my guide told me - to prevent the timbers from drying out and crumbling away. Got to keep her wet. The pipes that dispense this magic liquid were more easily seen from the far end of the gallery, as was the long lower pool of swirling water resembling an over-Radoxed bath. One view, ten minutes, and straight back out again.
Objects rescued from the shipwreck can be found in a separate museum at the other end of the Historic Dockyard. It has a bit of an early 80s feel, I thought, mostly static displays in themed cases. There was a section on the history of the dive, and the opportunity to watch a film, plus a platform of reconstructed decking. At the far end a bored-looking bloke in Tudor costume sat waiting at a table in case anyone wanted to touch his artefacts. He had few takers. But it was impossible not to be impressed, and moved, by the varied collection of everyday items preserved and displayed throughout the museum. Be it a pair of leather shoes or a urethral syringe, only the tragic death of their owners permits us to view them today.
Back at the Mary Rose itself there are big changes afoot, starting this autumn. 25 years of waxy impregnation have paid off, and the ship's timbers are finally ready to be baked dry. The museum will therefore be closed from mid-September while a replacement building is constructed, funded by £21m of Heritage Lottery money, and the preservation task will enter a new era. Come back in 2012 and you'll be able to see this half of the Mary Rose in a better light, opposite an artificial reflection in which artefacts gathered from the wreck will be properly displayed. It'll be a far more impressive visitor attraction, and you might prefer to save your visit until then. But I'm glad I saw it as a ghost ship in its darkened hangar, before the water gave up its stranglehold for good.
Visiting » The Mary Rose is part of the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard complex, for which a full ticket will set you back £18. If you prefer to visit only a single attraction you still have to pay £10.50, but be warned that the Mary Rose and its museum count as separate attractions so you'll have to pay top whack anyway. It's probably worth it, though. The full ticket also includes a tour of the harbour (where you can get up close to whichever Royal Navy ships are in berth today, and there's probably loads). You get to explore the capacious interior of HMS Warrior, the first armour-plated iron-hulled Victorian steamship. And then there's a boat far more famous even than the Mary Rose herself... » ... the Victory, Nelson's flagship. You can stand on the very spot where he received his fatal wound at the battle of Trafalgar - it's marked by a brass plaque. Below deck see the luxurious captain's cabin from which he directed life aboard, plus the alcove on the orlop deck where he breathed his last. Victory's still a commissioned naval vessel with its own captain, and a skeleton crew sleeps aboard the motionless ship every night. Discover more in a separate Victory museum, and there's even a huge sail preserved from the sea battle with 90 holes blasted through a vast expanse of canvas. » The dockyard's very easy to travel to - it's immediately beside Portsmouth Harbour station at the end of the railway line from London. My return train ticket cost less than my museum ticket (which felt the wrong way round but who's complaining?) » And that's just a fraction of what Portsmouth has to offer. More tomorrow...