This is a medium-sized cannon known as a demi-culverin. It was placed on the castle deck of the Mary Rose, a raised upper deck in the stern of the ship, facing forwards, and could fire a cast iron shot 10.6cm in diameter weighing between 4 and 4.5 kg over a mile. It is the most ornate weapon recovered from the ship with its lion head lifting points and the columns and Roman arches that decorate the barrel.
The gun bears two inscriptions. One identifies its makers as two brothers based in London, Robert and John Owen. The other, set below the Tudor Rose, Crown and Garter motifs, is in Latin and reads: ‘Henry the Eighth, by the Grace of God King of England and France, Defender of the Faith, Lord of Ireland and in earth Supreme Head of the Church of England.’ This inscription asserts Henry’s ownership of the gun and in setting out his titles encapsulates some of the factors that led to the building of the Mary Rose, the manufacture of the gun and the loss of the ship in 1545.
Henry’s foreign policy and the navy
Henry’s foreign policy in the first twenty years of his reign focused principally on the attempt to recover French territories lost during the Hundred Years War and thus to enhance his princely reputation by glory and prestige won in war. His preparations for a declaration of war on France included the build-up of naval strength. Between 1509 and 1512 Henry ordered four new ships to be built, including the Mary Rose (1511) and acquired a further six, five of them through purchase. While his father Henry VII had initiated the improvement of English capability at sea, it was the new king who put in place the systems required to support a standing navy, including the development of Portsmouth into a great naval base.
The Mary Rose played her part in operations against the French in 1512, clearing the English Channel of French ships and blockading the post of Brest. The Treaty of London of 1518 ushered in a period of relative peace and shifting diplomacy. However, in the years following Henry’s break with the pope in 1533, England found itself threatened with invasion by the two great Catholic powers of Europe: France, under Francis I, and the Holy Roman Empire, under Charles V.
This period was marked by renewed rearmament and military strengthening as Henry planned to resist the invasion. He had a line of defensive castles built along the south coast from the estuary of the river Thames to Milford Haven in south Wales, bought and refitted ships and increased the manufacture of guns. The Mary Rose was refitted around 1536 and adapted to accommodate a larger number of large guns, including this bronze cannon, whose inscription proclaiming Henry’s independence from Rome is a reminder of one of the root causes of the conflict in which its ship was lost.
The loss of the Mary Rose
Despite managing to forge an alliance with Charles V in 1544, when the French invasion came in 1545, England found itself alone. Now 34 years old, on 19 July the Mary Rose was supporting the flagship and the rest of the English fleet guarding Portsmouth’s harbour against the French. The context of the manoeuvre in which the ship sank and the precise cause of her sinking have been the subjects of much debate. One theory is that the manoeuvre was an attempt to move into a position that made her less vulnerable to and more able to counter the heavy guns of the French galleys, smaller, more manoeuvrable ships, propelled by oars, which had on several prior occasions proved a serious threat to the great ships of the English navy. It is agreed that whatever the reason for her turn, as she did so, she listed over too far, but there is still discussion among historians as to whether it was the weight of her extra guns, the failure to close the gunports, the number of men on her upper decks, a gust of wind or a combination of all of these that caused her to sink.
Attempts to salvage the Mary Rose took place shortly after her loss, but the ship was bedded too deeply in silt. Although some guns and other objects were recovered from the ship in the 1830s, proper excavation had to wait until the wreck was rediscovered in 1971. Small scale excavations between 1971 and 1978 resulted in 1866 artefacts being raised. After the Mary Rose Trust was formed in 1979 the excavation increased in size and complexity. In 1979 over 1367 artefacts were raised, including this fine bronze gun, found on its carriage, at its gunport.
The Mary Rose Museum
The Mary Rose Museum website has a wealth of information and resources for teachers.
The sinking of the Mary Rose
Comprehensive article by Margaret Rule on the sinking of the Mary Rose with full discussion of the ship itself and of the events of 1545 as well as a selection of original accounts.
Article from the BBC about the Mary Rose
The Cowdray engravings and the loss of the Mary Rose
Detailed discussion of the Cowdray engravings of the war with France in 1544 and 1545, including the sinking of the Mary Rose.
Article from the BBC about Henry VIII
Article from the BBC about the British Reformation
Article from the BBC about the myth of the European Renaissance
BBC radio programme about the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520 and English relations with Europe in the period
Article about the rivalry between Francis I and Charles V