Ethnically Diverse Crew of Henry VIII’s Flagship Hailed From Iberia, North Africa

New multi-isotope analysis illuminates early lives of sailors stationed on the Tudor “Mary Rose,” including three born outside of Britain

The "Mary Rose," as seen on display in 2019
“We used five isotope methods in all to provide information on geology, coastal proximity, climate and diet,” says study co-author Richard Madgwick, an osteoarchaeologist at Cardiff University. Geni via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

When Henry VIII’s favorite warship, the Mary Rose, sank during the Battle of the Solent in 1545, most of its 415 crew members drowned. Now, reports Steve Deeks for the Portsmouth News, scientists using modern methods have uncovered remarkably detailed biographical information about eight of the Tudor flagship’s crew members, including one likely from Africa and two likely from southern Europe.

The research, published in the journal Royal Society Open Source, used multi-isotope analysis of crew members’ teeth to identify evidence about the climate and geology of their homelands, as well as their childhood diets. Combined with previous DNA research, written records and artifacts found in the wreck, the information has helped scholars vividly reconstruct the lives of Tudor sailors.

“The variety and number of personal artifacts recovered which were clearly not of English manufacture made us wonder whether some of the crew were foreign by birth,” says co-author Alexzandra Hildred, head of research at the Mary Rose Trust, in a statement. “However, we never expected this diversity to be so rich. This study transforms our perceived ideas regarding the composition of the nascent English navy.”

Per the Guardian’s Steven Morris, researchers have nicknamed one of the crew members the “royal archer” in recognition of his leather wristband, which was decorated with a pomegranate—a symbol associated with Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon. The isotope research suggests that he grew up in the Atlas Mountains of northwest Africa, or possibly in Catherine’s home country of Spain.

Mary Rose crew
Scholars combined multi-isotope analysis with previous research to gain new insights on the Tudor flagship's crew. The Mary Rose Trust

Another man, the “gentleman,” was found close to a chest containing a casket panel that may have been produced in northern Italy. His teeth reveal likely origins along the southern European coast. A third man, the “carpenter,” was found in a cabin with Spanish coins and tools and appears to have hailed from inland southwest Spain.

The five remaining crew members included in the study were probably all from Britain; isotope analysis indicated their specific origins. The purser, for example, may have grown up along the Thames estuary, while the “young mariner,” a teenager nicknamed Henry in previous research, was raised in southwestern England. Henry’s mitochondrial DNA suggests that he had family origins in North Africa.

“We used five isotope methods in all to provide information on geology, coastal proximity, climate and diet,” co-author Richard Madgwick, an osteoarchaeologist at Cardiff University, tells the Guardian. “We already know quite a bit about these characters in terms of profession etc., so this study reconstructs biographies in unparalleled detail.”

As BBC News notes, the Mary Rose operated for 34 years before meeting its end in a clash with England’s perennial enemy, France. In 1982, researchers raised the ship from the watery depths and recovered the (at least partial) remains of 179 crew members. The new research centers on some of the best-preserved skeletons salvaged from the wreck.

Many Faces of Tudor England Exhibition Walkthrough

“This adds to the ever-growing body of evidence for diversity in geographic origins, ancestry and lived experiences in Tudor England,” says lead author Jessica Scorrer, an archaeologist at Cardiff University, in the statement.

Africans have lived in Britain since the Roman era, wrote Bidisha for the Guardian in 2017. Historian Miranda Kaufmann has documented the presence of people of African background in the royal courts of Henry VII, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and James I, as well as in more modest settings as sailors, artisans and laborers.

Per the study, Tudor trade links with Mediterranean cities “probably resulted in the movement of people as well as goods.”

As Kate Britton, an archaeologist at the University of Aberdeen who wasn’t involved in the research, tells New Scientist’s Karina Shah, “There were extensive trade networks across Europe and much further afield at that time.”

The Many Faces of Tudor England,” an exhibition based on discoveries about the eight crew members, will be on view at the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth upon its reopening May 17. A virtual version of the show is also available to browse online.

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