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DNA Shows Ethnically Diverse Crew Sailed Henry VIII’s Flagship

The research on the skeletons found near the wreck suggests there were sailors and marines on board who came from North Africa and the Mediterranean

Artist's depiction of "Henry," a teenaged sailor on the Mary Rose. (The Mary Rose)
smithsonian.com

Even in the 1500s, the British Isles were relatively diverse with people from around Europe, the Mediterranean and Africa calling the place home. Recent research on the crew of the Mary Rose, King Henry VIII’s flagship, shows just how multicultural Tudor-era England was.

As Josh Gabbatiss at The Independent reports, DNA and isotope analysis of the remains of eight sailors found on the ship indicate two probably came from the Mediterranean and two likely hailed from North Africa or the Middle East. The findings are part of a year-long investigation commissioned by the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth, where the 400-year-old wreck resides and is being studied.

One of the skeletons investigated belongs to a teenager between the ages of 14 and 18, whom researchers have dubbed Henry. Though he was young, his spine showed signs of osteoarthritis and degenerative disease, and the sites where his ligaments attached show he was well-muscled. By examining the ratio of certain isotopes in his body, the research team also learned the broad outlines of his personal history. According to a press release, oxygen isotopes in his teeth, deposited when he was very young, indicate he grew up in Britain in an area with heavier rainfall, likely the west or south of the island. Sulphur isotopes indicate he was born within 30 miles of the coast. Henry’s strontium content suggests he grew up in an area with Palaeozoic geology, like North Devon. His nitrogen values show he ate a lot of animal products and his carbon shows most of that was from land animals, not seafood. Isotope ratios from his rib, deposited when he was older, show that he likely lived in Britain his whole life.

But Henry’s DNA shows that his genes came from further afield. Both his nuclear DNA and mitrochondrial DNA show his ancestry comes from present-day Morocco, Algeria or the Near East.

The team performed similar analysis on the remains of a man in his early 20s known as the Archer Royal, since he was found near his longbow and wearing an armguard bearing the crests of both England and Katherine of Aragorn, Henry VIII’s first queen. “Because of the famed longbow skills of English forces, it has always been presumed that this Archer was English,” the researchers write in the release. However, the isotope ratios indicate that he did not grow up in England, but instead was likely from inland North Africa or possibly southern Europe.

As Nicola Davis at The Guardian reports, it’s not a secret that there was diversity in Tudor England. Miranda Kaufmann, author of Black Tudors: The Untold Story tells her that during that period England was home to black sailors, craftsmen and musicians. The North African crew of the Mary Rose, she says, comes before merchants began traveling directly between England and Morocco, so she suspects the men or their ancestors migrated through Spain or Portugal before reaching Britain.

Onyeka Nubia, author of Blackamoores, another book on Africans in Tudor England tells Davis that the crew of the Mary Rose may over represent the number of people from different cultures that lived in England, but in general there were many ethnicities on the island. “This is not a one off thing,” he says.

There are more crew members from the Mary Rose that researchers can investigate. So far 92 skeletons from the crew of over 400 have been reconstructed. The 134-foot-long warship sank off the coast of France in 1545 during the Battle of Solent after capsizing in a gust of wind. The wreck was discovered in 1971 and eventually raised in 1982. Research on the vessel has been ongoing ever since.

The new research is being presented at the museum in an exhibition called The Many Faces of Tudor England opening today.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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