The new Mary Rose museum opens in Portsmouth today with many hosannas and much hullabaloo – and rightly so. Rarely have we been presented with such an opportunity to reconstruct a specific incident from history in literally forensic detail: from the ship itself and its fittings to the real people involved.
For those of us who love history – and love the opportunity to lift it out of the textbook into the modern world – this rich time capsule raised from the bed of the Solent is practically perfect. It’s a story that features wife-collecting chubster Henry VIII (who watched the Mary Rose sink from Southsea Castle), a good old-fashioned dust-up with the French and a bit of British maritime derring-do.
If you add in the fact that the sinking of the Mary Rose was apparently a traditional British cock-up of the type that has Dennis Norden reaching for his clipboard it gives us a perfect hand in the poker game of popular history.
In addition to the broad sweep of Britain’s national historical narrative we can also get properly down and dirty with the minutiae of the Tudor everyday: the combs, the dice, the books, the clothes, the sea chests of the men who were on board the ship – it’s a bit like our Pompeii. There’s even a dog. A dog!
I was a slip of a lad in 1982 when the Mary Rose was raised, watching the live television coverage as the grey surface of the water was broken by the first timber. At that moment, as the ships of the Solent sounded their horns, I understood for the first time what was meant by ‘the weight of history’. It settled on me as first one timber, then another emerged silhouetted against the shifting quicksilver of the water. It had been nearly half a millennium since she went down, and here she was, back again.
My grandmother, a proper old east end cockney, was sitting next to me on the sofa, arms folded, chewing her lip. It was she who finally broke the awed silence.
“What a load of bleedin’ fuss over a bit of old wood,” she said.