X-rays Reveal Truths About Henry VIII’s Mystery Mary Rose Ship
Experts have used the latest X-ray technology to examine three pieces of chainmail, from the 16 th century. These were retrieved from one of the most famous shipwrecks in all of history, the Mary Rose ship. The study of the metal pieces is providing experts with a better understanding of how chain armor was produced and the effectiveness of conservation techniques.
The study involved three pieces of metal that were once part of a suit chainmail, a type of armor. They were typically made by joining together numerous links to make a sheet of iron mail. This offered the wearer a great deal of protection, while still allowing them to be mobile. This type of armor dates back to ancient times, and it was used by various European and other armies right up until relatively modern times.
The Pride of the Tudor Navy
The pieces of mail were taken from the hull of the Mary Rose ship which was once the largest in the English navy in the 16 th century. It was built on the orders of Henry VIII soon after his coronation and according to the University of Warwick , it is “often considered to be his favorite.”
Illustration of the Mary Rose ship to show what it could have looked like. (Anthony Roll / Public domain )
The warship sank in the Solent, off the southern coast of England in 1545 during a battle with a French fleet. It is possible that the links came from the armor of a soldier who drowned when the ship sank.
This vessel was very advanced for its time, and it was preserved in the silt of the English Channel. This shipwreck is a remarkably preserved archaeological site and has provided many insights into Tudor life. For many years the wreck was investigated by marine archaeologists who have retrieved many treasures from the site, including the small pieces of chainmail.
Image of one of the chainmail links, cleaned and conserved. (Mark Dowsett with permission from the Mary Rose Trust / University of Warwick )
Breakthrough Technology Proves Effective
The three metal items were examined by a team of experts from the University of Warwick (United Kingdom) and the University of Ghent (Belgium). They employed some of the latest X-ray technology, “such as XMaS beamline to examine the surface chemistry of the links,” reports the University of Warwick . XMaS was developed by the University of Warwick and Liverpool and it is located at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), in Grenoble France, and it is used by many research teams.
The chemical analysis allowed them to understand how the mail was made in the Tudor era. It was found that the brass alloy used in the chainmail consisted of 73% copper and 27% zinc. Professor Mark Dowsett who worked on the project told Heritage Daily , “the results indicate that in Tudor times, brass production was fairly well controlled and techniques such as wire drawing were well developed.”
Image of one of the chainmail links, which has the appearance of copper. (Mark Dowsett with permission from the Mary Rose Trust / University of Warwick )
It appears that the brass was made locally and also imported from the continent. Prof. Dowsett told the University of Warwick that “it’s quite a modern alloy.” The metal was produced using very sophisticated techniques and it demonstrates the high level of skills possessed by Tudor armorers.
The analysis of the chemicals found something rather mysterious. During testing, the experts found a “high level of heavy metals, such as lead and gold,” reports the University of Warwick . They were found on the surface and how they came to be there is perplexing. One theory is that the link picked them up when they were being produced in workshops. It is also possible that the traces of heavy metal are a result of pollution, especially after the bombing of Portsmouth Dockyard during World War II.
Another explanation is that the traces of heavy metal were picked up by the links during a battle. Prof. Dowsett told Heritage Daily that “in a Tudor battle, there might be quite a lot of lead dust produced by the firing of munitions.” There is the possibility that the heavy metals came into contact with a sheet of chainmail during a battle, possibly even during the sea-fight that resulted in the sinking of the Mary Rose vessel.
Raising the Mary Rose Shipwreck from the Dead
The hull of the sunken ship was raised in 1982 and it is now on display in a local museum. It was conserved using pioneering techniques as were many other items recovered from the wreck, including the links of chainmail. They were treated with a variety of chemicals, to remove chlorine and also stored at a humid temperature.
The Mary Rose ship going through conservation and preservation at the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth, United Kingdom. (Mary Rose Trust / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
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During the X-rays, the team were amazed to see how well preserved the links are 30 years after they were first preserved. Heritage Daily reports Prof. Dowsett as stating that “the analysis shows that basic measures to remove chlorine followed by storage at reduced temperature and humidity form an effective strategy even over 30 years.” This is helpful as it demonstrates the effectiveness of current conservation techniques.
Top image: The conserved Mary Rose ship on show. Source: Mary Rose Trust / University of Warwick
By Ed Whelan