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Hidden Treasures From the Mary Rose Exhibition (England)

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This important exhibition will include over 200 rare objects from Henry VIII's favourite flagship.

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      26.05.2009 22:46
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      Far more interesting than I'd expected.

      My mother asked me about a month ago, if I'd be interested in seeing this exhibition with her. It's been advertised locally quite a lot, being as it's in our vicinity and the exhibition has only just opened, and she was interested in seeing it. It didn't really appeal to me, mainly because I found my school history lessons had been dry and uninspiring. Added to which, the Mary Rose had been Henry VIII's flagship, and with my sketchy knowledge, a more remorseless and egotistical monarch is hard to find. (Unless you count his daughter Elizabeth who thought it best to burn all those Catholics. And his first daughter, of course, nicknamed Bloody Mary).

      Anyway, time passed and we both forgot about it, until I had some time off work recently, and asked my mum if she'd still be interested in going to see it. She was, so we looked up the details on the website.

      The website, which I've mentioned at the end of the review, was very easy to navigate around, and also provides lots of background information on the Mary Rose, for those like me not too familiar with her historical importance.

      ~ What's so special about the Mary Rose? ~

      The Mary Rose sank off the coast of Poole during a battle with the French navy in the Solent on 19 July 1545. She sank so quickly, most of the crew onboard had no chance of escape and most of the men went down with the boat.

      She was Henry VIII's pride and joy, coupled with the fact that the sinking was witnessed by Henry, who was watching from ashore, alongside the wife of the ships' commanding officer Vice Admiral George Carew. Supposedly, Henry was close enough to hear the mens screams on board as she sank. This helped her became legendary whilst other battleships became relegated to history books.

      Attempts to locate the wreck in the Solent had commenced in the mid 1960's, with the ship finally being raised in 1982. It's currently on display, and open to visitors in Portsmouth's Historic Dockyard, along with some of the 19,000 artefacts recovered.

      The new exhibition though, is the first to be held outside of Portsmouth, and claims to have included many items which have never previously been on display to the public.

      The historian David Starkey has apparently described the Mary Rose as being "our Pompeii", meaning that it had captured perfectly a moment which became frozen in time, of the people living in that era. It should be pointed out that this is the same man who is quoted as saying that Henry VIII would run the country better now than the current government. Oh well.

      Interested yet?

      The exhibition is being held at a private school near to me for four months, from 7th April until 7th August. Because we are both Croydon residents both my mum and I were entitled to a discount.

      ~ On arrival ~

      The school has extensive grounds, but from the car park there are sign guiding the way, past a rather attractive water feature enclosure with lots of animals. We paused briefly to admire a Wallaby and loads of Flamingos which were in there (there are helpful signs up too, telling you what they all are).

      When we first entered the building, we stopped at the information desk to collect our tickets and a few leaflets. We had to show proof that we were Croydon residents here and then we were invited to make our way upstairs to the main exhibition. This is on the first floor and we took the stairs although there is also a lift for those less able-bodied.

      You're then greeted by another member of staff, who explained the layout of the floor briefly and checked our tickets. There is a 45 minute documentary in a little cinema room off to the left which runs on a loop so you can enter at any time and watch it all the way through. We decide to do this first, and I'm glad I did.

      The documentary is one which has been shown on Channel 5, although I hadn't seen it. It's narrated by one of the original divers to the wreck in 1982, who's interest in the ship is self-evident and rather catching.

      The film explores several popular theories as to why the ship sank. She was engaged in battle with the French in the Solent, and opened fire from the port (left) side and turned too sharply so she could fire from the starboard (right) side. If the gun ports had been shut this probably wouldn't have mattered, but they weren't so when the ship heeled too sharply, water flooded in with inevitable results.

      The film introduces us to a forensics expert (I can't remember her specialist field), who had managed to reconstruct the skeletons of the men on board. Our narrator is interested in learning as much about two particular members of the crew as possible.

      I was amazed by how much the expert could glean from the bones, which had lain on the seabed for over four hundred years. By examining their teeth, she explained that she could pinpoint with real precision whereabouts the men had come from. From memory, this was due to the ph level varying from region to region. Thus any crops that grow or the water that is drunk in that region will have the same ph balance. As a consequence, so too do your teeth.

      This might sound rather dull, but of these two particular crew members, she was able to establish that one came from either the tip of Cornwall or Ireland, whilst the other would have come from mainland Europe, probably Spain. This was a huge surprise to me, expecting all the crew members on board to have been British.

      Apparently, the British fleet had captured around 500 Spanish sailors some 6 months earlier off the coast of Cornwall, and they then became prisoners of the state, expected to work for the King.

      The harsh reality was that the soldiers, once captured, were regarded not much differently to slaves. No doubt the same fate had befallen British soldiers captured by French or Spanish soldiers at some point. I couldn't help feeling sad thinking of all those sailors of whatever nationality, being forced to work for a country they once fought, where they don't speak the language, and who would in all likelihood never see their families or homeland again.

      This was one of the possible reasons given for the ship's sinking. That many crewmen were not native to Britain and so couldn't understand the commands given to them.

      Netting on the upper decks of the ship, which was designed to hinder any enemy soldiers from boarding, also trapped many of the crew from escaping.

      It would be easy to say that the film is about how the men died whereas the exhibits are about how the men lived but the two are nicely interlinked.

      Whilst in the film, another expert was shown making facial reconstructions of the two men by using the skulls, to show us how the two men probably looked in life. One of my favourite points of the exhibition was seeing these two reconstructions in the flesh (excuse the pun) against one of the gallery's walls. On the wall opposite them are the two actual skulls of the men concerned that we have heard so much about.

      Mostly, the items on display are a variety of the crews' personal belongings, and all of them in remarkable condition, especially given the materials they were made from and the length of time they spent underwater. There were an assortment of combs (needed to keep nits at bay in such an environment, but also to keep the men looking their best!) to instruments used by the Surgeon on board, from scalpels to syringes and those that provide enemas (*shudder*), but also, surprisingly, the silk hat the surgeon was said to have worn (it looked remarkably like a large handkerchief) again in nearly perfect condition. Of the plentiful shoes on display (rather small feet in those days) one had had to be cut open by the wearer at the toe, presumably to help with a sore digit.

      A sword (the only one found in its' entirety) with such a small hilt that my dainty hands would have trouble holding it.

      Aside from the crews possessions were some of the ropes used on board. Some were behind glass, but several others you could touch.

      One of the most poignant exhibits for me was the skeleton of a little female dog they had found on board. It looked no bigger than an average sized moggy. She had become trapped in one of the ships sliding doors below deck, as the boat sunk. I knew most ships had kept a cat on board to feed on the rats, but sometimes they chose a dog instead.

      Although it's not a large exhibition in the sense most London museums could lay on, we probably spent nearly two hours in total there, and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit. The exhibition is divided into lots of small galleries which you can wander through at leisure. Some of the galleries have seating in the middle if you wish to rest and read the informational boards at the same time.

      It wasn't especially busy when we were there (late afternoon), although we had seen two school parties leaving as we arrived. Possibly with another 70 or 80 people viewing at the same time it might seem a little too full.

      To be fair, the organisers are positively trying to encourage younger visitors and school trips which is reflected in free admissions although you must pre-book obviously. Their website claims the exhibition "is accompanied by a lively lecture and an events programme including jousting, archery and falconry." We didn't see any of that, but if I had been visiting this as a 10 year old, I'm sure I would have found it enjoyable.

      I couldn't tell if the four or five staff who we met were employed by the School or they came up from Portsmouth with the exhibits but we found them all to be friendly and receptive.

      I would highly recommend a visit to 'Hidden Treasures'. I came away from it far more interested in the time of the Tudors than walking around any historic house looking at paintings of noblemen has ever done.

      ~ Lastly ~

      Did you know:

      * it was compulsory for all boys from the age of 6 to learn archery in England? Presumably with a view to protecting the Kingdom, in a medieval form of National Service; and that

      * The Mary Rose sank in only 14 metres of water?

      ~ Ticket Prices ~

      Adults: £8

      Pre-booked school groups and accompanying teachers: Free

      Pre-school children: Free

      Families (Up to 2 Adults and up to 4 children): £18

      There are some concessions and discounts:

      Residents of the Borough of Croydon will receive a 50% Discount on prices for Adults, Families, Concessions and Groups, but not on parking charges (payable on the day).
      Children 16 and under, Over 60's, Students (17-25 in full-time education), Registered Disabled (accompanying Carer free) and Registered Job Seekers (relevant documentary evidence to be produced on entry)
      Groups (must be pre-booked. 1 free entry per group of 10).

      An additional £1.50 booking fee is applied to all telephone bookings.

      There is a £3 parking charge as well.

      And as for King Henry, I didn't come away with a better understanding of the man himself. In fact, if anything I left feeling even more perplexed than before. Here was a man who had ordered the execution of more than one wife because they couldn't sire a much wanted son. Many of you more conversant with this era than me, will already know he had fathered an illegitimate son called Henry Fitzroy, who later became 1st Duke of Richmond and Somerset. This I learnt from the exhibition which describes his father as never having acknowledge him, although a quick check on several websites suggests that not only was he acknowledge by the King, but that they were close and Henry took a real interest in his welfare. If that were the case, which seems likely, with Henry having made him a Duke, it shows a more loyal, compassionate side to the King I hadn't expected.

      Even if you can't visit in person, take a look at their website:


      For those that might like to visit, it includes directions.


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