Up until the time of the building of Mary Rose the few purpose built warships in the Navy Royal were equipped with a great number of guns all of which were placed on the upper deck or higher for there simply were no gunports cut into the hull through which cannon could be pointed. This meant that earlier vessels could only carry light weight weapons which meant, in turn, that they were forced to fight at close quarters and to win such engagements by sending boarding parties over to seize the opposing vessel. Gunports allowed heavier, longer range, ship-sinking weapons to be taken to sea so that, from the time of Mary Rose, Captains could destroy both men and ships without risking a close quarter fight. In this respect Mary Rose was the first in a tradition of broadside firing warships that was to reach its apotheosis with HMS Victory (which is conveniently and appropriately displayed alongside Mary Rose in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard) and which lasted until HMS Warrior (also at Portsmouth) entered the reserve fleet in 1883. And, in 1512, when the Lord Admiral, Sir Edward Howard, sailed against the French onboard his flagship, Mary Rose, she and he became part of another naval tradition, that of great fighting leaders who led from the front and who were to die in action fearlessly facing the foe.
By 1512 Henry felt that he had both an army and navy with which to defeat the French. The conflict began with Edward Howard escorting an English army safely past the French fleet stationed at Brest to fight alongside Ferdinand of Aragon’s forces in an invasion of Gascony. Job done, Howard then turned his hand to attacking that French fleet where it lay so that it would not pose a threat to Henry’s army when it crossed the Channel. On 10th August 1512 he caught the French relaxing, unprepared and at anchor in Berthaume Bay. The battle that followed marked a new beginning in naval warfare, for the exchange of fire between Mary Rose and the fleeing French flagship, Grand Louise, was the first occasion that ships fitted with gunports had engaged in battle. The result was a decisive victory for Mary Rose for the battered French ship did not stay long to see the fight out to a conclusion. It was different elsewhere. Seeing the English approach, the Breton admiral, Portzmeuger, cut the cable of his flagship, Cordelière, and sailed towards the English ships where he was grappled by the largest English vessel, Regent.
The fight that followed was of the old-fashioned sort, involving close-range guns and hand-to-hand fighting. Then, just as the English prepared to board their enemy, a spark touched off the gunpowder in Cordelière and she blew to smithereens taking Regent and nearly all her crew of both ships with her. However, despite suffering almost equal losses, there is no doubt to whom the day belonged and the triumphant Howard sailed home to warm praise from Henry.
‘Your good ship, the flower, I trow, of all ships that ever sailed’.
The next spring Edward Howard sailed again for Brest, leading his fleet out of the Thames and to another first for, as they sailed towards Margate, the Admiral commanded the fleet to race for the anchorage in The Downs off Deal. This is the first occasion recorded in which an Admiral ordered the ships he commanded to execute a seamanship evolution and marked their performance. Perhaps, not surprisingly for Howard, the fastest ship in the fleet turned out to be Mary Rose and the proud Admiral wrote to his monarch about his flagship in glowing terms of praise.
Over in France the enemy had not been idle over the winter. Louis had summoned a squadron of galleys to sail north and they made a swift attack on the English fleet as it arrived off Brest. The English ships had no obvious countermeasure to deter the swift, low lying and maneuverable galleys. Instead, Howard was forced to lead a fleet of boats to try and capture them at their anchorage. The foray was a disaster: the fatally wounded Howard was flung overboard from the galley on to which he had scrambled and, seeing this, the other boats fled, as did the whole dispirited fleet. Thomas Howard, the dead admiral’s elder brother, was appointed in his stead but he did not dare venture back into French waters while the threat of the galleys remained.
The image of the Cowdry Engraving has been provided with thanks to Kester Keighley and the Mary Rose Trust http://www.maryrose.org .