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Kathryn Gillett, Elizabethan HistorianTours > Sir Francis Drake > Portsmouth

In Search of Sir Francis Drake
by Kathryn Gillett, Elizabethan England on Britannia

Portsmouth and the Mary Rose
27 Miles South-East of Southampton

The Historic Dockyard of Portsmouth hosts a family of famous naval ships that are lovingly cared for in their various stages of refurbishment. Lord Nelson's handsome flagship, The HMS Victory, is so perfectly polished, it seems to be awaiting the great admiral's inspection. I imagined his apparition appearing on the upper deck, raising with his one good arm a spyglass to his one good eye - looking far out to the horizon, still searching for the sails of his foes, who too have long since gone.

On the other end of the refurbishment spectrum, King Henry VIII's favorite flagship, the once-magnificent Mary Rose, is now but a wooden skeleton that was relatively recently brought up from her watery grave. This fabulous archeological find was enduring a continuous shower of emulsions meant to preserve her for further restoration. Although it seemed an uncomfortable, cold and undignified treatment, it was performed with the best of intentions by her caretakers who affectionately call her Rosie.

The Mary Rose sank in 1545, just 32 years before Drake began his circumnavigation of the globe. Therefore, my purpose in visiting the Mary Rose was to find a rich library of information about the daily routine, navigational instruments, and weaponry aboard the wooden vessels of the Tudor age. And, as I watched the Mary Rose receive her continuous medicinal dousing, my thoughts went back in time to imagine what the Mary Rose would have looked like - a state-of-the-art Tudor war ship, heading out of Portsmouth to meet the French in battle. Brilliantly painted, flags and standards flying, decks choked with hundreds of soldiers, mariners and gunners. To this day, no one knows exactly why, but as King Henry looked on, his favorite ship, named after his much-loved sister, began to heel. In just moments it had sunk, taking all those aboard with her.

What was an inestimable tragedy in its day has become a priceless wealth of archeological information. Lying in its seawater grave, covered in a protective casket of sediment for hundreds of years, the ship and its artifacts were located in the late 1970s, and a series of excavations began. Since then, thousands of artifacts have been recovered, amazingly well preserved after all these centuries.

Carpenters' implements, navigational tools, ceramic containers, canons, ship's rigging, musical instruments - even a backgammon table - are all on display, looking much as they did over 450 years ago. As I wandered back in time through the museum, I was amazed at the range of artifacts, and the excellence of their condition. And so thankful that there are people today who are dedicated enough to toil on very limited budgets to make such magnificent stores of history available to us all.

Next Stop: Canterbury



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