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Language mishap may have sunk the Mary Rose


Remarkable forensic evidence uncovered by Simon Fraser University criminologist Lynne Bell leads her to believe that miscommunication among a mainly non-English-speaking crew resulted in the sinking of King Henry VIII’s warship, the Mary Rose, during a battle with the French in 1545.

The sinking of the Mary Rose, with the loss of nearly 400 on board, is a much debated historical enigma. The French claimed the ship was sunk by French cannon fire, while the English maintained that she sank due to a poorly executed manoeuvre during the engagement.

Dr. Bell did not set out to prove either version, but rather was investigating the use of mass spectrometry in forensics. “My key interest is to regionalize human remains,” she says, by looking at isotopes found in samples of bone, hair or other body parts.

The wreck of the Mary Rose was discovered in 1971 and was recovered with its contents over the next decade. Because of a connection Dr. Bell had with the Mary Rose Trust, she was given permission to take minute samples from 18 bodies from the ship. Dr. Bell was trying to establish the dietary profile of these individuals, for comparison against existing studies of medieval populations in Britain.

What she found was that the sailors were not from Britain at all, but from a more southerly clime. She was shocked: “It never occurred to me” they wouldn’t be British.

The news “was not well received” by representatives of the Mary Rose Trust, says Dr. Bell, but she stood by her results. “The important thing to take away is that the science is very solid. We know that a proportion of that crew was not born in Britain, but somewhere south of Britain.”

Then, just prior to the publication of her findings, a film crew doing a documentary on the Mary Rose uncovered historical letters recounting how 600 Spaniards were “prest” into Henry VIII’s service sometime prior to the Mary Rose sinking.

There was also the remark, long puzzled over by historians, shouted by the captain of the Mary Rose to a passing ship that he had the “type of knaves of whom he could not rule.” Dr. Bell’s findings may help to place that remark in context, lending weight to her contention that poor communication contributed to the navigational manoeuvre which led to the ship’s sinking.

She admits, however, that we may never know the answer. “Great mysteries,” she says, “are never completely solved, are they?”

Her findings were published this past August in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

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