So today is the anniversary of the sinking of the Mary Rose. I started to write one of my usual blog posts, but nothing was coming together. A similar thing happened with my last post, when Cromwell and Norfolk got into their fight at Lambeth – it was a scene I had written for The Path to Somerset and the analytical approach was not at all as satisfactory as the fictionalized version. So since I have not yet shared an excerpt, I decided this would be the time to do it, even though it’s not the perfect one.
It’s not perfect because this scene is late in the book so all the characters have already been introduced (though truthfully, if you follow my blog you probably know who they are already) and all of the conflict and action set up. Also, this is in Gardiner’s point of view, since Edward was in Scotland at the time, so you’re not meeting (and falling in love with) my main character. But it is a wonderful scene with a ton of great details thrown in (YES, the bit about the Carraquon is totally true) and was the best tribute I could pay to the Mary Rose today.
Without further ado…the excerpt! (forgive the formatting…for some reason WordPress would not allow me first line indents…)
July 19, 1545—Portsmouth Harbor
Thunderclouds loomed dark and ominous, adding a chill to the sea air. Stephen Gardiner shuddered as he looked out over the waters of the Solent from the thick stone ramparts of Southsea Castle, unnerved as always at how dramatically the tables had turned. After England’s tactical retreat from Boulogne, France had indeed decided to invade. But unlike the cowardly Francis, who had skulked in Paris while his coastal cities were under attack, Henry had hied to Portsmouth to encourage his men.
The fortress was new, barely two years old, part of the defenses the King had constructed around England’s shoreline to protect the country from aggression. At the time it had seemed like an overabundance of expensive caution, but now that a major naval battle raged only two hundred meters from shore, all Englishmen praised his prescience.
Since the day before, the English ships had danced with the two-hundred-strong French fleet attempting to break through and land. So far the vagaries of wind and currents had prevented either side from getting within boarding range or even musket span, and the heavily outnumbered English ships held the advantage thanks to long-range cannons that were the envy and dread of any opponent.
The spectators huddled on Southsea Commons. A great chair had been set out for the King, and a half a tent of Tudor green was erected around him both to shield him from the worst of the sea wind and to frame his bejeweled figure as an inspiration to his fighters. Most of his Council crowded around him at this dread moment, the greatest threat England had faced. They all cheered and cringed by turns; it was all they could do. Just watch. And pray.
Next to Gardiner, the King wheezed in his chair and pointed his finger to direct the Almighty. “May God smite those French bastards.”
“Amen.” Gardiner made the sign of the cross to seal the request.
As if to obey, the King’s premier warship, the eponymously nicknamed Great Harry, turned about to start the next attack.
Like its namesake, the Great Harry was a massive structure: one hundred sixty-five feet long, with masts that soared more than a hundred fifteen feet in the air above the fore- and stern castles. Overweight, but imposingly so.
“They heard you, Your Majesty,” Paget laughed.
“They want to do you proud,” said Denny. “Especially after last night. How they cheered you.”
The King had dined on the Great Harry the night before. It had given him the opportunity to finalize the navy’s defensive strategy. More importantly, the traditional visit had spurred the thousand seamen lucky enough to man it and the thousands more who watched from the neighboring ships.
Henry nodded gleefully. “It was a moment blessed by God. All the more so given how He cursed the French King’s visit. I’m surprised Francis did not abandon his evil plan after such a sign.”
Francis too had paid the ceremonial sendoff visit to his own flagship, the Carraquon, and had insisted on bringing his own chef to regale the seamen with fine food. The poor man, unused to the cramped quarters of a ship, had been careless with the galley fires, which quickly reached the sixty-three barrels of gunpowder packed in the Carraquon‘s hold. The royal family barely escaped the explosion.
“I think the crew expected him to,” said Wriothesley. “After all, it took them three days to outfit the new flagship. That should have been done much sooner.”
“It was folly.” Henry sniffed sanctimoniously and adjusted the blanket that covered his legs. “Now they must attack from a position of weakness. That surely will drag down their morale, their resolve.”
Gardiner crossed himself to thank the Lord for His intervention, and the others followed him. “So different from your own men, inspired to glory from the strength of your speech.”
Though the flattery could have continued, their attention was drawn to the Mary Rose, the finest English warship ever built. And more deadly than ever now that she’d been refitted to double the number of cannons she held.
The Mary Rose hoisted her sails to follow the Great Harry and fire from her starboard side. More petite than the Great Harry, the queen to his king, she was a graceful, easy to maneuver, eight-hundred-ton beauty. The pride of the nation.
The Great Harry was advancing, its giant sails billowing, and bearing down on the French fleet. The men waited for the Mary Rose to do the same, but in the middle of her turn she floundered, heeling farther and farther.
“Was she struck?” asked the King. “Did you hear cannon?”
“There was a blast of wind just before she turned north. Maybe the captain could not handle the shift,” said Sir Anthony Browne.
“That’s ridiculous,” Gardiner said, bristling at the implication that his friend, the Catholic Sir George Carew, was not up to his job. “There must be something more than that.”
“Well, isn’t this the first time she has sailed since the retrofit?” Browne’s voice was indignant. “With ninety cannons now, it could well be her weight or balance.”
Gardiner froze. As always, the critical question sprang to his mind: Could I be blamed? The cannons were the new larger, heavier, cast bronze models, adding greater accuracy but also more than twenty tons from the old wrought-iron ones. The King had personally made that decision but he had consulted with the Council. Would they now be accused of giving bad advice?
Gardiner was not known to be an expert in weaponry, though he was in procurement. Praise God he had nothing to do with these choices…
Who would be blamed then? The answer sprang to Gardiner’s mind: John Dudley, Viscount Lisle was the Lord High Admiral. A Hertford ally. And Hertford had been Admiral himself until two years ago; there might be a way for Gardiner to pile fault on his doorstop as well.
“The retrofit is surely where the problem lies,” Gardiner said with carefully infused innocence, trying not to gloat. “I cannot help thinking that the Admiral made some terrible miscalculation.”
Browne’s eyebrows raised. He was a friend to Lisle and Hertford; of course he would fear the implication. “It’s a bit early for blame,” he said.
“And a bit insensitive at a time like this,” the King added.
Gardiner flushed, embarrassed. He turned his attention back to the ship, and was even more appalled. Both at the situation and at his own misstep.
The men on the upper deck were crowded on the windward side so as to create a countervailing force while the waves slapped higher and higher on the leeward side. Sailors were clambering up the masts, tearing at the rigging to lower the sails. But despite all their scurrying, the ship was still and silent as though stunned into shock.
When Gardiner was a young priest in the service of the King’s early wars, a soldier right in front of him had been pierced in the chest by an arrow. The light left the boy’s eyes but still he remained standing for a time. Now it looked like the light had left the Mary Rose.
“The water is almost up to the gun ports,” a quiet voice said, too raw to distinguish. It didn’t matter who it was. Nothing mattered more than the sight in front of them. They all stood, gaping in horror. Gardiner tasted death in the sea air that filled his mouth.
“Why can’t I see them trying to close them?” asked the King. “Can you see? They should have closed them before the turn.”
No one, certainly not Gardiner, would dare to point out that seamen would never close gun ports in the middle of a battle for what should have been a simple maneuver. It was only because the new cannons pointed out from holes that had been cut close to the waterline that, in retrospect, closing them was exactly what should have been done.
The water was now level with the highest gun ports on the port side, invading the ship and tilting it still further.
Some sailors jumped from the masts into the roiling sea; others scurried like rats to climb to higher ground but were thwarted by the netting that covered the ship to prevent boarding by aggressors. Their screams and shouts carried only faintly to the shore, all but lost in the cannon fire from the other ships around them: this was but one skirmish in the larger battle that raged on.
The heavy gray clouds held the ship from above as the whitecaps attacked it from below. The water had reached even to the fighting deck. There was no hope of saving the Mary Rose.
She went quickly, her lifeless body slipping into oblivion and leaving nothing behind but random debris – barrels and broken bits of masts – floating in the roiling water. Absence amid warships. Emptiness where a small city had once stood.
The moment lengthened, aching. Still they stared at the empty sea as if intense concentration and prayer could change things.
Gardiner paused. Who would speak? Should they wait for the King to break the silence? Or was he waiting for them? Which one of them should express his deep sorrow? Denny had the closest relationship with the man, but Gardiner was the senior cleric. Did this mean he had to be the one? Please, Lord, let this cup pass from my lips…
A sniff came from the King. Gardiner looked over at the stern face and was surprised to see a tear make its way down the royal cheek. He wasn’t the only one. Paget emerged from the shadows of the corner to place a compassionate hand on the King’s shoulder. “You should retire for a bit, Sire,” he said softly.
The King shook his head and straightened his back. “This is not the time to hide myself from my men. This is the time when they need me the most. I will remain here until the battle ends.”
Gardiner felt a grudging respect for the man’s sense of responsibility, but the moment quickly ceded to frustration. The heir to the throne was a seven-and-a-half-year-old boy. They needed to keep their leader safe. “If the French land…” he began but let the words trail off.
The Great Harry unleashed forty guns all at once with an intensity that rumbled the ground beneath the men and broke the tension between them. The warship charged, with two sister ships flanking and seven more fanned out behind. Lisle’s aggression felt heartening, yet it was hard to see how the eighty English ships could overpower more than two hundred French ones. It would be so much safer to continue the defensive game; at least it would keep them safe. And prevent further demoralizing losses.
The King turned to Gardiner. “If the French land then we will repulse the invasion.”
There was really no other response possible at this point, and Gardiner nodded as if fully convinced. “Amen,” he said and turned back to the sea. It was too soon to admit to fear, too soon to suggest retreating to London for safety. That would come later. Or hopefully not.
The real question was how well the country would rally. Gardiner could not help but think about Boulogne’s base example – its villagers capitulating to save their skins. Would Englishmen do the same? It was hard to say. The country was bankrupt, the coinage devalued. Now the Mary Rose was gone – a sign from God? Only twelve thousand – now eleven thousand – English soldiers against thirty thousand Frenchmen. The King would need local support to hold London.
Dread and fear tightened Gardiner’s stomach. He needed to leave, needed to do something. And he needed to look brave.
“It seems to me that your troops could use prayers right now,” he said to the King. “With your leave, I will go and walk among them, pray with them, let them know you are here with them.”
The King looked over at the armed men on the shore who were watching their comrades fight, who could only scan the coastline as they waited vainly for something to do, some brave contribution to make to England’s dark hour. He nodded. “Go now.”
If you like my posts, you’ll love my books! The Path to Somerset is the latest in the Seymour Saga – have you read it yet? (Will you please review it?) Click on the photo to be taken to Amazon.Com: