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Lynne Bell

Language mix-up sank Henry VIII’s flagship: study

September 4, 2008

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By Stuart Colcleugh

English King Henry VIII’s favourite warship, the Mary Rose, may have sunk because many of her crew couldn’t understand English commands, according to remarkable new forensic evidence uncovered by SFU criminologist Lynne Bell (above).

Bell, an associate professor in the School of Criminology and SFU’s Forensic Research Centre, examined bones and teeth from 18 of the ship’s 400 lost crew members, which were recovered when the ship was raised in 1982. She found that about 60 per cent were foreigners from "somewhere south of Britain," probably Spain.

The results were "totally unexpected," says Bell, whose findings were published last month in the Journal of Archaeological Science and featured in a documentary that aired on Britain’s Channel 5.

Historical letters shown to Bell by the filmmakers provide yet another clue about the crew’s national composition. The letters indicate that shortly before the sinking, 600 Spanish mariners were "prest" into the king’s service.

"These letters closed the circle for me," she says, "and made a lot of sense of my somewhat controversial results."

The Mary Rose, named after Henry’s sister Mary Tudor and the pride of the fleet, sank during a battle with the French off Portsmouth, England in 1545. But the cause has remained one of the biggest mysteries in British naval history.

A leading theory holds that the ship sank after it heeled over too far during a tight turn, enabling water to flood into the open gun ports. Bell’s research together with the historical letters may finally explain the fatal error.

They suggest that in the heat of battle the ports remained open because the ship’s foreign gunners didn’t understand crucial orders to close them from their English-speaking officers.

Bell plans to follow up her research with a study of the entire crew to learn more about their origins.
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