Going back in time with The Mary Rose Museum

Paul Clair and Ro Collings are members of the living history staff at The Mary Rose Museum
Paul Clair and Ro Collings are members of the living history staff at The Mary Rose Museum
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Linen-clad peasant Ro Collings helps a young girl put on a fashionable headdress fit for a queen.

In her rough working clothes, Ro looks several classes below the child, who is wearing the sort of French hood Anne Boleyn favoured.

She could be a young princess in the Tudor court, where children wore the same styles as adults.

But the pair are taking part in a dressing-up session at Portsmouth’s Mary Rose Museum where Ro, in her functional Tudor working class outfit, works as a costumed guide.

During the school holidays, families visiting the museum at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard can take part in activity sessions like dressing up and trying out Tudor games.

And that’s because the Mary Rose Museum is as much about the social history of the period as it is about Tudor warship Mary Rose.

Items found with Henry VIII’s favourite ship, after it was discovered in the 1970s and raised in 1982, have given historians plenty of clues as to what life must have been like in his reign.

‘Some of the clothes were useful, for instance, because most of the men wouldn’t have had uniforms at that time. Many of them would have been wearing what Tudor men of different classes wore,’ says Ro, a former primary school teacher.

Historian David Starkey has described the museum as this country’s Pompeii, because it provides a snapshot of what life must have been like in England at a certain period of time.

‘What’s unique about the collection is that everything is from one period. It’s not a collection of items taken from many different places,’ says Melissa Gerbaldi, of Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

And the museum opens out the visitor’s experience to all aspects of Tudor life, including women’s costumes. The dressing up box features rich ladies’ gowns and the Anne Boleyn hoods, made fashionable by Henry VIII’s ill-fated queen.

It certainly brings history alive and the activities also have that aim – letting families have fun and try out aspects of Tudor life themselves.

So this is the place to come if you want to uncover fascinating facts or you fancy a quick game of Nine Men’s Morris.

Games and pastimes

As two youngsters play a life-size version of Tudor game Nine Men’s Morris, costumed guide Paul Clair explains.

‘It’s a bit like noughts and crosses but if you end up with all the pieces out, you can start moving them around. It’s one of those very simple games that actually requires a lot of thinking and is quite clever.’

Nine Men’s Morris could be played on lawns or as board games. The game was found etched on a barrel lid from the Mary Rose and was later mentioned by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Participants in activity sessions can handle newly-made versions of traditional games and instruments, not all found on the Mary Rose.

Some of these Tudor games are familiar and others have long since been assigned to history, but they all have one result. ‘They get families playing together and children away from computer screens for a while,’ says guide Ro Collings.

Catch quoit involves throwing and catching a piece of looped rope with wooden sticks. Both participants must have one hand behind their backs.

The ominous sounding paddle whacks are a kind of bat which would have been used with a ball made with wool and muslin.

Tudor instruments included harps and fiddles. Among those found on the ship are a tabor – a drum and pipe – ‘The people who played these were the first multi-instrumentalists,’ says Paul – and a still shawm, which would develop into the oboe family.

Tudor clothes

Ro Collings loves her work outfit – a linen under-dress, an over-dress, apron and cloth cap.

The Mary Rose Museum guide says: ‘These are the kinds of fabrics they would have had and they’re actually very nice to wear. They’re natural so they don’t make you sticky in summer and they’re lovely and warm in winter.’

For youngsters and adults taking part in costume activities, there’s a dressing-up rail boasting outfits worn at all levels of society. However, the museum can’t stretch to the sumptuous fabrics worn by the rich, so those garments give the look of the Tudors rather than the feel of 16th century clothes.

But replica costumes made by museum volunteer Peggy Bourne do give a fascinating insight into Tudor fashion.

‘Your place in society was very clearly defined,’ says Ro.

‘There were laws that allowed only some people to wear certain colours and fabrics. And clothes were very expensive. But it’s the materials that are costly now – like linen and leather – that were the most available then.’

She often talks to people about her costume which is tied up in several places. Sleeves could be easily removed to keep them clean. ‘You have to remember people would have only had one outfit so it had to be practical.’

Her costume ties at the front, whereas the rich ladies’ gowns would have tied at the back. This was very much a status thing, the back lacing indicating the wearer had a maid to do the tying.

Clothes including jerkins and shoes were found on the Mary Rose. These give some indication of what people wore but obviously many of the materials on board would have perished.

Tudor clothes, however, are well-documented and the museum has held exhibitions.

It was an important aspect of 16th century society as clothing was considered an asset. People would even leave shirts to friends and relatives in wills.

Food and dining

Bones found on the Mary Rose indicated a meat-rich diet. But as preserving was a problem, there would have been little fruit and veg, although pips and stones were also found.

On land, the diet of most people was restricted by income and preserving difficulties. People would have eaten seasonal produce, something an increasing number of people are trying to do today. But the Tudors didn’t have a choice. Fresh food was only available in season.

Pottage — meat stock, oatmeal, herbs and salt – was the main dish available to the majority. Bread was also a staple.

Unpolluted water was hard to come by and everyone, from childhood up, drank ale.

Food was a status symbol and the rich would have eaten very differently. Aristocrats would have feasted on vegetables but mainly a huge variety of boiled meats and fish, including peacock and heron.

Mary Rose Museum guides sometimes give talks on food and Tudor banquets (minus the peacock and heron) have been held at the site.