Analyses of skeletons from the Mary Rose are fleshing out the crew’s past, offering further evidence that Tudor England was a bustling scene of ethnic diversity.
Researchers say studies on the human remains recovered from the warship, which sank in the Solent during a battle with the French in 1545, have revealed at least two of the crew might have had heritage from as far afield as north Africa.
One of these is a member of the crew dubbed “Henry” – a teenager of muscular build who was thought to have been involved in keeping the ship watertight, and was found in the hold with three others. His skull had previously been flagged by experts as showing signs of African ancestry – and scientists say Henry’s genetic data adds weight to this idea.
While the nuclear DNA extracted from Henry’s teeth was far from complete, having degraded over time, researchers say they were able to analyse what remained and compare their findings with genetic information from modern populations, revealing similarities to Moroccan, Mozabite and near-eastern populations.
“He does cluster quite clearly in amongst individuals from north Africa,” said Dr Sam Robson from the University of Portsmouth, who worked on the research, adding that the analysis also ruled out that Henry was from sub-Saharan Africa.
In addition, the team looked at Henry’s mitochondrial DNA, which is far more abundant than nuclear DNA and almost always inherited only from the mother. It is possible to sort people into groups based on the collection of mutations in their mitochondrial DNA – and in Henry’s case, this turned out to be a very rare group. However, what it means is something of a puzzle: such a collection is found in populations in several parts of the world, in particular southern Europe, north Africa and the near east, meaning his mother’s origins remain hazy.
Even if Henry did have roots in north Africa, it seems it was England he called home: analyses of oxygen isotopes in his teeth tallies with him spending his life in the rainy west or south of the country.
The team also looked at elements in the teeth of a man known as the “archer royal”, whose remains were found on the main deck, trapped beneath a cannon. He appears to have been a well-to-do individual: he was found with a sword, carrying a comb and wearing a leather wrist-guard bearing the arms of Catherine of Aragon and royal arms of England.
Experts say the results suggest he grew up in a hot climate, with researchers noting he too could have hailed from north Africa – although southern Europe is also a possibility. Wherever he grew up, the team said it seemed it was far from the coast – among the evidence there was little sign that his diet was drawn from the sea.
Dr Miranda Kaufmann, the author of Black Tudors: The Untold Story, said the findings joined existing evidence of racial diversity in Tudor society, with England home to black sailors, craftsmen and court musicians.
But, she added, as the Mary Rose sank shortly before English merchants began trading in Morocco, she believes the crew with north African heritage, or their relatives, were more likely to have travelled through Spain or Portugal before coming to England.
Dr Onyeka Nubia, the author of Blackamoores, a book about Africans in Tudor England, who took part in a documentary about the research to be broadcast on Sunday, also emphasised the diversity of Tudor society, adding that ideas about ethnicity at the time were relatively fluid and very different to the views on race that emerged in the 18th century.
Nubia cautioned that the proportion of those onboard the Mary Rose that had heritage beyond British shores was not necessarily representative of the whole of England at the time. Nonetheless, he said the findings of a diverse crew supported a wealth of evidence that the country was home to people of many ethnicities.
“This is not a one-off thing,” he said.
- Skeletons of the Mary Rose: The New Evidence is on Channel 4 at 8pm on 17 March. The Many Faces of Tudor England exhibition runs from 18 March to 31 December at the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth.