Sailors Of Tudor England Had African And Mediterranean Heritage

The wreck of the famed Tudor warship at the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth, UK. © Hufton+Crow

When we think of Tudor England we often imagine a big fat white guy surrounded by a court of white Englishmen. However, a new scientific investigation into the skeletons of the Mary Rose warship is challenging that view, suggesting that 16th-century England was also home to people whose heritage can be traced to the Mediterranean and even Africa. 

In the early 1500s, the Mary Rose served in several navy battles against France, Scotland, and Brittany under the command of Henry VIII. Five and a half wives later, in 1545, the ship was sunk off the coast of England by the fleets of Francis I of France.

New research has seen archaeologists use isotope analysis and DNA testing, which was then combined with data from modern populations, to trace the backgrounds of the famed ship’s crew. The researchers studied eight crew members, finding heritages from across Europe. Two crew members were possibly even of African heritage. 

The research by archaeologists at Swansea University, Cardiff University, and the University of Portsmouth in the UK forms the basis of a new exhibition at the Mary Rose Museum in the UK called The Many Faces of Tudor England and runs in partnership with the new UK Channel 4 documentary Skeletons of the Mary Rose: The New Evidence.

One of the most interesting and most complete skeletons is of a man named “Henry” by the researchers. Nuclear and mitochondrial DNA from one of his teeth showed that he came from North Africa, with a similar genetic makeup to modern-day Moroccans or Mozabite Berbers of Algeria, although it’s possible that his mother also had British heritage.

Artist's impression of some of the crew based on the new scientific investigation. Oscar Nilsson

It also looks like he spent most of his life in England. Levels of sulfur suggest that he was born fairly near the coast, while high nitrogen and carbon values show he ate a protein-rich diet. His strontium isotope ratio also showed he was raised in an area with Palaeozoic geology, such as North Devon in the south of England.

Analysis of his bones and teeth suggest he was aged between 14 and 18. While it appears he was a very muscular young man, his spine showed signs of osteoarthritis and degenerative disease.

“It’s only with the integration of a range of biomolecular methods that we’re able to provide these new insights into the diverse crew of the Mary Rose, with some coming from southern Europe and perhaps beyond,” Dr Richard Madgwick, Lecturer in Archaeological Science at Cardiff University, said in a statement.

“It’s exceptionally rare to reconstruct past life histories in such detail, from earliest life to death.”

As seasoned travelers, seafaring populations and bands of sailors are often an incredibly diverse group of people. While “Henry” might not necessarily be representative of the whole of Tudor Britain, him and his fellow crew members certainly challenge many of the longstanding assumptions of Britain, Europe, and ethnic backgrounds.  

 

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