Archaeologists Find Something Fishy On Board the Mary Rose

hull-of-Mary-RoseArchaeologists find that the Tudor warship was stuffed with dried fish and clues to how the growth of the navy drove a globalised fishing trade, and vice versa.

Here at DigVentures, we’ve got a bit of an interest in the Mary Rose. Last year, when we were digging at Leiston Abbey, we found a beautifully carved bone knife handle which, we were told, looked exactly the same as some of the ones found aboard the wreck of the Tudor warship, which sank off the coast of southern England in 1545.

While it’s nice to know they had such lovely cutlery, a team of researchers from Cambridge, Hull and York have found something pretty fishy on board. Literally.

Lots and lots of dried and salted cod. The remarkable thing is that new stable isotope and ancient DNA analysis of fishbones recovered from the ship’s provisions show that they came from surprisingly far way: not just the North Sea, but the nothern North Sea – the fishing grounds of Iceland – and even as far away as Newfoundland in eastern Canada.

Which is strange. Because England already had its own well-developed local fisheries by the 16th century.


So why fish from Iceland? Or Newfoundland for that matter? At the time, England to Iceland was a three to six month round trip, and a single trip to Newfoundland took five weeks.

Iceland’s cold, dry climate made it perfect for producing air-dried cod and, as the study notes, English fishermen could work Icelandic waters themselves, to produce their own salt cod, but it’s still a long way.

As for Newfoundland, at the time of the Mary Rose in 1545, it was just a small-scale seasonal fishery. And yet, within a century, it had become a major economic concern, of greater value than the fur trade. The question remains: why go to such lengths just for fish?

Not just for the hell of it (or should that be not just for the halibut?)

The research team said naval provisions were probably a huge factor meaning demand for fish exceeded what local English and Irish fisheries were able to supply, leading to the early expansion of the overseas fish trade.

In something of a vicious circle, maintaining this trade required the further growth of the English navy, which in turn required more fish for naval provisions; the commercial exploitation of fish and the growth of the navy became mutually reinforcing aspects of Renaissance globalisation.

Need fish, must colonise… and militarise!

In short, the need for fish stocks was an important driver of involvement in north-eastern North America. The fish trade was one of the key links in the causal chain of European expansion to that continent.

‘Military sea power was a prerequisite for the concurrent – and subsequent – development of England’s sea-borne colonialism. The cod bones from the Mary Rose [show] that the navy itself was first sustained, in part, by fishermen working distant northern and transatlantic waters’ said James Barrett, the project’s lead researcher.

All aboard the Mary Rose!

Records from just after the time of the Mary Rose show that a standard daily ration of preserved cod was a quarter of a fish served with ship biscuit, two ounces of butter and a gallon of beer.

This was served three times a week. The bone samples show that these fish could range from approximately 70cm to over a metre in length, so a quarter of cod was a significant portion.

[Read more: The Incredible History of Fish and Chips]

“Preserved cod was great value for money as a provision, particularly as space and durability were an issue on board a ship,” said Barrett.

And back to Leiston Abbey and the origins of Fish Fridays

Before the reign of Henry VIII, fish was considered a suitable food during Christian fasts like Lent, and an alternative to milk and cheese for urban populations who, as Barrett points out ‘didn’t have room for cows in their back yards’.

This year at Leiston Abbey, the team found lots of fish bones, particularly in trench 21 which yielded loads of food waste, a nice reflection of the fact that once Henry VIII split from the church, religious associations with fish meals started to dissipate, threatening to send England’s fisheries, and subsequently its navy, into decline.

It was Elizabeth I, Henry’s successor, who instigated weekly ‘fish days’ to encourage domestic consumption and a commercial fleet to feed the navy and ensure a supply of mariners when needed.

Fascinatingly fishy stuff.

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Written by Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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