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Mary Rose and HMS Victory, 22 May 2017

A party of 29 Bowyers enjoyed an exhilarating evening in Portsmouth Harbour's Historic Dockyard on Monday 22 May, with a visit to the new Mary Rose Museum and then the great privilege of a private dinner in Nelson's former Wardroom on HMS Victory.

The Mary Rose is now stabilised for preservation purposes in its new museum setting, and the whole length of the hull is now on open display, beautifully lit. Some very good superimposed films showed what working life would have been like for the 6-700 men on board Henry VIII's venerable old warship, and the museum's excellent staff gave us a private after-hours tour and commentary, covering the ship itself, what caused it to sink while sailing out to battle in 1545, and the painstaking work of reclaiming it from the silted seabed.

The many longbows recovered from the silt are a major item of interest on the Mary Rose, and provided the first large-scale confirmation of the sheer size and weight of the English warbows at the zenith of their development: 6 foot to 6'6" bows, with draw weights mostly 100-120lbs, some up to 140lbs. A mock-up bow in the museum allows visitors to test the weight they can pull; we can report that Paul Muckle pulled it to its full extent without apparent effort.

After a restorative glass of fizz, we moved next door to HMS Victory, its White Ensign flying proudly from the stern. It is still a Royal Navy ship of the line, with Royal Navy crew, and we were welcomed on board by CPO Gary Burridge, who gave us an extended after-hours tour of the ship, vividly relating how the ship functioned in Nelson's day, and what would life would have been like for the crew, both under sail and in battle. Quite harsh and basic, actually: we now know what a tow-rag was, and exactly what they did with the cat-o'nine-tails. The gun decks were particularly impressive: each cannon would have had a crew of 12-14 to keep it righted, cleaned, reloaded, primed and fired at the maximum possible rate.

The highlight of the evening was our dinner in the Senior NCOs' Mess, formerly Nelson's Wardroom. It is hard to imagine a more atmospheric dining room. This is private naval property, mainly used by the Royal Navy itself, not part of the public tours, and invitations to dine there can only be extended if one has in one's party a currently serving NCO in HM Forces - which we happily do. To mark the courtesy of being on board, the Master made the evening's main toast to Her Majesty's Armed Forces, with responses by Inf Cmd SM and Bowyer Freeman Paul Muckle (formerly RSM 2 Mercian) and our Clerk, Lt Col Tony Marinos (formerly of the Royal Anglian Regiment), both of whom talked with quiet pride of their army careers.

In responding to the Clerk's toast to the Bowyers' Company, the Master talked of the less well known role of the longbow as the main shipborne weapon of medieval times, clocking up some famous victories over the French navy in the 1330s, and still forming a significant part of the armament on the Mary Rose 200 years later. But mainly the Master talked of the huge privilege we were enjoying of dining on HMS Victory, this illustrious and deeply impressive ship, and how very grateful we were to CPO Burridge and his team for making us so welcome.

As a final gesture of the evening's good will all round, CPO Burridge presented the Company with, in proper military folded form, the White Ensign that had been flying from the stern when we boarded HMS Victory earlier in the evening. This is an honour rarely bestowed, and left us without words. It had been the most extraordinarily memorable evening.

Photos by courtesy of Ben Glazier, John Hayton and Tony Kench.

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