The Mary Rose, the Royal Navy and the mystery of the silver whistle

The Mary Rose, as depicted in the Antoine Roll of Henry VIII’s Fleet (1540s) – Alamy

From his castle at Southsea, Henry VIII enjoyed a vantage point. Across the sparkling waters of the Solent lay the Isle of Wight. The sun was shining, and flags were fluttering in the fresh breeze. It was the morning of 19 July 1545.

To the king’s left the ships of the approaching French fleet decorated, their backs to the open sea and their swift galleys forming a screen in front of him. Sailing out of the harbor on his right came the mighty ships of his own fleet, hastening to engage the enemy. But before entering into battle, disaster struck. As he made a sharp turn, the king’s lead ship, and his pride and joy, the 700 ton carrack Mary Rose, pitched to and fro.

A recent rebuild may have left the Mary Rose too heavy, or perhaps there was an unexpected change of wind. Either way, her gun ports were opened wide for battle, water sank, and the nets designed to keep the French boarders from her decks sealed the fate of the crew. Out of a total of more than 400 men on board, less than two dozen survived. The commander of the fleet, Vice-Admiral Sir George Carew, drowned with them. The king saw and heard all. Although the contest between the two fleets would end in a draw, it was one of the worst days of Henry’s reign.

The wreck was discovered in 1971, and its recovery in 1982 became one of the great stories of modern maritime archaeology: the recovery of the cannons and the remains of the crew, the broken surface of the ship for the first time in over 400 years, and the nail. – biting moment when part of the massive steel support frame gave way.

However, more was collected from the seabed than wood and cannons and human remains. There were also remnants of people’s lives there, and among the most notable are traces of their music making. Even before the hull was floated into the dry dock, keepers were working on two fiddles, a “tenor shawm” (a type of large oboe), three “tabor pipes” (long wooden flutes, played with one hand) and a drum. Together, they paint a vivid picture of the musical world on board a warship at the end of the Middle Ages.

And the diving team found something even more unusual among the wreckage: four fine silver flutes. Strictly speaking, they may not be musical instruments; As far as we know, they have never been used for entertainment on board a ship. They were essentially “sound instruments”: their ribald notes would add to the rhythms of life on board ship and, along with the ship’s bell, played a central role in the daily routine – announcing everything from meal times to the rising of the anchors and setting sails.

Then she blows: one of the whistles found on the Mary RoseThen she blows: one of the whistles found on the Mary Rose

Then she blows: one of the whistles found on the Mary Rose Trust – Mary Rose

Three of the Mary Rose whistles hung from silver chains, rather like old fashioned pocket watches. The fourth and smallest hung on a ribbon threaded with gold. As for their shape, imagine a small sphere made of a thin sheet of metal: a little over a centimeter in diameter, it resembles a nut shell or a songbird’s egg. At the top of the sphere, there is a circular hole about four millimeters across, and if you blow across it at a right angle, it makes a noise like a whistling kettle. Open and close your hand around the sphere as you blow, and you can raise and fall the note; and, in this way, a skilled sailor can decipher the complex melodic phrases that convey elaborate coded instructions. It is now called the “bosun’s call”, after the ship’s boatman.

Such whistles are used in modern navies, including the Royal Navy. Chrome-plated brass is now more common than silver, but for all intents and purposes, the instruments of today are the same as those used by Henry VIII’s men, and can be heard “piping the servants” over the ship’s loudspeakers, drawing height, or “piping on the side” as visitors are greeted at the end of the path.

Early eyewitness reports suggest that the boat alone did not need a whistle. In 1635, 90 years after the Mary Rose sank, Sir William Monson tells us that the sailing master also used one:

As the Master orders the ship to bear, the heave or strike [down of] the yard, taking in or putting out the sails: at the Master’s whistle the Boatswain takes it [up] with his, and he encourages the sailors to do their work, each of them knowing by their whistle what they have to do.

In fact, their use extended up the line of command to ship captains and even admirals, and at all levels whistles held symbolic value. Henry VIII took to wearing and blowing a golden head on important naval occasions. When the English admiral Sir Edward Howard captured the Scottish privateer Sir Andrew Barton off the coast of Kent in August 1511, he took his whistle as a trophy.

The Mary Rose was rescued from the Solent in October 1982The Mary Rose was rescued from the Solent in October 1982

The Mary Rose rescued from the Solent in October 1982 – Popperfoto

But there is a mystery attached to it. How and when did these whistles first come to be used on ships? The earliest we have so far is a rowing scene on a beautifully quilted bedspread from Sicily, now in the V&A, dating from around 1380. They could therefore be an innovation of the 14th century, demanded by the increased complexity of ships and their rigging. But even if they were, we should be seeing some prototypes among the hundreds of thousands of objects found from earlier marine and coastal excavations – Viking, Roman, Greek, Phoenician – and it was not yet. Why not?

It is one of the archaeological puzzles I explore in my new book, Sound Tracks: Uncovering Our Musical Past. In fact, archaeologists are familiar with this particular conundrum: it is called the “datum of first appearance”. Scientists coined the expression to describe the oldest known instance of a particular plant or animal in sedimentary rock. Such cases do not provide the actual time or place of origin of the organism, which must be further back in time: they are only a temporary marker, and an implicit acknowledgment that our geological and archaeological records are still far from complete. That’s almost certainly the case here, too.

Sound signaling was never confined to the naval sphere, of course. Today, we still sound our car horns to convey a friendly greeting or a stern rebuke. We whistle to attract attention; we knock on doors and bells. In doing so, we are unconsciously following ancient traditions, which are, in some ways, musical traditions as well. They may include patterns and formulas of pitch and tone and rhythm.

Celebrities are put on board HMS Diamond in 2012Celebrities are put on board HMS Diamond in 2012

Celebrities board HMS Diamond in 2012 – PA Archive

How far we consider them to be musical results depends on how we choose to define “music”; Some experts argue that they are not, or, like the song of a nightmare or the bubbling notes of a waterfall, we only see them as having musical qualities. But for an archaeologist, exploring the wilder frontiers of musical knowledge, such questions are premature. When we are trying to unpick a story as big as the prehistory of music, the first step is to assemble the evidence.

Meanwhile, as we cast our nets wider, eyewitnesses like Sir William Monson continue to inspire. For the London dramatist Thomas Heywood, writing in the early 17th century, barely 80 years after the Mary Rose disaster, there was little doubt that the sounds of the boat call could be pleasant, and musical, to the listening ear. He writes,

Boatman, with your whistle
Order the guarantors to the upper deck,
To know their quarters, and hear their accusations…
Oh, it’s music that Mermaids love!

Vintage Sound Tracks: Uncovering Our Musical Past publishes on April 4. For information about the Mary Rose Trust, go to

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