Sunday, April 18, 2010

Tudor Sea Dogs in the Penny Press!

Sometimes – far too infrequently for my liking – keeping up with the Tudors means keeping up with their pets, and last week’s TLS had a brief snippet on one of those times: a mention of “Hatch,” the dog-skeleton found on King Henry VIII’s fighting ship the Mary Rose when she was finally raised from the bed of the English Channel, some 250 years after she sank.

As the TLS points out, Hatch would have been a working dog, a ratter: Tudor sailors believed having a cat on board was bad luck. Since cats rat by stealth and patience and ratting dogs just bull in and kill their quarry, it stands to reason a) Hatch had the Mary Rose reasonably rat-free in very little time, probably while the vessel was still fitting out in Portsmouth harbor (no whole, drowned rat-remains were found on the ship, only tiny – knawed upon? – fragments) and b) Hatch got very little in the way of other exercise or proper diet – the flat feet of the skeleton hint at quite a bit of time either pacing the decking or else pacing a cage.

Nevertheless, Hatch was a warrior dog: he was on board the Mary Rose when she launched to counter a massive French invasion in 1545. The ship was a huge state-of-the-art seaborne blunderbuss of 700 tons, and she might have proved a terror to the French had she not been under the command of that prize-winning booby, that bumptious, officious moron, that dolt of the first rank, George Carew.  Impressed as always with empty bluster, Henry VIII gave Carew command of the Portsmouth fleet entrusted with repelling the French (as symbol of his authority - and in characteristically snide Tudor reference to a proclivity of Carew’s best not mentioned in front of the children – he was given a golden whistle).

Carew took command on the Mary Rose about a day before he was supposed to fight her against seasoned French warships. By that point his vessel had already been dangerously overloaded (not least by Carew himself, who’d taken the liberty of having nine-tenths of his worldly goods loaded on board already, including extensive wardrobes, furniture, gold plate, and for all we know, the very stones and wooden beams of his home estate back in the country), and that overloading got worse, with fighting men packed on board far in excess of the number who could ever be effectively used in combat. These men were unknown to Carew – half of them were unknown to naval service – and the result may have been a merry, cheering sight in dock, but it could only spell disaster once you needed to get something done.

And so it proved. The Mary Rose launched in July of 1545 and promptly started listing. George Carew had just enough time to call out to a nearby vessel that favorite canard of bad commanders everywhere – “It’s the crew’s fault!” – before he and nearly everyone under his command went to their watery graves – including poor Hatch, who got his nickname from the modern excavators who found his remains near a carpenter’s cabin, leading some to wonder if he wasn’t shut into a cabinet when he drowned.

However it happened, Hatch’s mortal remains are now on display for the public, and while they’re gawping, they ought to remember that this little skeleton represents a gigantic chunk of the Tudor world of which we seldom see anything: the animals. Horses, sheep, pigs (including pet pigs), birds, rats, mice, and innumerable cats and dogs surrounded every single individual in Tudor times, from the lowliest commoner to the highest minister. It was a world filled with their noises, their smells, and their unfailing tendency to provide companionship and provoke affection. When we think of the era, we sometimes too easily think of the rich clothing and polished pewter of the most familiar Holbein portraits and mentally edit out that other society, off to the side, pawing the earth impatiently, or licking its paws, or simply watching with apparent indifference while traitors’ heads were chopped off.

Although you can 100 percent believe the sketch of George Carew’s officious, dimwitted mug done by Holbein – in that he was, as always, entirely accurate.


Sam said...

Good God, dogs and Tudors in a single piece? If they could only find a way to get Star Trek into that, you'd have Steve's perfect article.

Steve Donoghue said...

Ask, and you shall receive

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