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Shipwreck reveals surprising racial diversity of Henry VIII's England

"For us it reinforces this idea that England was a much more diverse society," said Dr. Alexzandra Hildred of the Mary Rose Trust.
The Mary Rose, flagship of the fleet of Henry VIII.
The Mary Rose, flagship of the fleet of Henry VIII.Pepys Library Magdalene College / De Agostini via Getty Images file

LONDON — Tudor England under King Henry VIII was more racially diverse than experts previously thought, according to a new study analyzing skeletal remains of a drowned maritime crew.

The "Mary Rose" was the favorite warship of Henry, the famed king who founded the Church of England and had six wives, some of whom met a grisly end.

The ship sank in 1545 but research published Wednesday by Cardiff University academics, the Mary Rose Trust and the British Geological Survey, used scientific techniques to analyze bones and teeth to reveal the diverse ancestry, childhood origins and diets of the perished mariners.

The study, published in the Royal Society Open Science journal, found at least three of the eight crew — among them a royal archer — may have come from warmer, more southerly climates than England, such as Iberia and North Africa.

Researchers also found that although the remaining five crew members were likely to have been brought up in western England, further analysis suggested that at least one of the men was of African ancestry.

"Our findings point to the important contributions that individuals of diverse backgrounds and origins made to the English navy during this period," Jessica Scorrer, first author of the study, said in a statement.

"This adds to the ever-growing body of evidence for diversity in geographic origins, ancestry and lived experiences in Tudor England."

Henry VIII's warship, the Mary Rose, on July 19, 2016 in Portsmouth, England.Olivia Harris / Getty Images file

English kings had relied on requisitioning merchant vessels in times of war but Henry VIII, facing threats from Scotland and France, began to build his own standing navy, growing his fleet from five to 58 by the time he died in 1547, according to the Mary Rose Trust, a charity.

The ship was launched in Portsmouth, southern England, in 1511 and was a successful warship serving the king for 34 years. She sank during the Battle of the Solent, off England, with the vast majority of crew dying at sea.

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In 1982, some 437 years after she sank, the remains of the Mary Rose and 19,000 artifacts were recovered and have since been the subject of extensive research.

Dr. Richard Madgwick, from Cardiff University's School of History, Archaeology and Religion, told NBC News the results were exciting, "tremendously rare" and likely to surprise many people today.

"We really have got unparalleled detail into their biographies," Madgwick said of the eight crew studied. This was largely thanks to knowledge of the time and manner of their death and the use of multi-isotope analysis, which looks at chemical traces from food eaten, he said.

"The key thing is here we didn't set out to look for African ancestry, we were simply analyzing the remains," he said, adding that the findings were likely "breaking down some of these misconceptions about the diversity of Tudor England and the important roles people of diverse backgrounds played."

Among the artifacts found on the ship were bowls, spoons, a wooden backgammon game, musical instruments, leather book covers and quill pens and ink pots, offering a glimpse into life and leisure on the ship.

Dr. Alexzandra Hildred, head of research at the Mary Rose Trust, said, scaling up the study's findings, it could have been possible that, with a crew of 500, a quarter potentially had some "foreign heritage."

"It's opening a whole load of doors," Hildred said. "For us it reinforces this idea that England was a much more diverse society."

Although there are historic records of some racial diversity in Tudor England, they were "sporadic," Hildred said, with the ship's findings offering a deeper look at roles and status.

"What we're looking at is that it was probably normal to have a multiethnic crew," she added. "You begin to get an understanding of their life."