IT IS JUST 20 YEARS AGO THAT THE GREAT TUDOR WARSHIP Mary Rose, the flower of King Henry VIIIs fleet, first saw the light of day after 436 years buried in the mud of the Solent.
     The discovery, salvage and raising of the wreck of this magnificent ship will probably rank as the greatest underwater archaeological triumph of all time.
     It is also a huge tribute to amateur sport divers, a graphic demonstration of their ability to achieve remarkable results in disciplines usually reserved for professionals.
     The story of the Mary Rose, from beginning to end, is nothing less than dramatic. Built in 1509-10 as a four-masted carrack of 600 tons, she was the first English warship to carry complete batteries of siege artillery on the main deck - an extraordinary innovation.
     Rebuilt in 1536, she became an even more revolutionary fighting machine, possibly becoming the first English warship to carry guns between decks. The development of watertight gunports, cut in the sides of the hull, enabled ships to deliver the famous broadsides of heavy artillery fire, a technique carried through to the 19th century.
     Nevertheless, the Mary Rose came to grief in 1545 when Henrys fleet of some 100 ships faced a French invasion fleet of 235 ships off Portsmouth. Barely a mile off Southsea Castle - and in full view of the King, who is said to have heard the cries of the drowning men - the great, gaily-painted ship inexplicably heeled over and sank, gunports open and guns run out.

Apart from some 40 survivors, 600-700 people aboard perished, most of them entombed, including a crew of 200 marines, 185 archers and pikemen, and 30 gunners. Also aboard was the Admiral, Sir George Carew, and her Captain, Roger Grenville. Overloading combined with poor handling were thought to be the cause of the disaster, but modern theory is that the wind was partly to blame as the ship turned, enabling her open gunports to be flooded.
     Venetian salvors worked unsuccessfully on the wreck, and the Mary Rose settled further and further down in the Solent mud, a virtual time capsule containing as she did most of her crew and contents. She became forgotten for 291 years until she was rediscovered by the pioneer of the diving helmet, John Deane, in 1836.
     Deane recovered four bronze cannon and eight large wrought-iron guns, as well as parts of others. After that, the position of the now virtually invisible wreck again passed out of memory.

Enter, in the 1960s, Alexander McKee, a military historian, an author - and a keen, experienced amateur diving member of Southsea BSAC, intent upon finding the famous but virtually unknown ship which had been sunk in a battle that had received scant attention from scholars.
     Beginning with other members of Southsea Branch, he launched Project Solent Ships in 1965 to locate many of the historic wrecks known to lie there, but his real ambition was to find the Mary Rose.
     Several academic nautical historians of repute claimed to know where she lay, one stating that she sank in the mouth of Portsmouth Harbour, another that she capsized off Brading. A lot of sea separated these two positions and neither could be reconciled with a contemporary panorama of the battle, known as the Cowdray Engraving.
     These and other conflicting views complicated and prolonged McKees underwater quest, but his painstaking research finally uncovered an Admiralty chart of 1841 that clearly marked the position of the wreck, half a mile north-east of that of the Royal George, close to where the divers had been probing.
     It had taken a year of patient working under water by the small band of divers to find the right location, but the next phase was to take much longer, because McKee had become convinced that the wreck itself was totally buried.
     It was not until after a further frustrating year under water that McKee acquired a side-scanner and a linked pinger. Using it, he found the Mary Rose in 10 minutes!
     The Project Solent Ships group, which now included archaeologist Margaret Rule, was tiny and mainly composed of Southsea Branch divers. This led to a Mary Rose Association being formed into which members put£1 each in the kitty with an enthusiasm not shared by many outsiders. Diver magazine launched an appeal for funds, and divers were the only contributors.

It took a further four years to establish the wrecks identity beyond doubt, and the team achieved amazing things during that period. From time to time its members were joined by sport divers from branches such as Southampton, Brighton and the Isle of Wight.
     Aid also came from the local fire brigade, the Naval Air Command Sub-Aqua Club, the Royal Navy, the Royal Engineers, professional dockyard divers and others.
     Under water the divers had laboriously to dig down more than 3.5m into stiff clay, often by hand, to probe a large area above an invisible wreck. They sometimes worked from borrowed boats, in a tideway, in visibilities of less than 30cm, and with surface winds of Force 6 and 7. The depth was about 12m, though it was later to become twice as deep.
     Initially, a plank was discovered, 2m down, which took four cautious days to excavate. Then, in 1969 and 1970, they dug a 27m long trench and discovered a wrought-iron breech-loading gun, which proved that this was indeed the site of the Mary Rose.
     When, in 1971, almost£10,000 was raised, the greatest underwater salvage saga of all time began in earnest, to become a monument to amateur endeavour.

In the years that followed hundreds of divers from all walks of life - with a hard core of 40 or 50 faithfuls - worked on the wreck without reward and with nothing but enthusiasm to inspire them.
     Every year they dug trenches around the ships superstructure, which listed to 60, to uncover, examine, measure and investigate the remains of the wreck, and at the end of every season they had to put the excavated mud back again to preserve from the sea what had briefly been revealed.
     In 1979, the Mary Rose Trust was formed under the presidency of Prince Charles, with the aim of excavating, recovering and eventually displaying the historic wreck. Money and materials began to pour in.
     The reason for this sudden widespread acclamation was twofold. Firstly, nothing whatsoever was known about the construction of Henry VIIIs ships, and historians were similarly unable to describe the revolutionary developments in artillery which took place during the reigns of Henry and his father, Henry VII.
     Both naval and military scholars and historians agreed that the Mary Rose was a key vessel in the startlingly rapid development of the wooden battleship as a floating gun platform.
     Secondly, life in Tudor times was less well-known than was believed. Henry VIIIs personal armour was already preserved, but what of that of his shipboard archers What did his sailors wear What uniforms did his officers use What domestic utensils did they take on board
     Perhaps more significantly, what were the men of that era like themselves - their height, weight, strength, bone structure, teeth, general health Cemeteries of the16th century had previously been the only clues, and they were largely filled with the victims of disease and old age.
     In contrast, the skeletal remains inside the wreck were those of the cream of Englands fighting men of the times: seamen, archers, marines, gunners and officers, all drowned in their prime. The Mary Rose also contained undreamt-of aspects of Tudor life and times, marvellously preserved by the mud.

In the final year of her life under water, an amazing 5000-plus dives were carried out. More than 4000 hours were spent beneath the surface by hundreds of amateur divers, most of whom had no previous archaeological knowledge, and these volunteers had virtually emptied the wreck of all the treasure she contained.
     The base vessel for the diving operation was a 370 ton ex-Admiralty salvage lifting vessel, Sleipner, previously used in the operation to raise the 17th century Swedish warship Vasa.
     Working life aboard Sleipner was interesting, to say the least. An all-steel ship, she was perpetually wet from dripping wetsuits and condensation down below, where the cramped changing area was located.
     There was an old bath, occasionally filled with hot water, in which divers, very cold after their stint underwater, would lie to try to thaw out. The water quickly became extremely muddy and cool!
     The wreck was covered with a grid of scaffold poles, and each section was numbered. Every volunteer was given a specific project and stations were allocated. My first task as a volunteer was to measure and draw accurately the profile of a gunport at the stern, no easy task, as the port was shaped like a staggered funnel.

Armed with a tape measure, pencil and pad inside a plastic bag, I settled down and began to work. A gentle current was running and suddenly I looked down to find that I was standing on a bronze cannon. I also discovered that I was in company with the protruding end of an archers bow.
     Whats more, the current gradually exposed a jawbone on a nearby mud ledge. Prince Charles was to visit that same location the next day.
     The airlifts we used daily uncovered valuable finds: personal sea chests, their intact contents including crossbow bolts, sheathed knives and leather clothing. There was navigational equipment, musical instruments, pocket sun-dials, tableware, books, coins and clothing. Skeletons, too, enabling much to be discovered about the nature of Tudor man.
     Before the wrecks discovery, there were few examples of the Tudor longbow in existence. Now there were hundreds. One chest recovered was full of bows and arrows, an interesting study of one archers weaponry.
     In all, more than 14,000 objects were salvaged, including many immensely important finds, some unique. They included a wide range of guns, some of them remarkably preserved, plus the earliest ships gun carriage yet found, and an iron gun produced by hitherto unknown techniques.
     The Mary Rose reluctantly re-entered the world above water on 11 October, 1982, twenty-four hours late on a cold, wet Monday morning, following a day of high drama when everything had technically gone wrong.
     The Tog Mor, the greatest lifting barge in existence, raised her in a cradle, after an incredible heart-stopping, last-minute crisis when one corner of the lifting frame collapsed as she came out of the water.
     The Mary Rose is now in a museum in Portsmouth, much restored and admired by millions of visitors. Millions more will have that privilege but the greatest privilege of all was to dive on her and aid her recovery, one I shall never forget.

The wrecks emergence from the seabed after 436 years brought some of the Mary Rose Diving Team close to tears, and Archaeological Director Margaret Rule somewhat sadly said: Ive now got mixed feelings. She used to belong just to us. Now she belongs to everybody.
     That may be true, but the location and recovery of the Mary Rose turned the dream of Alexander McKee into a truly wonderful reality and was an unforgettable triumph for himself, Margaret Rule, the Mary Rose Diving Team and the hundreds of amateur divers who enthusiastically gave their time to make it all possible.

Mary Rose Diving Team member Adrian Barak with a yew Tudor bow
just a few of the 14,000 objects recovered from the wreck
Prince Charles looks anxious during the wrecks dramatic and nearly disastrous entrance into the world above water
the jawbone recovered by the author
one of the first swords to be found
a diver uncovers a bronze cannon
Archaeological Director Margaret Rule oversees operations
the second iron gun to be raised in November 1971 using the airbag seen on the left