Henry VIII's England has long been seen as an exclusively white society.
But analysis of skeletons recovered from the wreck of the Mary Rose has revealed that the Tudor kingdom might have been much more multicultural than experts have previously believed.
Scientific tests on eight crew members’ remains found that two of them almost certainly had North African heritage, while two others were of Mediterranean origin.
The year-long investigation commissioned by the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth involved advanced DNA genetic tests which can establish eye, hair and skin colour, and isotope analysis, which can reveal where someone was born and raised by analysing chemical elements within their bones.
The ship sank in 1545 in the Solent while leading an attack on a French invasion fleet. Its remains were recovered in 1982 and are now housed in the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth. The complete skeleton of a crew member, nicknamed ‘Henry’ by the divers who found it, was among those to be analysed.
Isotope tests at Cardiff University found ‘Henry’ was born in England. But DNA analysis by Portsmouth University confirmed his genetic profile is similar to that of the Berbers of Algeria. The findings, suggest ‘Henry’s’ father was North African.
Tests on his skeleton found he was aged 16 to 19 and had lived a life of hard physical work. His job on board the Mary Rose may have involved helping to waterproof it against leaks because his remains were found near barrels of pitch and tar at the bottom of the ship.
The research also allowed the experts to reconstruct his eye, hair and skin colour.
An image of what ‘Henry’ looked like will feature in the museum’s Many Faces of Tudor England exhibition, which opened on Monday.
Watch the process of reconstructing a 500-year old face:
Another skeleton tested was that of a man believed to be an ‘archer royal’, a member of the King’s personal guard. Analysis of his bones found he was from a far warmer climate than Britain’s and suggests he is also from North Africa.
The Mary Rose would have had a crew of more than 200.
Historian Dr Onyeka Nubia, author of Blackamoores: Africans in Tudor England, their Presence, Status, and Origins, said yesterday: ‘To a large extent most people’s idea of Tudor Britain has been shaped by the Victorians. It’s also the legacy of the likes of Blackadder II.
‘My studies of parish, court and prison records have shown that in some areas four of five per cent of the population were from abroad.’
This could be a result of England’s connections with the Iberian peninsula at the time. Spain had a significant population who were of North and West African descent.
Crew members could also have been enlisted as navigators during voyages in unfamiliar waters, then continued to serve on British ships. They were not slaves.