Archaeologists Find Lost Swedish Man-of-war, and Sink the Hype

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Guns protruding out of the upper gun deck ports of the starboard side
Guns protruding out of the upper gun deck ports of the starboard side of the MarssCredit: Ingemar Lundgren
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom

In the year 1564, a spanking new Swedish warship named Mars was overcome in its very first naval engagement, albeit after two days of fighting, and was blown to bits. The enemy, the Hanseatic town of Lübeck allied with Denmark, crowed at their adversary's humiliation and lost no opportunity to boast of their maritime achievement.

The Mars, a Swedish man-of-war, was also nicknamed “Matchless”, and indeed there was apparently nothing else its size sailing the Baltic Sea. Also, it was heavily armed with large cannons on two gun decks.

The total number of guns was just above one hundred, though some sources claim as many as 200 and the ship carried a crew of about 700.

No question, Mars would have been a formidable foe for any navy of the time. Now it lies at a depth of 75 meters off the island of Öland in the Baltic Sea.

Naval architect Fredrik Henrik af Chapman calculated the dimensions of Mars in the 19th century but ended up with a way too large a ship. Painting by Lorens Pasch the youngerCredit: Swedish National museum

"Mars was one of the largest warships in the world when it sank. Sinking it became a celebrated triumph among the allied fleet," says Dr. Niklas Eriksson of Stockholm University.

But archaeologists exploring and studying the shipwreck since its discovery in 2011, under the auspices of Södertörns University, have found not only a large number of bronze cannons, hand grenades, coins and personal armor belonging to its long-dead sailors. The researchers found that its length had apparently been exaggerated, both by its builders, the Swedish; and its vanquishers, the Danish allied with the people of Lubeck.

“The wreckage and human remains also provide unique insight into the battle itself, and the violence that took place at the scene of battle,” Prof. Johan Rönnby of Södertörns University and scientific leader for the Mars project told Haaretz.

'Larger than a church'

The maritime battle was an episode in the Northern Seven Years War which began in 1563, pitting Sweden against an alliance of Denmark, Poland, and the German port of Lübeck (the hub of a powerful trading federation). The war was fought out on land and at sea.

The knighthead of the Mars (a post used to fasten ropes). Note the pump dale to the rightCredit: Ingemar Lundgren

Definitely, sinking the Mars was a triumph for the Danes and their allies, who used it for propaganda purposes, printing pamphlets and singing songs that described the gigantic warship's flaming demise.

And a feat it was, but how large was the Mars?

The sinking of Mars was a spectacular victory for the Danish-Lübeckian fleet. This is the title page of a ballad, written in Low German, describing the battle (after Ekman & Unger 1942:177).Credit: Ekman & Unger

A Lübeckian chronicler, Die Herren von Hövel, states that the ship was 3 meters longer than the church of St Peter in Lübeck. That would have made it 52.6 meters in length.

If this measurement refers to the lengths between stem and sternpost, which some researchers have suggested, it would make Mars a monster of the waves (for the time. Today's supertankers can reach 450 meters in length.) Some reports even suggested that the Mars had been almost 61 meters in length

It is hard to know exactly how long the Mars had been because the forward part of the hull is missing, says Eriksson. "But by measuring the preserved hull structure and using proportions from other ships, one may conclude that the length between stem and sternpost must have been somewhere between 43 to 45 meters," he says.

After its demise, warship length did increase. For comparison, another renowned but equally ill-fated Swedish ship, the Vasa, which set sail and immediately sank in August 1628, measured 47.5 meters from stem to stern (between the perpendiculars) and the Kronan, which measured 53 meters.

Image of the MarsCredit: Niklas Eriksson

However long it was exactly, the Mars definitely was a very large ship by 16th century standards, and it offered certain innovations to maritime battle. “Mars gives an opportunity to document a large warship from a transitional time in shipbuilding,” Rönnby observes.

Land battle fought at sea

The large capstan used for hoisting anchors and setting sails Credit: Ingemar Lundgren

One of the most spectacular recent finds in the Mars wreck was a large claw anchor, aka grapnel. That was an anchor-like device that hung from the bowsprits of warships and was used to grip another ship in order to board it.

Grapnels are illustrated in historical sources from the 16th century, but this is the only known surviving example

“Medieval sea battles are sometimes described as field battles that went to sea,” says Eriksson. "The warships would sail up next to each other and the sailors would fight hand to hand."

Only come the Renaissance period (14th-17th century C.E.) and ships like Mars, would artillery be used and the enemies could injure each other from a greater distance, he adds.

The transition away from hand-to-hand fighting influenced naval architecture. Late medieval warships had heightened fore and stern castles, from which the sailors would leap to board the enemy. Early modern ships have gun ports along the hull-side.

As Eriksson points out, Mars interestingly has both two rows of gun ports along the hull; and the ship had a high stern castle for boarding the enemy during combat. Unfortunately for posterity, the forecastle blew up when the ship sank.

How the Mars lies on the seabed: The exploded bow is to the left and the remaining hull has broken into three more or less coherent parts.Credit: Niklas Eriksson

The divers also found including helmets and swords, tools used to repair and maintain the ship, and rolls of lead, which would have been used to repair leaks in the hull.

A large ship depicted on the epitaph for Chaplain Sweder Hoyer of the Hanseatic navy who died in the war against Sweden.Credit: Mortensøn

Investigations of the remains of unfortunate sailors that followed the Mars to the depths, as well as other contemporary shipwrecks such as the Vasa, reveal that sailors at the time were simple men. They had no official uniforms but wore the same cloths as a worker on land: a thick coarse grey cap with matching pants, a jacket and a simple shirt as well as a pair of leather shoes. Not much to match the bitter, raw Baltic Sea weather.

A pile of bricks revealed the remains of the galley, which still contained pottery and cooking utensils. A large number of silver coins have been found scattered over the wreck site.

'Matchless' meets its match

In late May 1564, the Swedish fleet was scattered after a severe storm. The old admiral Jakob Bagge, on board the newly built flagship Mars, had only two ships with him when he spotted the Danish fleet off the Swedish island of Öland.

"Matchless" was one of the largest ship that had ever sailed in the Baltic Sea up to that point. The battle that ensued lasted for three days and ended with "Matchless'" rudder being shot off; the ship was boarded, and blown up.

The Swedish chronicler Erik Johansson Tegel described the ship's sorry end: “When the fire reached the powder-magazine, the foremast flew as if one had fired an arrow into the sky, and the ship broke in two and sank” - Konung Erics den XIV:des historia

More than 100 bronze guns are scattered over the wreck. The majority appears to have been mounted into two-wheeled gun carriages Credit: Ingemar Lundgren

The findings at the wreck site seem to confirm that account, says Eriksson. The foremost part of the hull is nearly annihilated. The remaining portion of the hull has broken up below the waterline into three more or less coherent portions. All over the wreck are traces of fire and splintered holes from gunshot.

But shortly before, it had been boarded by Danish and Lübeckian warships, according to the written sources and the fighting was fierce. Between 800 and 1,000 men are estimated to have been on board during the heat of the battle.

That is comparable to the population of an entire medium-sized town at the time. Most of them died in the explosion or when the ship sank into the watery depths.

“We have found several bones, including two femurs and several legs with traces of trauma, and also burned bones,” Rönnby told Haaretz.

Among the traumatized body parts found are a femur with damage to the knee, which could have been caused by a sharp-edged weapon. The next phase of the research will focus on the osteological remains, Rönnby says.

The underwater archaeologists also found a hand grenade. But the most conspicuous objects on the wreck site, the hull pieces aside, were scattered cannons.

“The size of these cannons varies considerably, from the really large ones placed on the lowest gun deck weighing several tons to the small ones placed in the fore- and stern-castle, and even in the masts. We know from written sources that longbows were still in use aboard ships during the Nordic Seven Years War. But we have not found them yet,” Eriksson says.

Your tax kroners at work

The new examination of the Mars shipwreck provides new insights into the events that took place between Denmark and Sweden during the Northern Seven Years’ War, between 1563 and 1570.

The construction of the Mars marked a transition in Swedish tactics from close-quarter combat to long-distance fighting. The ship bore cannons up to 4.8 meters long.

How and why Sweden could build and equip a ship like the Mars in the mid-16th century should be seen within the wider societal context. Among other things, various European states were forming formal naval institutions; and Sweden pulled out of the so-called Kalmar union with Denmark and Norway. 

As state administration evolved, kings like Sweden's Erik XIV could gather more funding, through for instance taxes, that could be used to build state-of-the-art warships equipped with extremely expensive muzzle-loaded bronze cannons. The armament was often as costly as the rest of the ship.

Note that as said, the advent of long-distance killing, by rifle or cannon, did not immediately end the use of grapnels, boarding and hand-to-hand fighting.

Despite the large cannons, the Swedish crew still had to contend with close-quarter combat with the enemy. In order to obstruct assault from a boarding enemy, fighting ships were usually equipped with nets that placed to protect people on deck. The nets made it more difficult for the boarding party and helped to ward off projectiles thrown at the defenders as well as falling rigging parts, Eriksson explains.

Although the Mars went down, and so did at least some of its crew, the old Swedish admiral Bagge would survive. He himself recounts being wounded in the shoulder by a javelin thrown from one of the attacking ships. He furious returned fire with an arquebus, hitting enemy sailors, who fell into the net. Yet Bagge was captured and remained a prisoner in Denmark for seven years.

Though the Mars was lost, the other two Swedish ships that participated in the naval engagement escaped and rejoined the Swedish fleet, and continued to fight. Among the fleet's exploits were the capture of 26 Lubeckian merchants off the island of Bornholm; and later that summer they destroyed a Danish fleet outside the northern tip of Öland.

The war at sea would continue for six more years, and took a toll on the Scandinavian populations because of the disruption to sea trade.

One item that fell badly short was communion wine, a matter taken seriously at the time. Fearing spiritual anxiety in the realm, the Swedish king, appointed the reformer Dionysius Beurreus to present a substitute. He found out that beer, apple juice and other beverages worked just as well.