Of all the ships of war that have left this port never to return, the one that has captured the imagination and won the hearts of Englishmen is the Mary Rose, the pride of King Henry VIII's navy. She went down with her officers and crew before her monarch's very eyes on a calm day in 1545, as she sailed out of this port to engage the French fleet that had been menacing England's south coast.
For the next 420 years, Mary Rose remained in her hiding place, stuck in her ignominious anchorage in the mud. The ship lay about a mile from shore, 45 feet down - a Tudor maritime time capsule awaiting discovery. Discovery came in 1965 when Alexander McKee, a Portsmouth author and amateur diver, made the dive of his life and came face to face with this venerable relic of England's nautical past.
Mary Rose's last hour afloat has been cloaked in controversy for 400 years. The French have steadfastly maintained that the ship was dispatched to the bottom of Spithead (the body of water that separates the mainland from the Isle of Wight) by superior French naval firepower. The English - including the archaeologists who have examined her remains - confirm an eyewitness account that Mary Rose foundered. Whether this occurred because King Henry ordered an additional 300 men on board or because the crew failed to obey an order to close the gunports when she listed, allowing water to rush in and capsize her, has never been established.
An eyewitness account by Sir Peter Carew, whose brother, George, commanded the Mary Rose, quotes his brother as saying the ship had come upon ''a sorte of waves whom he could not rule.'' At that point, Sir Peter, who was on forward lookout ''at the top of the shippe,'' reported that ''Mary Rose beganne to heele , that is to leane on the one side. . . . And it was not longe after that that the sayde Mary Rose thus heelinge more and more was drowned with seven hundred men.''
Before the end of this month, after 17 years of effort and an expenditure of King Henry's flagship home from battle - 437 years late. The honor of announcing the recovery date was given to Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales. He is a descendant of Henry VIII, and president of the Mary Rose Trust, the organization dedicated to the recovery and preservation of England's first recorded man-of-war. Prince Charles has made at least nine dives to the wreck and has assisted in the excavation that has yielded some 7,000 artifacts that have given 20th-century Englishmen a firsthand look at 16th-century life below decks.
In the 13 years that divers have been removing the Mary Rose's contents, they have retrieved many an article that has given naval historians and archaeologists valuable information about the maritime and social history of Tudor England. The craftsman's cabin, on the main gun deck, gave up a fine collection of planes for molding and carpentry that an airtight layer of silt had preserved in nearly mint condition. Plates of fish and peas, a meal the crew never ate, emerged as if fresh from the galley.
But perhaps the most treasured finds are the wrought-iron guns and bronze cannons, which, like the fish and peas, reached the surface in splendid quality, considering four centuries of immersion. The wrought-iron guns, with their stone shot which splintered into shrapnel on impact, were precursors of 20th-century antipersonnel weapons.
For the past few months a sense of urgency and expectation has charged the atmosphere at the Mary Rose Trust headquarters in Old Portsmouth. At the end of last season's excavation of the wreck by divers, the project's archaeological director, Margaret Rule, said the Mary Rose ''is now at her most vulnerable situation since the trust began its excavation in 1979.''
''Previously,'' she explained, ''we have backfilled our excavations so that the hull would be protected against marine hazard and storms during the winter.'' To have undertaken a similar operation this year, Mrs. Rule estimated that at least 800 truckloads of fill would have been required - an effort the trust rejected as too dangerous, expensive, and, at that stage of the recovery process, counterproductive.
Fortunately, even the most severe winter weather England has experienced in 30 years did not damage the Mary Rose, which lies in a shallow bowl on the seabed at the confluence of the Solent, Southampton Water, and Spithead - one of the world's most heavily traveled waterways. Her anchorage measures 131 feet long by 65 feet wide, and up to 16 feet deep. However, the ship's now-unprotected hull, which has lain on the seabed at an angle of 60 degrees for centuries, cannot be left to the mercy of marine life and the stormy weather of another English winter without considerable jeopardy. ''The more she's exposed, '' Mrs. Rule told reporters at a recent briefing, ''the more she becomes colonized by the sea. The eels and lobsters move in.''
Mrs. Rule attributes the remarkable preservation of the ship and her contents to a fortuitous submarine environment at the bottom of Spithead. ''The ship filled up so quickly with clay and mud after she sank that they effectively supported her decks. We are not looking at a collapsed house of cards, but rather as though we had taken a ship and put a circular saw through it.''
The freshness of the timber has astonished the experts. ''The wood is absolutey marvelous,'' the archaeologist declared, as she displayed a fragment of a beam. ''You can saw it and drill it like prime timber.''
One of the project's 20 full-time divers showed reporters an offcut from Mary Rose's hull. It was as solid and heavy as an iron bar, and its grain, of a healthy hue, was plainly visible. That piece of oak, harvested from the nearby New Forest, could have been 400 years old when used in the Mary Rose 437 years ago - making its present age at least 800.
Col. Wendell Lewis, director of the recovery operation, said that once she is raised, the timbers of the 100-foot Mary Rose will be treated with a special chemical wax. He explained this treatment, which could continue for 20 years, will gradually displace the moisture that has saturated the wood after four centuries of marination in sea water.
Elaborate precautions have been taken to ensure that Mary Rose will survive the recovery process and is returned to her home port where, eventually, she will take her place of honor as the centerpiece of a new $2 million maritime museum. Using a new technique in marine salvage, engineers have fashioned a gigantic steel cradle and spacious water bed to cosset Mary Rose's 300 tons as she is released from her entombment.
''She's a fragile, dear old lady,'' Colonel Lewis said. ''And the sooner we can get her into a properly controlled environment, the better.'' Fragile, she certainly is. The years have taken their toll of the Mary Rose, so that today only her starboard side and a cross section of her decks are somewhat intact. However, her port side and upper decks long ago succumbed to harsh tides and the anchor chains of other ships.
The recovery technique is based largely on the same principle that protects a canary suspended inside its metal cage. This image is apt, for a cradle, itself a yellow ship, will be transported down Southampton Water to the site above Mary Rose. There she will be sunk, coming to rest on the seabed alongside the wreck. The hull of the Mary Rose has already been suspended (like the canary) inside a yellow steel framework, 117 feet long and 49 feet wide, which covers the ship.
Meanwhile, on the surface, a floating crane, nearly as tall as St. Paul's Cathedral, will hook into the framework and inch the steel cage upward and sideward - with the Mary Rose's hull suspended inside - to a position above the cradle. Then the hull will be lowered into the cradle and onto the inflated water bed. Once this box is locked - the hull, protective framework, and cradle joined - the crane will lift Mary Rose to the surface, where she will be towed to a dry dock.
Will the yellow cage with its $7 million canary inside break the surface of Spithead in one piece? As one observer of the project has said, ''Nobody has ever attempted to raise a 400-year-old galleon from the seabed before.'' Although no one can predict with any certainty the outcome of the drama about to be played out here, it has long been the dream of Englishmen to recover the Mary Rose and put her beside Adm. Horatio Nelson's HMS Victory in a new national maritime museum next to Portsmouth Harbor.
But what if the project should fail? When that question was put to a person close to it, he took the measure of his interrogator and, with stiff upper lip and twinkle of eye, replied: ''If that should happen, then you'll see some of the most expensive Tudor matchsticks in the whole world.''
An earlier writer chronicled the history of Portsmouth and her naval triumphs and tragedies in a book published in 1909, 56 years before Alexander McKee discovered the present resting place of the Mary Rose. This Edwardian author asked a rhetorical question: ''What would one give to be able to have alongside Nelson's Victory the Mary Rose of ealier days still?''
Before another winter's squalls and gales lash the waters of Portsmouth Harbor, that question should be answered.