The Mary Rose Fiddle

fiddleEnglish, circa 1530s.

Joint Entry: Master Ekkehardt of Oakenwode, OL and Lady Elinor Strangewayes, OM.

Entered at the Northern Lights A&S Competition, 2010.
Categories: 17. Woodwork; 22. Sculpture and Carving;   30. Toys.
Won all the categories in which it was entered.

Fiddle and bow with ruler for scale.

Fiddle and bow with ruler for scale.

When the English warship Mary Rose sank unexpectedly in 1545, she became a time capsule of Tudor England. Her salvage in the 1980s and subsequent display as a museum has produced hundreds of examples of 16th century items that rarely survived intact for study. Among the artifacts salvaged from the Mary Rose were the remains of two common fiddles. Very few fiddles have survived from the 16th century; the only other surviving example was discovered down a Polish well. Most of what modern historians know about these instruments comes from their portrayals in paintings and carvings. Ekk and I decided to create a fiddle based on the archaeological records of the two found on the Mary Rose and published in Before the Mast. Neither of the two Mary Rose fiddles were intact, so the neck of our reproduction is conjectural. The major source of information for this project was the archaeological notes published in Before the Mast: Life and Death Aboard the Mary Rose (Edited by J. Gardiner. Portsmouth, England: Mary Rose Trust Ltd, 2005).


431785_original Fiddle: Work on this fiddle began two years ago, when Ekk cut down a selected cherry tree on our property and slabbed it into the approximate size we would need for the body. We made several slabs in case any of them failed during the drying process. Once they had dried for about 6 months, Ekk again used the chainsaw to get one of the slabs roughed out to the approximate shape. In period, the body probably would have been riven along the grain and sawn by hand. I used a drill to shape the interior of the body into a honeycomb pattern for easy removal. Ekk forged several drawknives for me to use to hollow and shape the interior of the fiddle body. We used a piece of pine for the face and cut the sounding holes by hand using drawknives. The body is secured to the face by glue, as was done in period.

Bow: The fiddle bow was not initially identified as such by the curators working on the Mary Rose wreck. A piece of wood was subsequently identified as a bow by a visiting specialist in historical musical instruments. Our bow is made of locust to the general specifications of the one published in Before the Mast. The hair comes from Arminius, our Morgan stallion. We divided up the tail hair and laid it in opposing directions for maximum sound. Rosin was obtained from the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, which uses it in their conservation lab to stabilize water-logged wood. We melted down some chunks and let it cool in a can. When cool, the cast rosin works perfectly for preparing the bow for use.



Neither Ekk nor I know how to play the fiddle. This fiddle is both an ideal instrument to learn on (as it was cheap to make and neither of us too worried about replacing it if necessary) and a bad starter fiddle (it’s finicky, and we don’t know what it is supposed to sound like or how to play it). We’ve had to remake the pegs several times because they slip in their holes. Additional rosin seems to help this problem. If we were doing this project again, we would re-shape the neck design. After we had already cut the body of the fiddle, we discovered additional illustrations that showed much shorter necks to the period fiddles. However, for a fun woodworking challenge and a decent campfire instrument, this has been a success. Now we just need to find someone who can play it…

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2 Responses to The Mary Rose Fiddle

  1. John says:

    Neat work! I was recently visiting the Mary Rose, and I was fascinated by the two fiddles on display. While looking for more about them, I stumbled on your blog. Have you found someone to play them yet? Because I’m interested! I’m a fiddler, and I’ve played some English Country Dance music from the other 7th century. Not sure quite 1545… but not too bad.

    Please email me: I’m in CT, and often visit VT in the summer.

  2. Talia says:

    Pretty much anyone has to self-teach on medieval instruments, due to their lack of standardization. A lot of people just cheat and tune them like modern instruments.

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