05/24/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT
Diving in 45 feet of cold, murky water off Portsmouth Harbor, Britain's Prince Charles made a gruesome discovery: "Suddenly there was a skull grinning at me, with all its teeth looking very good." The Prince's underwater encounter with a long-dead sailor came as he explored the sunken wreck of the Mary Rose, a 450-year-old warship, which links Charles over the centuries with a royal forebear.
King Henry VIII was watching from the shore on a calm day in 1545 when his vice-flagship, the Mary Rose, set sail to skirmish with the French in the English Channel. Before the King's eyes, the overloaded warship capsized in a sudden gust of wind. Of the 700 men aboard, fewer than 40 survived.
The ship lay untouched until 1965, when a diving historian found it entombed and wonderfully preserved in a deep layer of silt. There followed a 17-year archaeological salvage operation in which Prince Philip and his eldest son are both actively involved. Once, when the project was about to collapse, Philip wrote a personal check. Since Charles took over as president of the campaign to raise the Mary Rose three years ago, he has drawn financial backing and has personally made nine dives.
Seven thousand Tudor artifacts (musical instruments, arrows, longbows, gold coins, fine-toothed combs indicating the men were plagued with lice) have been recovered. "We even know what the men ate," says project director Margaret Rule, "peas still in the pod, plums with flesh on them, some venison."
This fall divers will gingerly tunnel under the wreck and lift the Mary Rose onto a special cradle for transportation to Portsmouth, where the ancient warship is to star in a new naval museum. Charles wants another $2.4 million for the salvage fund, but will not be aiding the recovery effort underwater. Tempering his enthusiasm with modesty, he notes: "It's fascinating to dive among the wreckage, but I'd only be getting in the way."