After 437 years on the ocean floor, the hull of the Mary Rose, flagship of King Henry VIII's navy, was raised to the surface today, capping one of the greatest maritime archeological expeditions in history.

Naval guns fired a salute and dozens of pleasure craft tooted their horns amid cheers from the salvage team and the operation's president and chief patron, Prince Charles. A steel crane rose 300 feet into the air, lifting the hull, which was nestled in a specially built frame, onto a transport barge near the shoreline of this ancient seaport.

Charles made a 40-minute dive Sunday to take a look at the hull, his 10th visit to the undersea site since 1975. He spent the night at Broadlands, home of Lord Romsey, 35 miles from here, so he could be on hand for the conclusion of the historic salvage.

The maneuver took months to prepare and was delayed by technical problems, linked to the extreme delicacy of raising the old timbers intact. As the ship appeared above the water line in the heavy mist of early morning, the deep brown ribs looked like a weatherbeaten basket; its decks and guns had been carefully removed.

"That's a damn strong ship," exclaimed Margaret Rule, the Mary Rose's chief archeologist.

The Mary Rose had been a tempting target for salvagers from the moment it went down on July 19, 1545, within sight of Henry VIII, leading an English defense against French invaders. On board were 415 sailors, 300 soldiers, 91 cannons and, according to archeologists, the most complete complement of Tudor period weaponry and personal items ever found in one place.

"It is a perfect time capsule," said Andrew Fielding, an assistant director of the expedition. Since the ship sank undamaged into the murky sediment of Portsmouth Harbor, much of its contents has been preserved as though encased in a protective coating. The effect, experts say, is like that of the lava that poured over Pompeii.

So far, in tens of thousands of dives over 11 years, about 17,000 artifacts have been recovered and gradually are being restored by teams of specialists in an operation that has cost about $8 million. The Mary Rose Trust has already become a major historical resource in a country that has more history to honor than most.

But because of its technical complexity and physical scale, retrieving the Mary Rose's hull has been regarded as the greatest challenge. It consists of three-quarters of its starboard side in a single structure. The retrieval operation required construction of two crucial 120-foot pieces -- a lifting frame attached to the crane for raising the hull and the unique cradle which will be its permanent new home.

In the first stage 11 days ago, the hull was attached to the lifting frame with steel wires passing through eye bolts at enough points to ensure that weight would be distributed evenly. Then the cradle was lowered and the hull lifted into it on a mattress of water and air-filled cushions. This was accomplished on Saturday, a week behind schedule.

Sunday morning, the two pieces were to be locked together with four legs on the lifting frame secured into four receiving points on the cradle. The contraption was then to be raised from the water. But one of the legs turned out to be bent just enough to prevent the crucial locking procedure.

It was to have been the long-planned climax of the operation and thousands of spectators, including Prince Charles, were on hand. Live television monitored every movement. So the last-minute hitch was an excruciating frustration to the expedition team, which had been working toward this moment for more than 10 years.

Ceremony and public triumph aside, the operation was racing against a natural deadline. Weather conditions in the ocean are starting to deteriorate, and each passing day poses perils for the fragile hull no longer buried in the mud. Moreover, it costs $30,000 a day to keep the crane on site and it was due to leave for Africa today.

Finally, after hours of consultation between engineers and archeologists, it was decided to remove the bent leg and secure the final piece with what amounts to a strap. This morning, shortly after dawn when tidal conditions permitted, the operation went ahead.

All appeared to be going well, but there was another hair-raising moment when a second leg slipped with a tremendous cracking noise. One part of the stern castle was apparently damaged slightly but after a short pause for repairs, the lift continued.

The Mary Rose, named for Henry VIII's sister, was completed at Portsmouth in 1511. It was revolutionary in design for its day because it was intended to be a warship able to fire at long range from its cannons. Previously, warships were converted merchant vessels used in close-order combat.

The ship was a 130-foot-long four-master and it was regarded as the pride of Henry VIII's navy on the day of its demise. Archeologist Rule believes the ship was overloaded and perilously leaning starboard when a wind came up as it sailed to meet the French. The water was only 40 feet deep but few of the crew survived, according to records of the day.

While there was talk of recovery, it wasn't until 1836 that two brothers, John and Charles Deane, located the wreck and brought up guns, pottery and human remains, a hint of the treasure that remained to be uncovered.

In 1966 another local diver, Alexander McKee, and Rule, then curator of a Roman palace, reopened the search. Small at first, the project has grown increasingly elaborate with a small library of books documenting its progress, a raft of souvenirs to sell and a deficit of about $600,000.

Eventually, assuming that funding can be found and more objects recovered, a Mary Rose museum will house the artifacts and the hull. The enterprise has been the subject of a media-wise promotion, which hasn't diminished the legitimately spectacular accomplishment of uncovering so complete a slice of life of the 1500s.

Some of the details are remarkable. All the guns are loaded. There are 4,000 arrows (said to be the first pre-Georgians ever recovered). The long-bows are so big that they provide evidence that, contrary to general belief, not all Tudor-era warriors were small in stature. The larders are full of food stores; there is a chess board, a backgammon set and dice. There is what Andrew Fielding, the archeologist, proudly calls "the most complete barber surgeon's chest ever found." Included is a syringe used in treatment of venereal disease.

There are leather clothes and seamen's shoes; they have been dried out and, in some cases, resewn. There are elaborate officers' manicure and ear-cleaning sets, and the simple combs of ordinary sailors. "This is as close as you'll ever get," said Fielding, "to finding out what it was like to live on a ship."

The uniqueness of the Mary Rose as an archeological undertaking is that so much of the ship's contents are intact. It is the size of a four-story house. While the port side has been eaten away over the years, the submerged starboard side gives almost a replica of that half--as if the ship had been sliced in two.

The recovery has been painstakingly slow. Leather, wood and bronze has survived the centuries in the best condition. The quality of silver and iron is apparently less good.

Now that the hull is out it will have to be sprayed down with salt water periodically until other preservatives gradually are substituted. After so many years in the mud, experts are afraid that the timbers might disintegrate when exposed to the air if not properly treated.

While the harbor may still yield some smaller items, according to Fielding the bulk has now been found. Still possible, though, he said, is discovery of part of the bow castle of the Mary Rose. Pictures 3, 4 and Illustration, 16th century drawing of the Mary Rose, From AP; Prince Charles at the scene UPI photo; the hull being raised from the seabed in its cradle UPI photo