Wreck of Royal warship lost in 1682 found off English coast

Divers inspect one of the 60 guns of the Royal warship HMS Gloucester, which lies off the coast of Norfolk, UK, after having sunk in 1682. (Photo: University of East Anglia)

The wreck of one of the most famous ships of the 17th century, which sank 340 years ago while carrying the future King James II and VII of England, has been discovered off the coast of Norfolk in the UK, the University of East Anglia (UEA) said in a recent news release.

Since running aground on a sandbank on May 6, 1682, the wreck of the warship HMS Gloucester has lain half-buried on the seabed, its exact whereabouts unknown until brothers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell, with their friend James Little, found it after a four-year search.

Due to the age and prestige of the ship, the condition of the wreck, the finds already rescued, and the accident’s political context, the discovery is described by UEA maritime history expert Professor Claire Jowitt as the most important maritime discovery since that of Mary Rose.

A major exhibition is scheduled for the spring of 2023, the result of a partnership between the Barnwell brothers, Norfolk Museums Service, and academic partner UEA. Running from February to July at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, the exhibition will display finds from the Gloucester wreck – including the bell that confirmed the ship’s identity – and share ongoing historical, scientific, and archaeological research.

The Barnwell brothers are Norfolk-based printers, licensed divers, and Honorary Fellows in the School of History at UEA. Lincoln said he was partly inspired to search for the wreck after watching the 1982 lifting of Mary Rose on television as a child.

Together with their late father Michael, and two friends including James Little, a former Royal Navy submariner and diver, the Barnwell brothers found the wreck site in 2007, with Gloucester split down the keel and remains of the hull submerged in sand.

The ship’s bell, manufactured in 1681, was later recovered, and in 2012 it was used by the Receiver of Wreck and the Ministry of Defence to decisively identify the vessel.

The UEA said that due to the time taken to confirm the identity of the ship and the need to protect an “at risk” site, which lies in international waters, it is only now that the discovery can be made public.

As well as the Receiver of Wreck and Ministry of Defence, the wreck has been declared to Historic England.

Artefacts rescued and conserved include clothes and shoes, navigational and other professional naval equipment, personal possessions, and many wine bottles.

The Ministry of Defence’s position is that all artefacts remain the property of the Ministry of Defence; however, where items are positively identified as personal property, ownership will then default to the Crown.

Gloucester was commissioned in 1652, built at Limehouse in London, and launched in 1654.

In 1682, it was selected to carry James Stuart – who later became King of England and King of Ireland as James II, and King of Scotland as James VII – to Edinburgh to collect his pregnant wife and their households. The aim was to bring them back to King Charles II’s court in London in time, it was hoped, for the birth of a legitimate male heir.

The ship had set sail from Portsmouth with the Duke and his entourage joining it off Margate, having travelled by yacht from London.

At 05:30 local time on May 6, Gloucester ran aground some 45 kilometres off Great Yarmouth following a dispute about navigating the treacherous Norfolk sandbanks. The Duke, a former Lord High Admiral, had argued with the pilot for control over the ship’s course.

Within an hour, the vessel sank with the loss of hundreds of the crew and passengers. The Duke barely survived, having delayed abandoning ship until the last minute.

Diarist and naval administrator Samuel Pepys, who witnessed events from another ship in the fleet, wrote his own account – describing the harrowing experience for victims and survivors, with some picked up “half dead” from the water.

The accompanying historical research project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and led by Professor Jowitt, will explore not only the failures of command at sea before Gloucester sank, but conspiracy theories about the tragedy’s causes and its political consequences.

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