The Gloucester was a royal warship which sank 340 years ago while transporting the future King of England, James Stuart. Its wreck has finally been found off the coast of Norfolk in the United Kingdom.
A maritime tragedy
The Gloucester was built in Limehouse, London, and launched in 1654 after being commissioned in 1652. It was chosen to transport James Stuart, Duke of York, and his very pregnant wife and their households to Edinburgh in 1682. The goal was to return them to King Charles II’s court in London in time for the birth of a legitimate (hopefully) male heir.
The ship sailed from Portsmouth, with the Duke and his party joining it near the coast of Margate after arriving by boat from London. At 5.30am on May 6, the Gloucester ran aground some 45km off Great Yarmouth.
The Gloucester also carried a number of notable English and Scottish courtiers, including John Churchill, who was to become the first Duke of Marlborough, and the Duke of York.
Samuel Pepys, a diarist and naval administrator who watched the events from another ship in the fleet, published his own account of the traumatic experience for casualties and survivors, noting how some were hauled up “half dead” from the ocean.
A major discovery
The wreck remained half-buried on the seabed since it ran aground on a sandbank on May 6, 1682. Its exact location remained unknown until Julian Barnwell, Lincoln Barnwell and James Little discovered it after a four-year search.
“It was our fourth dive season looking for Gloucester. We were starting to believe that we were not going to find her, we’d dived so much and just found sand. On my descent to the seabed the first thing I spotted were large cannon laying on white sand, it was awe- inspiring and really beautiful.
It instantly felt like a privilege to be there, it was so exciting. We were the only people in the world at that moment in time who knew where the wreck lay. That was special and I’ll never forget it. Our next job was to identify the site as the Gloucester”Lincoln Barnwell
The discovery is considered as the most important maritime discovery since the Mary Rose due to the status of the ship, the state of the wreck, the already retrieved finds, and the political background of the disaster.
“Because of the circumstances of its sinking, this can be claimed as the single most significant historic maritime discovery since the raising of the Mary Rose in 1982. The discovery promises to fundamentally change understanding of 17th-century social, maritime and political history.
It is an outstanding example of underwater cultural heritage of national and international importance. A tragedy of considerable proportions in terms of loss of life, both privileged and ordinary, the full story of the Gloucester’s last voyage and the impact of its aftermath needs re-telling, including its cultural and political importance, and legacy. We will also try to establish who else died and tell their stories, as the identities of a fraction of the victims are currently known.”Maritime history expert Prof Claire Jowitt, of the University of East Anglia (UEA)
The Gloucester symbolizes an important episode in British political history: a royal shipwreck that resulted in the Catholic heir to the Protestant throne coming dangerously close to death at a period of enormous political and religious turmoil.
The Barnwell brothers, the Norfolk Museums Service, and academic partner UEA, are collaborating to put up a major exhibition in Spring 2023. The show, which will run from February to July at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, will feature wreckage finds, including the bell that established the ship’s name, as well as ongoing historical, scientific, and archaeological study.
Prof. Jowitt, a world-renowned expert on maritime cultural history, is one of the exhibition’s co-curators.
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