The wreck of the Gloucester, a 17th-century warship that was carrying the future king James VII and II (r. 1685-1688) to Scotland when it ran aground and sank on 6 May 1682, has been discovered off the coast of Norfolk.
The find – which has been hailed as the most significant British maritime discovery since the Mary Rose – was made in 2007, but due to the time taken to identify the vessel and the ‘at risk’ nature of the wreck site, it has only recently been made public.
Built in Limehouse in London and launched in 1654, the Gloucester, which had set sail from Portsmouth, was selected to transport James and his entourage to Edinburgh in 1682. James had boarded just off Margate, but at around 5.30am on 6 May the ship ran aground 45km off Great Yarmouth. The vessel sank within an hour, causing the deaths of hundreds of crew and passengers, a fate only narrowly avoided by James himself.
The Gloucester’s precise whereabouts was a mystery, however, until divers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell found the wreck in June 2007 after a four-year search covering some 5,000 nautical miles. The brothers – who made the discovery alongside their late father Michael and two friends, including former Royal Navy submariner and diver James Little – found the ship half-buried in the seabed, split down the keel with the remains of the hull submerged in sand. ‘It was our fourth dive season looking for Gloucester,’ Lincoln explained. ‘On my descent to the seabed the first thing I spotted were large cannon [pictured above] laying on white sand.’
Julian added, ‘We were confident it was the Gloucester, but there are other wreck sites out there with cannon, so it still needed to be confirmed.’ That confirmation came in 2012, when the Receiver of Wreck and the Ministry of Defence used the ship’s bell to identify the vessel.
Other artefacts recovered from the wreck include clothes, shoes, navigational and naval equipment, personal possessions, animal bones, and several wine bottles. No human remains have been detected so far, and there are currently no plans to raise the ship, but some of the finds will be displayed alongside information gained from ongoing historical, scientific, and archaeological research in a new landmark exhibition, The Last Voyage of the Gloucester: Norfolk’s royal shipwreck, to be held at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery between 25 February and 25 July 2023.
The accompanying historical research project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and led by exhibition co-curator Professor Claire Jowitt, an expert on maritime cultural history at the University of East Anglia, will explore the political context and consequences of the disaster. Indeed, as a former Lord High Admiral and an experienced sailor, James had argued with the ship’s pilot about which course to take to avoid the Norfolk sandbanks, influencing the choice of route. Then, as the vessel began sinking, he delayed abandoning ship, contributing to the high death toll of between 130 and 250 people, who – due to protocol – could not abandon ship before royalty. Nevertheless, James accepted no responsibility for what happened, and his survival was celebrated as miraculous by his supporters.
Claire, who has published an article about the politics of the shipwreck in The English Historical Review (https://doi.org/10.1093/ehr/ceac127), said: ‘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… [T]he full story of the Gloucester’s last voyage and the impact of its aftermath needs retelling, including its cultural and political importance, and legacy.’