She was a royal warship that sank more than 340 years ago. Now a new research project is set to explore why HMS Gloucester foundered off the coast of eastern England in May 1682.
Gloucester was discovered in 2007 by two brothers, Julian and Lincoln Barnwell, after a four-year search, although news of her discovery was only announced in June this year.
Due to her age and prestige, the condition of the wreck, and the accident’s political context, the discovery has been described as the most important British maritime find since that of Mary Rose in 1971.
The research project, which is funded by the Leverhulme Trust and led by Professor Claire Jowitt of the University of East Anglia (UEA), will be investigating the ship further.
Gloucester was commissioned in 1652 and built in London, launching two years later. As part of the English naval fleet, she participated in many wars of the era, among them the Anglo-Spanish War of 1654-1660 and the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars.
In May 1682, Gloucester was sailing between Edinburgh and London when she ran aground off Great Yarmouth, following a dispute about navigating the treacherous Norfolk sandbanks. The ship sank within an hour, with the loss of hundreds of lives.
One of the survivors was the future King James II of England and James VII of Scotland, who was then the Duke of York. He was travelling the country on official business.
Gloucester also carried several prominent English and Scottish courtiers, including John Churchill, the soldier and later first Duke of Marlborough.
The naval administrator and famous diarist Samuel Pepys, who witnessed the event from another ship in the fleet, later described the harrowing scenes of ‘half dead’ survivors being picked up from the water.
More than 300 years later, the Barnwell brothers, along with their late father Michael and friend James Little, identified the wreck. Gloucester is split down the keel and the remains of the hull are submerged in sand. The ship’s bell was used in 2012 to confirm the identity of the wreck.
Other artefacts later rescued from the ship include clothes and shoes, navigational equipment, and many bottles of wine – some of them unopened.
Lincoln Barnwell said that they were beginning to think they would not find the wreck, but on the fourth dive of the season came across a ‘large cannon laying on white sand’ which was ‘awe-inspiring and really beautiful’.
‘It instantly felt like a privilege to be there, it was so exciting,’ he added. ‘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.’
The discovery has only recently been made public due to the time taken to identify the ship conclusively, and the need to protect the ‘at risk’ site, which is in international waters.
The Barnwell brothers have since joined a partnership with the UEA and the Norfolk Museums Service to launch a new exhibition on the shipwreck, which is due to open early next year.
Running from February to July 2023 at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, the exhibition will display finds from the wreck, including her bell, as well as ongoing historical and archaeological research.
Professor Claire Jowitt said that the wreckage was ‘an outstanding example of underwater cultural heritage’, and that her discovery would ‘fundamentally change understanding of 17th-century social, maritime, and political history’.
‘A tragedy of considerable proportions in terms of loss of life, both privileged and ordinary, the full story of Gloucester’s last voyage and the impact of its aftermath needs retelling, including its cultural and political importance, and legacy,’ she added.