On May 6, 1682, the Royal Navy warship HMS Gloucester ran aground off the coast of Norfolk whilst carrying the future King James II of England and Ireland and VII of Scotland. Ever since, its exact whereabouts remained a mystery.
That was until 2007, when brothers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell, together with their late father and two friends including James Little, a former Royal Navy submariner and diver, discovered the wreck after a four-year search across an area of 5,000 nautical miles off the coast of Great Yarmouth.
The discovery has only now been made public, due to the process of confirming its identity and protecting it as an ‘at risk’ site.
HMS Gloucester was commissioned in 1652 and built in Limehouse, London.
It set sail from Portsmouth in 1682, with James Stuart, Duke of York, the Catholic heir to the Protestant throne, and his entourage boarding at Margate. They were headed for Edinburgh to collect James’ heavily pregnant wife, Mary, and bring her back to London.
While navigating a difficult stretch some 45km off Great Yarmouth, the Gloucester struck a sandbank and sank. James survived; however, between 130 and 250 crew and passengers drowned.
Professor Claire Jowitt of the University of East Anglia, a world-leading authority on maritime history, 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.’
On discovery, the Gloucester appeared to be split down the keel, with remains of the hull submerged in sand.
A variety of artefacts have been recovered, including the ship’s bell, navigational equipment, women’s clothing, a jar of ointment, and numerous wine bottles – some unopened.
A major exhibition, titled The Last Voyage of the Gloucester: Norfolk’s Royal Shipwreck 1682, is planned for spring 2023 at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery. It will display artefacts from the wreck and share findings from an ongoing research project hoping to shed light on the causes of the disaster and its political consequences.
Alongside the Barnwell brothers, the University of East Anglia, and Norfolk Museums Service, the project is supported by the Leverhulme Trust, Maritime Archaeology Trust, Ministry of Defence, the National Museum of the Royal Navy, York Archaeology, the Alan Boswell Group and Birketts LLP.
You can find out more about this remarkable discovery in an upcoming issue of Current Archaeology, available on The Past in July.