This week: Shipwrecks

The Wreck of the ‘Gloucester’ off Yarmouth, 6 May 1682 by Johan Danckerts  (1615–1686)

There are, according to the heritage body Historic England, at least 37,000 shipwrecks strewn along the country’s coastline – a legacy of more than 6,000 years of maritime trade, exploration and warfare.

Such a torturous proliferation offers a poignant reminder that a sailor’s life in British waters has always been hazardous. Our coast can be treacherous in the extreme: the weather is unpredictable; sea lanes are often crowded; and until relatively recently, much of the safety equipment we now take for granted did not exist.

Without accurate maps and weather forecasts, modern communications and navigation systems, and the vital back-up of lighthouses and a joined-up lifeboat service, shipwrecks were common, and the mortality rate was high.

But while each wreck has its own, often tragic story to tell, some are more extraordinary than others – as we discover this week on The Past.

In the new issue of Current Archaeology magazine, Carly Hilts traces the ill-fated history of HMS Gloucester, which foundered off the Norfolk coast in 1682 while carrying the future James II and VII – Britain’s last Catholic king, later deposed by the Glorious Revolution – who controversially survived at the expense of up to 250 crew and passengers.

Divers discovered the Gloucester‘s position in 2007 – but its identity was not made public until last year, in order to protect the site. To celebrate the opening of a new exhibition devoted to the vessel at Norwich Castle Museum & Gallery, we learn why this royal wreck is now hailed as the single most significant historic maritime discovery since the Mary Rose, more than 50 years ago.

Elsewhere this week on The Past, we have also been delving into the archives for more about shipwrecks: we visited the site of one of England’s earliest maritime disasters; we learned how HMS Northumberland became a victim of the Great Storm of 1703; we investigated the remains of the most complete surviving example of a Dutch East India Company trading vessel in Hastings; and we looked at life on board HMS Invincible, one of the finest warships of the Georgian Royal Navy, and also one of the best-preserved wrecks of its kind in UK waters.

And finally, if all that simply whets your appetite, don’t forget to have a go at our latest Quiz, which this week also has a shipwreck theme. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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