The wreck of a British royal warship that sank 340 years ago has been discovered by amateur divers. The discovery of HMS Gloucester off the Norfolk coast has been hailed as the largest marine find since the discovery of the Mary Rose in the 1970s.
The wreck was rediscovered in 2007, although the discovery was only made public in 2022, the delay being to allow protected investigation of the site, which is in international waters.
The distinguished frigate of 54 guns sank on May 6, 1682 after hitting the sandy beaches of Norfolk in the southern North Sea, 28 miles off the coast of Great Yarmouth. Efforts to locate the wreck, led by brothers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell, proved successful after a 4-year search covering 5,000 nautical miles.
Plans are underway to display artifacts aboard the ship that have been recovered, including clothing, wine bottles and the ship’s bell.
Organized by the University of East Anglia and the Norfolk Museums Service, the exhibition will run for five months at the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery from spring next year.
The ship itself is fragmented and still at the bottom of the sea while authorities say there are currently no plans to bring any of the remains back to land.
The HMS Gloucester marked an ‘almost’ watershed in British political history as it nearly caused the death of the Catholic heir to the Protestant throne at a time of great political and religious tension.
James Stewart, The Duke of York who later became James II of England and who would be Britain’s last Catholic monarch, survived the sinking, but nearly 250 sailors and passengers perished.
James barely survived after deserting the ship in the last minute, needlessly costing the lives of between 130 and 250 people on board, who, due to protocol, were unable to leave the ship before the King.
The ship had a length at the gundeck of 36 m, a beam of 11 m, and a depth of hold of 4.1 m. The ship’s tonnage was 755 tons burthen. Originally built for 50 guns, in 1667 she carried 57 guns (19 demi-cannon, 4 culverins, and 34 demi-culverins). This was raised to 60 guns in 1677. The ship had a crew of 210–340 officers and ratings.
Part of the 1652 Naval Programme, the ship was ordered in December 1652. She was built at Limehouse in east London under the direction of Master Shipwright Matthew Graves, and was launched in March 1653 at a cost of £5,473.
Engagements in which HMS Gloucester took part include:
- 1666: Four Days’ Battle, Orfordness
- 1672: Battle of Solebay
- 1673: Battle of Schooneveld, Texel
The Duke of York and John Churchill (the future Duke of Marlborough) were rescued in the ship’s boat. The Duke of York is alleged to have waited until the last minute to leave, as he was initially unconvinced the ship would be lost. Protocol dictated that no-one could abandon ship while there was still a member of the royal family aboard, so James’ intransigence delayed the start of the evacuation. Boats from accompanying ships managed to save some of the crew, but approximately 120 to 250 sailors and passengers lost their lives. Victims of the sinking included Robert Ker, 3rd Earl of Roxburghe, Donough O’Brien, Lord Ibrackan, and Sir John Hope of Hopetoun, Hope of Craighall.
Afterwards, the Duke denied any responsibility for the loss of life, instead blaming the ship’s captain, James Ayres. The Duke was later accused of having “taken particular care of his strong-box, his dogs, and his priests, while [George] Legge with drawn sword kept off the other passengers”.
The shipwreck, in international waters 28 miles (45 km) out to sea, was discovered by divers in 2007. They found a Royal Navy cannon, a Bellarmine jug, and a Daniel Barton teaspoon dated 1674 which ruled out the possibility of the wreck being HMS Kent, the only other Royal Navy ship of the period to wreck in the area. A bottle of fine claret with the emblem of the Sun Tavern of Fish Street in the City of London was also found as well as . As the owner of the Sun Tavern was also in charge of victualling the navy, this further suggested the ship was a Royal Navy ship.
At a press conference to publicise the finding of the ship, in June 2022, Claire Jowitt of the University of East Anglia said that “this can be claimed as the single most significant historic maritime discovery since the raising of the Mary Rose in 1982″. The identity of the wreck was further confirmed when her ship’s bell was found and wine baring the Legge family crest was also discovered with George Legge one of the passengers which bears an inscription of the year the bell was cast: 1681. Other items found include “clothes, shoes, navigational equipment, personal possessions, and unopened wine bottles”. Some animal bones have been found, but no human remains.
The wreck was discovered by brothers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell from Aylsham, who raised finds from a number of sources including the ABG group. An exhibition relating to the wreck is planned at the Castle Museum, Norwich, for spring 2023. The exhibition, “The Last Voyage of the Gloucester: Norfolk’s Royal Shipwreck 1682”, will bring together artefacts from the wreck, new research into the context, and artistic responses to the discovery.