A team of professional divers has discovered the wreck of Gloucester — which sank on May 6, 1682 while carrying James Stuart, duke of York, later James II and VII — off the coast of Norfolk, the United Kingdom.
The third-rate frigate H.M.S. Gloucester was commissioned in 1652, built at Limehouse in London, and launched in 1654.
In 1682, the warship was selected to carry James Stuart, duke of York, to Edinburgh to collect his heavily pregnant wife and their households. The aim was to bring them back to King Charles II’s court in London in time, it was hoped, for the birth of a legitimate male heir.
Gloucester had set sail from Portsmouth with the duke and his entourage joining it off Margate, having traveled by yacht from London. The ship carried a number of prominent English and Scottish courtiers including John Churchill, later the 1st duke of Marlborough.
On 6 May 1682, Gloucester struck sandbanks a few hours after a protracted argument between James Stuart, the pilot and several naval officers over the course that was to be taken.
The duke abandoned ship shortly before the ship sank, transferring to an accompanying vessel to complete his voyage, but hundreds of passengers and crew died.
The wreck site was first discovered in 2007 by brothers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell, Norfolk-based printers and licensed divers; their late father Michael; and their friend James Little, a former Royal Navy submariner and diver.
The ship’s bell, manufactured in 1681, was later recovered, and in 2012 it was used by the Receiver of Wreck and Ministry of Defence to decisively identify the vessel.
Due to the time taken to confirm the identity of the ship and the need to protect an ‘at risk’ site, which lies in international waters, it is only now that its discovery can be made public.
“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,” said University of East Anglia’s Professor Claire Jowitt, a world-leading expert on maritime cultural history and author of a paper published this month in the journal English Historical Review.
“The discovery promises to fundamentally change understanding of 17th-century social, maritime and political history.”
Artifacts rescued and conserved include clothes and shoes, navigational and other professional naval equipment, personal possessions, and many wine bottles.
One of the bottles bears a glass seal with the crest of the Legge family — ancestors of George Washington, the first U.S. President. The crest was a forerunner to the Stars and Stripes flag.
Uniquely, in addition there were also some unopened bottles, with wine still inside - offering exciting opportunities for future research.
“It is an outstanding example of underwater cultural heritage of national and international importance,” Professor Jowitt said.
“A tragedy of considerable proportions in terms of loss of life, both privileged and ordinary, the full story of the Gloucester’s last voyage and the impact of its aftermath needs re-telling, including its cultural and political importance, and legacy.”
“We will also try to establish who else died and tell their stories, as the identities of a fraction of the victims are currently known.”
Claire Jowitt. The Last Voyage of the Gloucester (1682): The Politics of a Royal Shipwreck. English Historical Review, published online June 10, 2022; doi: 10.1093/ehr/ceac127