Divers find famous lost HMS Gloucester shipwreck off the English coast

Top image: Brothers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell measuring one of the Gloucester’s cannons.

The Gloucester was a 17th century warship that sunk to the bottom of the sea 340 years ago off the coast of Norfolk in the United Kingdom, with over well over 100 passengers dying. This maritime accident became quite famous, since the ship just happened to be transporting the future king of England, James Stuart , at the time it was lost. Now the Gloucester shipwreck has finally been located off the coast of Norfolk, east England. It is being hailed as the most important find since the Mary Rose

The sinking of the Gloucester made a mark on history since it almost resulted in the death of the undisputed Catholic heir to the English throne. After the ship went down on May 6, 1682, the actual location of the Gloucester shipwreck remained a mystery, and the centuries-long search for its remains only added to its mystique.

Divers have discovered the Gloucester shipwreck off the coast of Great Yarmouth. In the image, The Wreck of the Gloucester off Yarmouth, 6th May 1682, by Johan Danckerts.

Now, finally, the hunt for the remains of the ill-fated Gloucester shipwreck has ended. This is thanks to the work of brothers Julian and Lincoln Barwell and their companion James Little, who after four years of searching were finally able to identify the sunken remains of the Gloucester in the North Sea off England’s eastern coast.

This discovery stands out as a monumental achievement and helps highlight a fascinating chapter in the United Kingdom’s long and colorful political history. That’s the judgment of Professor Claire Jowitt, a historian from the University of East Anglia who is leading the current investigation into the causes of the Gloucester shipwreck.

“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,” she said in a University of East Anglia press release. “The discovery promises to fundamentally change understanding of 17th-century social, maritime and political history.”

(L-R) Lincoln Barnwell, Prof. Claire Jowitt, Dr. Ben Redding and Julian Barnwell with some of the finds discovered at the Gloucester shipwreck.(L-R) Lincoln Barnwell, Prof. Claire Jowitt, Dr. Ben Redding and Julian Barnwell with some of the finds discovered at the Gloucester shipwreck.

Searching for a Maritime Ghost

In fact, it was the recovery of the Mary Rose , a warship from the navy of King Henry VIII that was sunk in 1545 and only found again in the 1970s, that helped inspire the Barnwell brothers on their quest. The two men are printers based in Norfolk, but they are also licensed divers and Honorary Fellows in the School of History at the University of East Anglia.

“It was our fourth dive season looking for Gloucester,” Lincoln Barnwell recalled. “We were starting to believe that we were not going to find her, we’d dived so much and just found sand. On my descent to the seabed the first thing I spotted were large cannon laying on white sand, it was awe- inspiring and really beautiful… it instantly felt like a privilege to be there, it was so exciting. We were the only people in the world at that moment in time who knew where the wreck lay.” 

“When we decided to search for the Gloucester we had no idea how significant she was in history,” added Julian Barnwell. “We had read that the Duke of York was onboard but that was it. We were confident it was the Gloucester, but there are other wreck sites out there with cannons, so it still needed to be confirmed.”

Ultimately, it was the discovery of the ship’s bell that proved the sunken remains belonged to the famed Gloucester shipwreck, which by that point had been hidden beneath the waves of the North Sea for more than three centuries.

Finding the ship’s bell (above) was the key to determining it was the Gloucester shipwreck.Finding the ship’s bell (above) was the key to determining it was the Gloucester shipwreck.

The Barnwell brothers and their friend James Little, a former Royal Navy diver, actually found the site of the Gloucester shipwreck in 2007. However, due to the time it took to positively identify the ship, plus the need to develop a protection plan for an “at risk” archaeological site located in international waters, it is only now that experts were given permission to disclose the discovery of the Gloucester to the general public.

The Story of the Gloucester and its Illustrious Passengers

The warship Gloucester was constructed at Limehouse in London, and officially launched in 1654. In 1682, captain and crew were tasked to enormous responsibility of transporting the Duke of York, James Stuart, to Edinburgh to pick up his wife and their household goods for return to London. His wife, Mary of Modena, was pregnant at the time, and the plan was to bring her back to King Charles II’s court so that a legitimate male heir to the throne could be born within the official royal confines.

The trip was not considered particularly risky, but at approximately 5:30 a.m. on May 6 the ship suddenly slammed into a hidden sandbank approximately 28 miles (45 kilometers) directly off the coast of Great Yarmouth (a seaside village near Norfolk). There had been a dispute over which course the ship should take to avoid the treacherous sandbanks known to exist in this area, and it seems the Duke of York (a former Lord High Admiral) may have been responsible for convincing the captain to take the wrong path.

Whoever was responsible for the mistake, the ship was doomed after hitting the sandbank and sank to the bottom of the sea in less than an hour. Hundreds of passengers and crew members tragically lost their lives in this disaster, but James Stuart and his entourage were able to escape just in time. Stuart’s survival was certainly significant, since less than three years later he did indeed ascend to the throne, officially becoming King James II of England and Ireland and King James VII of Scotland on February 6, 1685.

Now that the recovery of the Gloucester shipwreck has been announced, a more extensive investigation into the shipwreck will be funded by the Leverhulme Trust and led by Professor Jowitt. Researchers will attempt to discern more about possible failures of command that may have set the ship up for a catastrophic result, and they will also investigate the possibility that the ship may have been intentionally sabotaged by forces that wanted to prevent James Stuart and his family from arriving safely in England.

James II and Mary of Modena, with their children, as depicted by Pierre Mignard I.James II and Mary of Modena, with their children, as depicted by Pierre Mignard I.

The Gloucester Officially Returns in February 2023

Selected artifacts from the wreck of the Gloucester are slated to go on exhibition in February 2023 at the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery in Norwich, East Anglia. Professor Jowitt will act as co-curator for this major public presentation, which is being sponsored by a cooperative partnership that includes the Barnwell brothers, the Norfolk Museums Service, and the University of East Anglia.

The bell that was used to confirm the ship’s true identity will be featured during the exhibit. Some of the other artifacts that may be displayed will include shoes and items of clothing, wine bottles, navigational and professional naval equipment, and an assortment of person possessions linked to the victims of this horrific maritime tragedy.

One of the more intriguing items recovered from the wreck was a wine bottle with a glass seal featuring the crest of the Legge family, who were ancestors of the first United States president, George Washington . This crest is already quite familiar in its appearance, as it helped inspire the design of the United States’ distinctive stars and stripes flag.

For her part, Professor Jowitt is anxious to present the story of the Gloucester to the public. “It [the Gloucester] is an outstanding example of underwater cultural heritage of national and international importance,” she proclaimed. “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.”

More detailed information about the discovery of the Gloucester shipwreck can be found in an article written by Professor Claire Jowitt called “The Last Voyage of the Gloucester (1682): The Politics of a Royal Shipwreck,” which was published in the English Historical Review on June 10.

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