HMS Gloucester warship wreck discovered centuries after sinking that nearly killed future king

  • Rob Setchell meets the diving brothers who made the find of a lifetime - and kept it a secret for 15 years

The wreck of a royal warship which sank more than 340 years ago while carrying the future king James Stuart has been discovered off the east coast, in a find experts say is the most significant for a generation.

The HMS Gloucester ran aground off the Norfolk coast on 6 May 1682, drowning up to 250 crew and passengers as it sank within an hour of hitting a sandbank.

Since the 17th century the wreck has lain undiscovered - until it was found by two diving brothers from Norfolk after a four-year search over 5,000 nautical miles.

They found the site - which lies 28 miles off Great Yarmouth - in 2007 but 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.

It has been described by a historian as the most important maritime discovery since the Mary Rose, the warship from the Tudor navy of King Henry VIII.

Brothers Julian, left, and Lincoln Barnwell, who discovered the Gloucester 340 years after it sank. Credit: Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks

Lincoln Barnwell said: “It was our fourth dive season looking for Gloucester. 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. That was special and I’ll never forget it.

“Our next job was to identify the site as the Gloucester.”

Julian Barnwell added: “When we decided to search for the Gloucester we had no idea how significant she was in history. 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.

“There is still a huge amount of knowledge to be gained from the wreck, which will benefit Norfolk and the nation. We hope this discovery and the stories that are uncovered will inform and inspire future generations.”

The Barnwell brothers measuring a cannon discovered at the wreck site. Credit: Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks

The sinking of the Gloucester - and the huge loss of life it caused - came about because of a dispute between James, then the Duke of York, and the ship’s pilot James Ayres about navigating the treacherous Norfolk sandbanks.

James barely survived, having delayed abandoning ship until the last minute and needlessly costing the lives of many who, because of protocol, could not abandon the ship before royalty.

The future king accepted no responsibility for the sinking, instead blaming the pilot and wishing him to be hanged immediately, though Mr Ayres was in fact court-martialled and imprisoned.

James went on to reign as King James II of England and Ireland and James VII of Scotland from 1685 until 1688, when he was deposed by the Glorious Revolution.

Many artefacts have already been recovered from the wreck, with experts predicting they could shed new light on 17th-century society. Credit: UEA

The discovery of the wreck has been hailed as the discovery of a generation by maritime history experts, and one of international importance.

Prof Claire Jowitt, of the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, 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."

The Mary Rose sank in battle in the Solent in 1545, and was raised in 1982, later being put on display in Portsmouth.

Prof Jowitt added: “The discovery [of the Gloucester] promises to fundamentally change understanding of 17th-century social, maritime and political history. It is an outstanding example of underwater cultural heritage of national and international importance.

“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.”

The story of the Gloucester

The Wreck of the Gloucester off Yarmout, 6 May 1682 by Johan Danckerts. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Gloucester represents an important potential turning point in British political history: a royal shipwreck causing the very near-death of the Catholic heir to the Protestant throne at a time of great political and religious tension.

The ship was commissioned in 1652, built at Limehouse in London, and launched in 1654.

In 1682 it was selected to carry James to Edinburgh to collect his heavily pregnant wife and their households - the aim being 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.

The ship set sail from Portsmouth, with James and his entourage joining it off Margate in Kent, having travelled by yacht from London, before it ran aground off the Norfolk coast.

Diarist and naval administrator Samuel Pepys, who witnessed events from another ship in the fleet, wrote his own account – describing the harrowing experience for victims and survivors, with some picked up “half dead” from the water.

As well as James, HMS Gloucester carried a number of prominent English and Scottish courtiers including John Churchill, later the 1st Duke of Marlborough.

The Barnwell brothers found the wreck site in 2007, together with their late father Michael and two friends including James Little, a former Royal Navy submariner and diver.

The ship was split down the keel and the remains of the hull were submerged in the sand.

Artefacts recovered include a pair of glasses, and a wine bottle with the crest of the Legge family, the ancestors of George Washington. Credit: UEA

The ship’s bell, manufactured in 1681, was later recovered, and in 2012 was used by the Receiver of Wreck and Ministry of Defence to decisively identify the vessel as the HMS Gloucester.

Artefacts rescued and conserved from the wreck 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 US President. The crest was a forerunner to the Stars and Stripes flag.

There were also some unopened bottles, with wine still inside -­ offering opportunities for future research.

An exhibition is planned for Spring 2023 at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery to display finds from the wreck and share ongoing historical, scientific and archaeological research.