HMS Gloucester: The diving Barnwell brothers who discovered royal shipwreck which carried James II

  • ITV News Anglia's Rob Setchell meets the brothers behind the most significant maritime find since the Mary Rose

Two scuba-diving brothers who uncovered a long-lost royal shipwreck have described the moment they made the find of a lifetime - and how they had to keep it a secret for 15 years.

Lincoln and Julian Barnwell found the wreck of the HMS Gloucester off the Norfolk coast in 2007, after a search that had lasted four years and covered 5,000 nautical miles.

The ship had gone down in 1682 in a sinking that almost killed the future King James II, and cost the lives of up to 250 people.

The wreck and its cargo then lay untouched for 325 years, some 28 miles off the coast of Great Yarmouth - until the brothers finally struck gold.

Despite 15 years having passed since the moment their lives changed, Lincoln Barnwell still remembers the moment clearly, describing the sound of the bubbles and breathing and "being at one with the sea".

"Suddenly I just saw big shadows appear before me on the seabed," he said.

The cannon on the seabed were the first sign that the brothers had found the Gloucester. Credit: Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks

"Before I knew it, I was kneeling on the seabed surrounded by a beautiful cannon.

"It just felt such an honour and it was just so unbelievably exciting to be the first person to touch the wreck from the day she sank."

On the surface, his brother Julian was waiting for news - and did not immediately see the significance of the old brick his brother sent up in a lifting bag.

"I had said 'please don't come up and say you've found it' because I'm normally the one who goes in the water," he told ITV News Anglia.

'Of course, he came up [saying] 'We've found her!'

"I gave him a rude gesture, then he walked up, pumped up, hand out - saying 'We've got it!' That was cool - that was a nice moment. And dad was there as well, which just made it more special.

He added: "We knew we were on our biggest adventure, without a doubt."

The brothers had been searching for the Gloucester for four years. Credit: UEA/YouTube

The brothers had been searching for the wreck for years, usually with the help of their late father Michael, who died in 2010, and friends including James Little, a former Royal Navy submariner and diver.

They declared their find to the Receiver of Wrecks, the Ministry of Defence and English Heritage, but have been unable to reveal their discovery until now because of the sensitivity of the site.

The brothers, who run a printing company together, admitted that keeping their find secret had been "tricky", but hoped that going public could be the start of the next major stage of the project.

An exhibition of artefacts found in the wreck is scheduled for Spring 2023 in Norwich, and further ahead, there are hopes that funds can be raised for the wreck itself to be recovered.

Julian Barnwell said: “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.”

Brothers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell with some of the artefacts from the HMS Gloucester Credit: UEA/ PA

The find itself has been described as the most significant for a generation, and the most important since the Mary Rose, the warship from the Tudor navy of King Henry VIII.

The sinking of the Gloucester was caused by a dispute between James, then the Duke of York, and the ship’s pilot James Ayres about navigating the treacherous Norfolk sandbanks.

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.

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.

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