Since running aground on a sandbank on May 6, 1682, the wreck of the warship the Gloucester has lain half-buried on the seabed, its exact whereabouts unknown until brothers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell, with their friend James Little, found it after a four-year search.
Due to the age and prestige of the ship, the condition of the wreck, the finds already rescued, and the accident's political context, the discovery is described by maritime history expert Prof Claire Jowitt [uea.ac.uk], of the University of East Anglia (UEA), as the most important maritime discovery since the Mary Rose.
The Gloucester represents an important 'almost' moment in British political history: a royal shipwreck causing the very near-death of the Catholic heir to the Protestant throne - James Stuart, Duke of York and Albany - at a time of great political and religious tension.
[...] Prof Jowitt, a world-leading authority on maritime cultural history, is a co-curator of the exhibition. "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. "The discovery promises to fundamentally change understanding of 17th-century social, maritime and political history.
[...] The Gloucester was commissioned in 1652, built at Limehouse in London, and launched in 1654. In 1682 it was selected to carry James Stuart - who later became King of England and King of Ireland as James II, and King of Scotland as James VII - 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.
The ship had set sail from Portsmouth with the Duke and his entourage joining it off Margate, having travelled by yacht from London. At 5.30am on May 6, the Gloucester ran aground some 45km off Great Yarmouth following a dispute about navigating the treacherous Norfolk sandbanks. The Duke, a former Lord High Admiral, had argued with the pilot for control over the ship's course.
[...] Together with their late father Michael, and two friends including James Little, a former Royal Navy submariner and diver, the Barnwell brothers found the wreck site in 2007, with the Gloucester split down the keel and remains of the hull submerged in sand.
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. As well as the Receiver of Wreck and Ministry of Defence, the wreck has been declared to Historic England.
Accompanying review article putting the ship in historical context: Claire Jowitt, The Last Voyage of the Gloucester (1682): The Politics of a Royal Shipwreck [open], The English Historical Review, 2022. DOI: 10.1093/ehr/ceac127 [doi.org]