The discovery of an historic shipwreck claimed to be the most significant since that of the Tudor warship Mary Rose followed an extended search by two brothers scuba diving off the Norfolk coast – and it has been revealed only now, after 15 years of secrecy.
The vessel they found is the Gloucester, which sank 340 years ago while carrying future king of England James Stuart – who, through his back-seat driving, might well have played a part in the warship hitting a sandbank in 1682.
The Gloucester had remained half-buried in sand until its discovery in 2007 by brothers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell, with the assistance of their late father Michael and two other divers, one named as James Little.
The wreck was split down the keel and an unknown proportion of the hull remained covered in sand – it is still unclear how much of the ship and its artefacts can yet be found in the constantly shifting sands off East Anglia.
The ship also proved difficult to identify, because of the number of 17th- and 18th-century wrecks in the area. Finding the bell confirmed it as the Gloucester five years later in 2012, but to protect what was regarded as an “at-risk” site in international waters, the find remained a closely guarded secret, declared only to the Receiver of Wreck, Ministry of Defence and Historic England.
Inspired by Mary Rose
Julian and Lincoln Barnwell, both printers based in Norfolk, completed a Nautical Archaeology Society course so that they could work with University of East Anglia (UEA) maritime archaeologists to excavate the wreck. They are now honorary fellows of the university’s School of History.
“We had spent many, many years, decades, diving WW1 and WW2 shipwrecks,” says Julian Barnwell. “I think after a period of time we just wanted something different.” The brothers started looking through Richard & Bridget Larn’s book Shipwreck Index of the British Isles for inspiration.
Lincoln, who as a child had been inspired by the televised lifting of the Mary Rose, says: “I saw the Gloucester, 1682, thought wow, and then the world ‘cannon’ appeared.” He phoned his brother and said: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat!”
The discovery came only after covering an estimated 5,000 nautical miles in their search. “It was our fourth dive season looking for Gloucester,” says Lincoln. “We’d dived so much and just found sand. And then one day, finally, we got the perfect hit. The visibility was excellent, lovely white sand and, right in front of me, cannon. It was awe-inspiring and really beautiful.
“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. We were confident it was the Gloucester, but there are other wreck sites out there with cannon, so it still needed to be confirmed.”
Artefacts already recovered and conserved include clothes and shoes, navigational and other naval equipment, personal possessions such as spectacles and many wine bottles, some still with their contents sealed inside. One bottle has a glass seal with the crest of the Legge family, ancestors of American president George Washington and a forerunner to the Stars and Stripes flag.
More artefacts are thought to remain buried. No human remains have been found, only animal bones. As Gloucester was a naval ship the finds are deemed to be MoD property, or that of the Crown if positively identified as personal property.
“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,” says UEA maritime history authority Prof Claire Jowitt.
Her conclusion is based on the age and prestige of the ship, the wreck’s condition, the artefacts coming up and the sinking’s political context. “The discovery promises to fundamentally change understanding of 17th-century social, maritime and political history,” she says.
Argued with pilot
Built in London, the 54-gun Gloucester was launched in 1654 as a Cromwellian third-rate warship. In 1682 it was chosen to carry James Stuart, then Duke of York, to Edinburgh to bring his pregnant wife back to King Charles II’s court in London, in time for the birth of a legitimate male heir to the throne.
The Gloucester sailed from Portsmouth, with James and his entourage joining it off Margate. At 5.30am on May 6, the ship ran aground on the Leman and Ower sandbank some 45km off Great Yarmouth. James, a former Lord High Admiral, had argued with pilot James Ayres about their best course through the treacherous Norfolk sandbanks.
The ship sank within an hour, with the loss of 130-250 of the 330 passengers and crew thought to have been aboard. James had delayed abandoning ship until the last minute, but eventually escaped in a small boat with his friend John Churchill, later first Duke of Marlborough, to be picked up by another yacht. He later continued his journey to Edinburgh.
The sinking was witnessed and recorded by diarist and naval administrator Samuel Pepys from the royal yacht Katherine.
James blamed Ayres for the disaster and had him court-martialled and imprisoned. His delay in abandoning ship cost many lives, because protocol forbade others to save themselves ahead of royalty. This behaviour, with accusations that he had prioritised his dogs and Catholic priests in the evacuation, led to considerable reputational damage and he survived on the throne as King James II for only four years before being ousted in 1688 by the Protestant William and Mary.
Had James drowned, King Charles II’s illegitimate son James, Duke of Monmouth, would likely have succeeded his father as a Protestant king and the watershed 1688 revolution might well not have happened – or else a second civil war might have occurred.
“It is an outstanding example of underwater cultural heritage of national and international importance,” says Prof Jowitt of the wreck discovery. “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 retelling, 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 most important artefacts are to be displayed at a major exhibition, “The Last Voyage of the Gloucester: Norfolk’s Royal Shipwreck”, at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery from 25 February to 25 July next year. It will be co-curated by Prof Jowitt for the UEA and Norfolk Museums Service.
“This is going to be Norfolk’s Mary Rose,” says Norfolk deputy lieutenant and former head of the British Army Lord Dannatt. “Julian and Lincoln have touched history, history that could have changed the course of this nation. It’s such an amazing story to tell. Our aim is to bring that story to life and to share it with as many people as possible.”
Despite the Mary Rose comparisons there are no plans to raise any part of the ship itself, but the excavations will continue. “What we have analysed so far is the equivalent to a little finger, and we’ve got the rest of the body to discover,” says Julian Barnwell.
Also on Divernet: Divers Find The Rudder That Sank Invincible