When the HMS Gloucester sank, it became half buried in the seabed. There was no formal passenger manifest, but it’s estimated that 130 to 250 crew and passengers drowned.

Stuart, who would be crowned James II as King of England and King of Ireland and James VII as King of Scotland almost three years later, was nearly one of those casualties.

At the time of the calamity, the then-Duke of York was a Catholic heir to the Protestant throne during a time of both political and religious tension. His near miss stands out in British history, as does the significant loss of life.

“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,” Claire Jowitt, professor of English and history at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, said in a statement.

“The discovery promises to fundamentally change understanding of 17th-century social, maritime and political history.”

Artifacts have already been collected and conserved from the site, such as clothing, shoes, navigational and naval equipment, and lots of wine bottles — including some that remain unopened.

One of the wine bottles bears a glass seal with the crest of George Washington’s ancestors, the Legge family. And that crest’s design preceded the US Stars and Stripes.

The family seal of George Washington's ancestors can be seen on this bottle.
An exhibition including finds from the shipwreck will open in the spring at the Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery. Jowitt is cocurator of the exhibit and author of a new study about the shipwreck.
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The discovery of the shipwreck has just been announced, but it was initially found in 2007. The delay was caused by the time necessary to confirm the ship’s identity and protect the at-risk site, located in international waters off the Norfolk coast.

Historic England, a public body of the British government that oversees England’s historic sites, will protect the shipwreck.

Seeking a shipwreck

Brothers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell decided to search for the ship after taking inspiration from watching the raising of the Mary Rose wreck on television as kids. The brothers are printers in Norfolk as well as licensed divers and honorary fellows at the University of East Anglia’s School of History.

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The Barnwell brothers and their late father, Michael, along with friend and fellow diver and former Royal Navy submariner James Little, found the shipwreck after searching for four years. The Gloucester was split down the keel, with parts of the hull still submerged in the sand.

“It was our fourth dive season looking for Gloucester,” Lincoln Barnwell said in a statement. “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 cannons laying on white sand, 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.”

The ship's bell was used to identify the Gloucester, which sank along the Norfolk coastline, the site of many shipwrecks in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The ship’s bell, made in 1681, was recovered from the wreck. The Receiver of Wreck and Ministry of Defence used the bell to identify the wreck as that of the Gloucester in 2012.

A wreck with many consequences

The Gloucester first launched as a 50-gun warship in 1654, becoming a Royal Navy vessel in 1660. When it was time for the Duke of York to sail from England to Scotland to conduct royal business and fetch his daughter Anne and his very pregnant wife, Mary of Modena, in 1682, the Gloucester received the assignment. The Duke of York and his family would reside at the court of Charles II.

“It was politically advantageous for Mary’s baby to be born in England; the royal family hoped that the child would be a prince to further secure the Stuart dynasty,” Jowitt wrote in her study.

Julian (left) and Lincoln Barnwell show off some of their discoveries from the shipwreck.

By 1682, Charles was getting older and had already suffered a stroke. Power was already transitioning to the Duke of York in some respects. Along for his voyage were prominent courtiers from England, Ireland and Scotland.

On May 6 at 5:30 in the morning, the ship ran aground 27.9 miles (45 kilometers) off the coast of Great Yarmouth. The duke, a former lord high admiral of the Royal Navy, argued with the pilot for control over the ship’s course, and they quarreled about how best to navigate Norfolk’s notoriously treacherous sandbanks.

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The ship sank within an hour, and the duke delayed abandoning ship, believing it could be saved, until the last minute. Protocol dictated that others could not be evacuated before royalty, which contributed to the tragedy. By the time the duke and a boat containing his strongbox of memoirs and political documents were loaded, only one other boat was able to escape.

High-profile nobles, relatives of the duke and many of the duke’s household staff were among those who died. Only a fraction of the victims’ identities are currently known, according to Jowitt.

The Gloucester was part of a squadron of ships, so there were many eyewitnesses to the tragedy. The duke had influenced the dangerous route but accepted no responsibility for the disaster and blamed the pilot, who was imprisoned.

Glasses recovered from the wreck appear in their original case.
Some saw the shipwreck as a way to question the duke’s judgment under pressure and fitness to rule as a future monarch, Jowitt said. His reign was a short one, lasting from 1685 to 1688, before he was ousted during the Glorious Revolution and replaced by Protestants — his daughter Mary Stuart and her husband, William of Orange.

A historical research project accompanying the exhibition will explore the failures that led to the sinking as well as conspiracy theories about what caused the tragedy and the long political shadow it cast.

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