The Fate of ‘The Gloucester’: the most important maritime discovery since the Mary Rose.

In the early hours of the morning on May 6th 1682, the English warship, ‘Gloucester’, ran aground on a sandbank 45km off Great Yarmouth following a dispute about navigating the treacherous waters. 

The Wreck of the Gloucester Wikimedia Commons.

Amongst the passengers was James Stuart, brother of King Charles II of England and Scotland. He was on his way to collect his pregnant wife, Mary of Modena from Edinburgh. The future of the Monarchy depended on a legitimate heir.

James, Duke of York (1633-1701), by Henri Gascar, 1672-3 credit Royal Museums Greenwich Wikimedia Commons

Within an hour of hitting the sandbank, the Gloucester sank with the loss of hundreds of the crew and passengers. James, Duke of York, barely survived, having delayed abandoning ship until the last minute.

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

The wreck of the ship has been discovered and its finds recovered.  The discovery is described by maritime history expert Prof Claire Jowitt, of the University of East Anglia (UEA), as the most important maritime discovery since the Mary Rose.

Now a major exhibition is planned for Spring 2023, the result of a partnership between the Barnwell brothers, Norfolk Museums Service, and academic partner UEA. Running from February to July at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, the exhibition will display finds from the wreck – including the bell that confirmed the ship’s identity – and share ongoing historical, scientific and archaeological research.

Prof Jowitt, a world-leading authority on maritime cultural history, is a co-curator of the exhibition, explained:

“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 discovery 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.”

Only months after this near death escape for James Stuart, his wife Mary, gave birth to Charlotte Mary in August 1682 sadly the child was to die three weeks later. Charles II died in 1685 and James became King of both Scotland and England. Mary gave birth to James Francis Edward Stuart on 10th of June 1688.

Catholics in the two Kingdoms rejoiced as it looked like there would be a male heir. Protestants in the two nations did not want Catholic monarchs and on 11th of December 1688 James was deposed from the throne of England followed on 11th of May 1689 by Scotland. William and Mary were installed on the thrones instead and what was to follow was decades of war and the rise of the Jacobites.

How tenuous is the fate of nations when a shipwreck or the belief system a child is born into can determine the future.

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.

Following the discovery, the Barnwell brothers completed an underwater archaeology course with the Nautical Archaeology Society.

Artefacts rescued and conserved 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. Uniquely, in addition there were also some unopened bottles, with wine still inside -­ offering exciting opportunities for future research.

The accompanying historical research project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and led by Prof Jowitt, will explore not only the failures of command at sea before the Gloucester sank, but conspiracy theories about the tragedy’s causes and its political consequences.

It is also hoped that UEA’s scientific expertise and facilities will be used to analyse some of the finds from the wreck.

The Ministry of Defence’s position is that all artefacts remain the property of the Ministry of Defence; however, where items are positively identified as personal property, ownership will then default to the Crown.

A selection of discoveries © UEA

Partners already involved in the landmark project alongside the Barnwells, UEA and Norfolk Museums Service include the Ministry of Defence, the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth, York Archaeology, the Leverhulme Trust and Maritime Archaeology Trust. The project is also being generously supported by Alan Boswell Group and Birketts LLP.

A new paper titled ‘The Last Voyage of the Gloucester (1682): The Politics of a Royal Shipwreck’ by Prof Claire Jowitt offers a comprehensive academic analysis of the disaster and its political implications and legacies. It was published in the journal English Historical Review on Friday, June 10.

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