On May 6, 1682, at 5.30 am, off the coast of Norfolk, UK, the third-rate frigate HMS Gloucester ran aground on a sandbank. At the time, it was carrying the future King of England, James Stuart, the Duke of York, and has been lost for over 340 years. It was to remain untouched by human hands until brothers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell, and friend James Little stumbled across it after a four-year search, half-buried in a seabed. The discovery has been published in The English Historical Review.
In 1652 the Gloucester was commissioned, built at Limehouse in London, and launched in 1654. The Gloucester’s last voyage was to carry the Duke of York to Edinburgh, to collect his heavily pregnant wife and their household. This was all so they could be at his brother’s – King Charles II’s – court in London, for what they were hoping was to be the birth of a legitimate male heir (he had a few illegitimate children).
The Duke was a former Lord High Admiral and it was witnessed that he got into an argument with the pilot for control of the ship during the navigation over the treacherous Norfolk sandbanks. Hundreds of crew and passengers’ lives were needlessly lost, mainly because maritime protocol dictated that passengers weren’t allowed to abandon the ship before any royalty. Witnesses claimed the Duke saved his dogs and Catholic priests over the crew and courtiers. The Duke himself barely survived as he delayed leaving the ship until the last minute.
Move forward to the early 2000s, when the Barnwell brothers had a dream – to find a shipwreck. Lincoln Barnwell, said that he was inspired by the raising of the wreck of the Mary Rose, Henry VIII's favorite ship, as a child.
The Barnwell brothers, their late father Michael, and a few friends found the wreck site in 2007, on their fourth dive season. It was split down the keel and the remains of the hull were submerged in the sand.
"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,” said Lincoln. “It instantly felt like a privilege to be there, it was so exciting. 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. Our next job was to identify the site as the Gloucester."
“When we decided to search for the Gloucester we had no idea how significant she was in history. We had read that the Duke of York was onboard but that was it. We were confident it was the Gloucester, but there are other wreck sites out there with cannons, so it still needed to be confirmed,” said Julian
“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.”
The finding has been described as the most important maritime discovery since the Mary Rose. The reason the ship was revealed today, and not any sooner, is it gave them time to confirm the identity and then it needed to be protected as it was an “at-risk” site. The ship’s bell was recovered in 2012 so that the UK's Receiver of Wreck and Ministry of Defence could identify the vessel.
Currently, the wreck is the property of the Ministry of Defence, but when the items have been identified as personal property, then the ownership of these will be to the Crown.
Many artifacts have been recovered, including shoes, clothes, personal possessions, navigational and professional naval equipment… and many wine bottles.
There will be a major exhibition in spring 2023 at the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, which will be a partnership between the Barnwell brothers, academic partner University of East Anglia, and the Norfolk Museums Service.
"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 Claire Jowitt, the co-curator of the exhibition. "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," she added. "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."