News, Pre-WW1

HMS Gloucester Wreck Discovered After 325 Years

HMS Gloucester was a 50-gun speaker-class third-rate ship which saw service with the Royal Navy during the 1600s. The vessel was constructed at Limehouse docks in London and was launched in March 1653.

The ship was initially built for the Royal Navy but later came under the authority of the Royal Family. HMS Gloucester was to be engaged in many battles, including those in the Anglo-Dutch and Anglo-Spanish wars.

  • HMS Gloucester sank off the Norfolk coast on May 6, 1682.
  • Lincoln and Julian Barnwell discovered the shipwreck in 2007.
  • The authorities kept the discovery a secret until 2022.
  • Researchers from the University of East Anglia (UEA) are currently studying the wreck.
  • The artefacts will be showcased at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery in 2023.

So how was this once proud warship discovered? It started with brothers Lincoln and Julian Barnwell, who have spent decades diving on the Norfolk Coast searching for such shipwrecks. The remnants of HMS Gloucester remained undiscovered on the Norfolk Coast seabed for 325 years until they were found in 2007 by them. However, all was not plain sailing.

The Barnwell brothers conducted a huge 5000 nautical miles search to find the shipwreck. Lincoln explained, “it was our fourth dive season looking for Gloucester. We’d dived so much and just found sand. And then one day, finally, we got the perfect hit.” He described the experience as “awe-inspiring and really beautiful.”

The discovery of the wreck however was not made public until 2022. The authorities kept the news a secret to protect the ongoing investigation of the site. The wreckage was found in international waters, so only the Ministry of Defence, Historic England, and the Receiver of Wreck were informed.

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Initially it was difficult to identify the shipwreck because several other historic shipwrecks from the 17th and 18th centuries filled the area. “We were confident it was the Gloucester, but there are other wreck sites out there with cannons, so it still needed to be confirmed,” admitted Lincoln Barnwell. Their speculations were only confirmed when the bell of the Gloucester was discovered five years later in 2012.

Heading: The Significance of HMS Gloucester

HMS Gloucester has immense historical importance. On its last voyage in 1682, the ship was sailing from Portsmouth to Edinburgh. The Duke of York, James Francis Edward Stuart, was on board with his entourage. Stuart later became the king of England, Scotland, and Ireland in 1685. A lucky escape for a would be king.

HMS Gloucester aground.
Johan Danckerts (c. 1682), The Wreck of the Gloucester off Yarmouth, 6 May 1682, Royal Museums Greenwich

At 5:30 A.M. on May 6, 1682, the ship hit Norfolk’s treacherous Leman and Ower sandbank. The unfortunate hit incapacitated the vessel which started to sink.

The Duke and his companion John Churchill were both eventually rescued. However, the Duke did not get off the sinking ship until the very last minute. As per the royal tradition of the day, no crew member was allowed to leave the ship until the Royalty had. This custom considerably delayed the evacuation. Consequently, an estimated 130 to 250 passengers drowned in the incident.

The Duke had been accused of prioritising his dogs and priests over the crew members and other passengers. As a consequence, a fight broke out even before the ship sank. “It’s clear from all the accounts that there was a dispute between a number of individuals on board about which route to take,” highlighted Professor Claire Jowitt of the University of East Anglia (UEA).

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James Ayres, the captain of Gloucester, was blamed for the incident. Despite his protests, the Duke had the final say. Ayres was later court-martialled and imprisoned for the incident.

Heading: The Last Voyage of the Gloucester: Norfolk’s Royal Shipwreck

After the discovery the Barnwell brothers worked with maritime archaeologists from the UEA to uncover artefacts. The divers found the items well-preserved despite being underwater for such a long period. The treasure trove included spectacles, shoes, an ointment jar, a bell, women’s clothes, wine bottles, and navigational instruments. Researchers expect to uncover more finds as the investigation continues.

Portrait believed to be Gloucester
Willem van de Velde’s drawing of a third rate, possibly of HMS Gloucester (c.1673), Royal Museums Greenwich

Many experts have compared the historical significance and finding of HMS Gloucester with that of the Mary Rose. The discovery of HMS Gloucester is deemed the most significant find after the excavation of Mary Rose in 1982.

“The discovery promises to fundamentally change the understanding of 17th-century social, maritime, and political history,” the professor said as he stressed the importance of the wreck. 

Researchers from the University of East Anglia, including Prof. Jowitt and Dr. Ben Redding, are currently studying the recently discovered artefacts. The discoveries will aid experts in providing an insight into the incident and life in general in the 17th century.

A major exhibition, ‘The Last Voyage of the Gloucester: Norfolk’s Royal Shipwreck,’ is expected to be held between February 25 and July 25, 2023. The exhibition will take place at the Norwich Castle Museum.