King castle

Divers discover wreck of 1600s warship that sank with King James II, cannons, wine bottles and other artifacts

A prestigious English wreck was discovered by two brothers 28 miles off Norfolk. This is a ship whose sinking could have literally changed the course of British history.

The brothers, Julian and Lincoln Barnwell, have spent decades diving and exploring WWI and WWII wrecks; but later they embarked on a new challenge, which lasted four years: to find the 17th century warship, the Gloucester, which sank carrying away the Duke of York and Albany, James Stuart, then future king of Great Britain.

In the middle of the white sand, the sun and perfect visibility, one fine day in 2007, under the waves, they spotted cannons.

The find would also yield countless other artifacts, including the personal effects of hundreds of passengers who drowned, bottles of wine and a bell that helped identify the ship.

“Due to the circumstances of her sinking, this can be claimed as the most significant historic maritime discovery since the Mary Rose was raised in 1982,” said maritime history expert Professor Claire Jowitt of the University of the East. England (UEA). “The discovery promises to fundamentally change the understanding of the social, maritime and political history of the 17th century.

(Left) ‘The wreck of the Gloucester off Yarmouth, 6 May 1682’, by Johan Danckerts, 1682. (Public domain-USA); (Right) James, Duke of York (1633-1701), by Henri Gascar, 1672–3. (Public domain-US)
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(GD) Lincoln Barnwell and Julian Barnwell measuring cannons. (Courtesy of Historic Norfolk Shipwrecks)
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(GD) Brothers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell with the ship’s bell. (Courtesy of Historic Norfolk Shipwrecks)

“It is an outstanding example of underwater cultural heritage of national and international significance. A tragedy of massive proportions in terms of loss of life, privileged and ordinary, the full story of Gloucester’s last voyage and the impact of its aftermath must be told, including its cultural and political significance and its 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 warship sank at a time of particular historical significance when political and religious unrest and division plagued the nation. It was a critical moment in Britain, leading to the transfer of power from the monarchy to parliament in the nation’s ‘Glorious Revolution’ in 1688. On board Gloucester was the future King James II of England and d Ireland (James VII of Scotland). Had he drowned, British history would have been very different.

The sinking of the ship, at the time, was held up by critics as proof of James’ unfitness to be king. He was later to be deposed and replaced by his daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange, who then ascended the throne.

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A muffle exposed on the seabed, about 55 cm long. (Courtesy of Historic Norfolk Shipwrecks)
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Anchor ring, one of the two anchors visible on the site. (Courtesy of Historic Norfolk Shipwrecks)
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The bell found in the Gloucester wreck. (Courtesy of University of East Anglia)
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A detail of the bell reveals a date. (Courtesy of University of East Anglia)

The Gloucester, commissioned in 1652, was chosen to be James’ ship on a voyage to Edinburgh to pick up his then heavily pregnant wife and their households. The aim was to bring them back to London at the court of King Charles II in time, it was hoped, for the birth of a legitimate male heir.

Departing from Portsmouth, the warship met James and his entourage, who had traveled by yacht from London, to Margate. During the voyage, the story goes, James and the pilot argued over the correct course of the ship while navigating the dangerous sandbanks of Norfolk.

Then, at 5:30 a.m. on May 6, 1682, the Gloucester ran aground 28 miles off Great Yarmouth. The ship split from the keel and within an hour sank, resulting in the loss of 130 to 250 passengers and crew. James reportedly refused to abandon ship until the last minute, for which he was blamed, as others could not leave before him. But he was rescued aboard one of Gloucester’s small boats with his close friend John Churchill, later the first Duke of Marlborough.

Both high and low caste passengers perished, although no human remains have yet been found. As there was almost no time to salvage the ship’s cargo and personal effects, the wreck today is filled with artifacts as well as information about how people lived at that time.

After the discovery, the Barnwell brothers took an underwater archeology course with the Nautical Archeology Society.

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Bottle with Washington family seal. (Courtesy of University of East Anglia)
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Washington family coat of arms. (Courtesy of Historic Norfolk Shipwrecks)

Among the items rescued from the wreckage were clothes, shoes, professional naval equipment, personal effects and numerous bottles of wine. Some were found sealed and still filled with wine, offering the possibility of further research. A bottle of wine bears a glass seal with iconography linking it to Colonel George Legge, the son of Elizabeth Washington.

The Washington family crest depicted on the bottle, a shield adorned with stars and stripes, connects it and the ship to the most famous Washington of that lineage: America’s first president, George Washington.

And a bell found aboard the Gloucester helped researchers in 2012 positively identify the ship.

Due to the time needed to determine the identity of the vessel and the fact that it was discovered in a ‘at risk’ site in international waters, it is only now being made public. Although its exact location is undisclosed, the site has been declared to the UK Receiver of Wrecks, Historic England and the Ministry of Defence.

“When we decided to research Gloucester, we had no idea of ​​its importance in history,” Julian told UEA. “We had read that the Duke of York was on board, but that was it. We were convinced it was the Gloucester, but there are other wreck sites with cannons so this still needed to be confirmed.

“There is still a tremendous amount of knowledge to be gleaned from the wreckage which will benefit Norfolk and the nation. We hope this discovery and the stories that will be uncovered will inform and inspire future generations.

The shipwreck artefacts will be on display in spring 2023 in an exhibition titled ‘Gloucester’s Last Voyage: The Royal Norfolk Shipwreck’, jointly organized by the UEA and the Norfolk Museums Service, at the Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, where the finds will be staged. for five months, from February to July 2023.

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Julian and Lincoln Barnwell with some of their findings. (Courtesy of University of East Anglia)
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A selection of artifacts. (Courtesy of University of East Anglia)
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Julian and Lincoln Barnwell with some of their finds. (Courtesy of University of East Anglia)
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Julian and Lincoln Barnwell with some of their findings. (Courtesy of University of East Anglia)
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(Left to right) Lincoln Barnwell, Professor Jowitt, Dr Redding, Julian Barnwell. (Courtesy of University of East Anglia)
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(Left to right) Lincoln Barnwell, Professor Jowitt, Dr Redding, Julian Barnwell. (Courtesy of University of East Anglia)
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The bell is 53.2 cm high and weighs 65 kg (143 lbs). (Courtesy of University of East Anglia)
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Glasses in their original wooden case found aboard Gloucester. (Courtesy of University of East Anglia)
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Decorative detail of the glasses case. (Courtesy of University of East Anglia)
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Glasses case. (Courtesy of University of East Anglia)
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Glasses in their original case. (Courtesy of University of East Anglia)
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A bottle of wine with the Washington family crest. (Courtesy of Historic Norfolk Shipwrecks)
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Bartmann jug. (Courtesy of Historic Shipwrecks of Norfolk)
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Quarter-size stem and globe bottle with glass stopper. (Courtesy of Historic Shipwrecks of Norfolk)

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