King castle

The wreck of the warship HMS Gloucester which carried King James II has been found off the coast of Norfolk

The wreckage of a royal warship which carried the future King of England on board moments before it sank has been discovered off the coast of Norfolk.

340 years ago, HMS Gloucester ran aground some 28 miles off Great Yarmouth. The incident happened after a row – over navigating the dangerous sandbanks of Norfolk – between James Stuart, then Duke of York, and the ship’s pilot, James Ayres.

On May 6, 168, the ship struck a sandbar around 5:30 a.m. and sank within an hour. Between 130 and 250 people died.

Many victims died because the Duke delayed abandoning ship until the last minute. Protocol at the time stated that people could not abandon ship before royalty.

Instead of taking responsibility, the Duke blamed the pilot and said he wanted to be hanged immediately. Mr. Ayres was court-martialed and imprisoned.

In 1685 the Duke became King James II of England. In 1688, he was deposed by the Glorious Revolution and replaced by his Protestant daughter Marie and her Dutch husband Guillaume d’Orange.

Artist’s impression of King James II

(Creative Commons)

In 2007, the wreck of HMS Gloucester was located by a group of people, including brothers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell, after a four-year search of 5,000 nautical miles.

Due to the time needed to confirm the ship’s identity – and the need to protect an ‘at risk’ site, which is in international waters – it is only now that the find can be made public.

Lincoln Barnwell said: “This was our fourth season of diving in search of Gloucester. We were beginning to believe we weren’t going to find it, we had dived so much and found nothing but sand.

“During my descent to the seabed the first thing I spotted were big guns resting on white sand, it was impressive and truly beautiful. It was instantly like a privilege to be there, it was so exciting.

“We were the only people in the world at that time who knew where the wreckage was. It was special and I will never forget it. Our next task was to identify the site as the Gloucester.”

Maritime history expert Professor Claire Jowitt, from the University of East Anglia (UEA), said it was the most significant maritime discovery since the Mary Rose, the warship of the Tudor Navy of King Henry VIII.

The Mary Rose sank in battle in the Solent in 1545 and was refloated in 1982, before being displayed in Portsmouth.

Prof Jowitt said: ‘The discovery promises to fundamentally change the understanding of 17th century social, maritime and political history. 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, both 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.”

An exhibition is planned for spring 2023 at the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery to showcase the finds from the wreck and share ongoing historical, scientific and archaeological research.