From Terror to Titanic: 7 famous shipwrecks
Shipwrecks are fascinating maritime time capsules that can be a direct window into what life was like in the past. Many are immortalised in film and television – from James Cameron’s Oscar-winning Titanic to the AMC drama The Terror – while others are popular tourist attractions. Discover seven of the most famous shipwrecks in history…
"There is no danger that Titanic will sink. The boat is unsinkable and nothing but inconvenience will be suffered by the passengers." These infamous words – said by Philip Franklin, vice-president of the International Mercantile Marine Company, in 1912 – have gone down in history for just how grossly inaccurate they proved to be. Franklin was speaking at a press event after hearing about the ship hitting an iceberg via wireless messages. He was presumably hoping to alleviate the fears of the concerned friends and relatives of those involved, but he was also speaking what he thought to be an absolute truth; the luxury passenger liner – at the time one of the largest and most opulent of its kind – had been repeatedly advertised as “practically unsinkable” ahead of its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. Even considering its 20 lifeboats (which could hold half the people on board) and advanced safety features, it was an assertion that seemed destined to tempt fate – and tempt fate it did: RMS Titanic sank in the early hours of 15 April 1912 after colliding with an iceberg.
The sinking of Titanic remains one of the deadliest peacetime sinkings in history
The sinking of Titanic is today one of the most well-known maritime disasters in the world. This is thanks in part to James Cameron’s Oscar-winning 1997 film of the same name, but also because the event was – and remains to this day – one of the deadliest peacetime sinkings in history. The tragedy claimed more than 1,500 lives, although the precise number of fatalities is disputed. Among the dead were some of the most notable names of the time, including John Jacob Astor IV, one of the richest men in the world, and Isidor Straus, co-owner of Macy’s department store.
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It took a long time to find the shipwreck; 73 years to be exact. She was discovered 13 nautical miles (24km) away from her distress location given at the time of the sinking. Recent research shows that the ship is deteriorating at a rapid rate, and may soon disappear entirely.
- Titanic quiz | How much do you know about the ship and disaster?
Private v publicAt several sites around the world, shipwrecks continue to attract a booming tourism industry. Near the shores of the South Atlantic island of St Helena, for example, divers can explore ships including Witte Leeuw (a favourite of French marine explorer Jacques Cousteau) and the Darkdale (a British tanker torpedoed by a German submarine during the Second World War).
Other shipwrecks, meanwhile, have been hidden from the public. HMS Gloucester is perhaps the best most recent example of this; the shipwreck was discovered in 2007 but kept secret until 2022 to allow for a protected investigation of the site and its contents.
The White Ship
Described by some as the ‘medieval Titanic’, the White Ship disaster was one of the most dramatic events in the Middle Ages in terms of how it rocked the English monarchy. The ship – considered one of the finest of its time – set sail on 25 November 1120 with 300 people on board, the most important of them being William the Ætheling, the only legitimate male heir of King Henry I, and grandson of William the Conqueror. They were destined for England, but they were also determined to enjoy themselves along the way. Many of the people on board the ship were drunk before the ship had even left the dock – including, significantly, the helmsman. So inebriated were the passengers that a number of people refused to board the ship ahead of its departure – a decision that likely saved their lives. Just one mile off the coast of Barfleur – the favoured port to sail from Normandy to England – the ship hit a rock and sank. There was just one survivor, a man named Berold the butcher who was able to relay to people back on shore the chain of unfortunate events.
It’s an extraordinary thing for one ship to bring such calamity to a nation
Henry was devastated by the loss of his son. After 15 years of failing to produce another male heir, he named his daughter, Matilda, as his successor and handed her the realm – a decision that led to a period of civil war known as the Anarchy.
“I maintain that [the sinking of the White Ship] was the most disastrous moment in British maritime history,” Charles Spencer – author of The White Ship – revealed in an interview for HistoryExtra in 2020. “Yes, the Titanic is remarkable in its scale and the glamour of the people on board, but this was an entire royal family destroyed. It’s an extraordinary thing for one ship to bring such calamity to a nation.”
The Mary Rose
Although many experts have attempted to solve the mystery of why Mary Rose sank, there is still debate about what caused her to capsize during the battle of Solent on 19 July 1545, sending around 500 men to their deaths. One eyewitness account suggests that a large gust of wind unbalanced the ship as she turned around, allowing water to enter the ship via the lowest row of gun ports. Another theory is that she was hit by a cannonball, although there is little physical evidence of this and the eyewitness in question – a Frenchman – may instead have been trying to overplay the military capabilities of Mary Rose’s French adversaries.
One common misconception about Mary Rose is that she was a new ship on her maiden voyage. In actuality she had enjoyed a successful 34-year career as Henry VIII’s favourite warship, and was more than capable of withstanding hardier conditions than those present on the day of her sinking. She had endured far choppier waters and carried greater numbers of soldiers to battle in the past – so no one can claim that she wasn’t fit for the job.
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But the mystery of why Mary Rose sank is just a small part of why she is a household name today. In October 1982, the world watched as she was raised, a feat that required years of planning and the efforts of a huge team of divers, archaeologists, and scientists. Today located in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, Mary Rose is a remarkable Tudor time capsule – although it’s worth noting that around half of her structure is missing and there are still significant parts of the wreck buried in the seabed.
Hot on the tails of Mary Rose fame is the Gloucester, which was first located in 2007 but only made public knowledge earlier this year in a bid to protect the treasure trove of goods contained within the wreck site.
The ship sank off the coast of Norfolk in 1682 while on a journey from England to Scotland, resulting in the deaths of more than 130 people. James Stuart, Duke of York, was the most notable passenger on board, although he managed to escape and went on to become king of England, Ireland and Scotland as James II and VII.
One of the most tragic elements of the sinking was just how avoidable it might have been in the first place. Ahead of the ship’s departure there had been heated discussions about how she might navigate several treacherous sandbanks rising from the seabed. “James, clearly keen to get to Scotland, wanted to take the most direct route,” explains Professor Claire Jowitt in an interview for HistoryExtra. “The next morning, the Gloucester hit the sandbanks and sank within an hour. James, hoping it could be saved, delayed abandoning ship – and royal protocol meant nobody else could leave before him. Had James decided to go sooner, more lives could have been saved.”
Among the discoveries in the wreck were 150 bottles of wine, cutlery, clothes, pipes and spectacles complete with spare lenses. But will the ship ever be brought to the surface, as Mary Rose was? “With the appropriate permissions, it might be possible to raise parts of the ship, while other discoveries could be made through the use of trenches,” says Prof Jowitt.
HMS Erebus and HMS Terror
In 1845, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror embarked on a mission to find a shipping route connecting Europe and Asia via North America. What exactly transpired on their Arctic voyage is uncertain, but both ships were abandoned three years into their mission. Neither returned; nor did any of their 129 crewmembers. The expedition, led by British explorer John Franklin, is now considered one of the greatest disasters in British polar history – and has inspired numerous retellings in popular culture, the most recent being the AMC drama The Terror.
So what prompted the men to leave their ships and where did they go? It’s one of history’s greatest mysteries – and a whole range of theories have been proposed as to what happened to Franklin’s men. “People claimed that the local Inuit must have killed them, or that the crew had been stricken by scurvy,” explains travel writer and presenter Sir Michael Palin – who retraced Franklin’s route “Lead poisoning [from food tins contaminated by lead solder] was once thought to be the key reason why everything went wrong, but that theory has now been widely dismissed.”
In 2014 and 2016 respectively, the sunken wrecks of Erebus and Terror were rediscovered – although we are no closer to discovering the mystery of what happened. “It’s not a very glamorous theory, but ultimately, I believe that Franklin’s men were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time,” suggests Michael Palin. “They chose to make their voyage to the North-West Passage during one of the coldest periods in modern history. From around 1845 to 1848, the ice in that region didn’t melt even over summer, meaning that they were unable to free the ships. That was the primary problem, and it couldn’t have been foreseen.”
Franklin’s men were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time
Despite both ships being discovered only recently, it is thought that the Inuit knew where they were located around a century beforehand. The difficulty lay in the fact that this was entirely word-of-mouth evidence – and, as Palin notes, “People simply didn’t take non-written Inuit testimony seriously enough to listen.”
While many historic ships were sunk by accident – as is the case with the White Ship disaster of 1120 – others have been destroyed on purpose. The unarmed passenger liner RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by a German submarine during the First World War, an act which resulted in the deaths of 1,198 people on board and stoked the flames of anti-German feeling in Britain and the US.
The Germans suggested that the attack was justified: the ship was carrying war munitions, they said, plus the waters around the isles had been declared a war zone. But British people reacted to the news with wrath, and the German community within the country bore the brunt. Riots broke out around the country, German businesses were boycotted and national newspapers encouraged the dismissal of German staff. Rumours began to spread that all Germans living in Britain were spies, while almost all police districts in London reported violence and disorder in the days after the sinking.
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Successive British governments continued to deny that there were munitions on board the Lusitania in the years following the war. But, as Saul David explained in a 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine, “they were lying. Government papers released in 2014, and recent dives on the wreck, have confirmed that the Germans were right all along: the ship was indeed carrying war material.”