Why the Gloucester might be the most important shipwreck since the Mary Rose
The sinking of the Gloucester is remarkable because of one of its most high-profile passengers: James Stuart, Duke of York, who would succeed Charles II as king of England. Speaking to Matt Elton, Claire Jowitt, Professor of Renaissance Studies at UEA and lead researcher on the Gloucester project, tells us how the recently announced discovery of the 17th-century shipwreck could reshape our view of Britain’s maritime past
The discovery of a Royal Navy warship which sank off the coast of Norfolk in 1682 – complete with a trove of treasures including the jug, bottle, ship’s bell, and spectacles has been hailed as Britain’s most important maritime find since the Mary Rose.
The wreck of the Gloucester was first located by brothers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell in 2007, but has been kept secret until now in order to protect the site.
The ship was on a journey from England to Scotland when, early in the morning of 6 May, it hit a sandbank off Great Yarmouth and sank, leading to the deaths of at least 130 people.
The disaster is also remarkable because of one of its most high-profile passengers: James Stuart, Duke of York, who escaped with moments to spare and, three years later, succeeded his brother Charles II as king of England, Ireland and Scotland, becoming James VII and II.
Why is the shipwreck of the Gloucester so important?
Claire Jowitt, Professor of Renaissance Studies at UEA and lead researcher on the Gloucester project, speaks to Matt Elton about why the shipwreck might be the most important maritime find in decades...
What do we know about the journey the Gloucester was on when it sank?
The Gloucester was on its way to Scotland carrying up to 400 people, including James, Duke of York and Albany, heir to the throne of his brother, Charles II. By 1682 Charles was increasingly ill, meaning that noblemen had begun gravitating towards James – and many of them were on board, along with their servants. It was a packed ship.
Do we know why the ship sank?
The previous night, there had been quite an intense argument about the route to take to navigate treacherous sandbanks. James, clearly keen to get to Scotland, wanted to take the most direct route.
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 – although we’ll never know exactly, as we don’t know how many people were on board. And there would have been even more deaths had it not been for the other vessels accompanying the Gloucester, which sent out lifeboats to rescue people.
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Did the speed of the sinking determine what people left behind?
Definitely. The fact that people had to scramble to get off meant they didn’t have time to get their possessions. It was first thing in the morning, too, and many people had been asleep. It wasn’t as if everybody was ready to evacuate in an orderly fashion. I can only imagine the panic.
What kinds of objects have been found?
Around 150 bottles of wine have been discovered, some with their contents still intact – and not just the wine either, but the air between the wine and the cork. Bottles of 17th-century air! There’s a whole range of other objects, too: cutlery, clothes, pipes, spectacles complete with spare lenses…
As a maritime expert, the potential this discovery holds must be very exciting?
What’s already been recovered is extraordinary enough, but what’s still down there is mind-blowing. The stern castle of the ship is probably blanketed under about three metres of sand, and if it’s even at least partially intact that’ll be fascinating. That’s where the captain’s cabin and apartments for the principal nobility would have been, so it would give us a first chance to see what a luxurious royal sea journey looked like.
What can this discovery tell us about the nation’s place in the world at the time?
In the 17th century, Britain had ambitions to be a major imperial and colonial power – and to achieve that, it needed a large, effective navy, because this was a turbulent era in international relations.
The history of the Gloucester itself shows us this: it had been involved in the Anglo-Spanish Wars and the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars. But, by the 1670s,
it needed a refit – a process that turned out to be very slow, because although the navy might have had the appetite to expand, it didn’t necessarily have the adequate finances or materials required to maintain vessels.
What happens next? Do you think it’s possible that the wreck can be raised, as was the case with the Mary Rose?
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. I can think of nothing better than to bring as much of this time capsule of royal travel to the surface as we can. A major exhibition is going to be held at Norwich Castle Museum from February to July 2023, and I’m privileged to be one of the co-curators. I think that, as an island nation, it will be incredible to make 17th-century history available for people to explore in the same way that the Mary Rose has done for the 16th century.
How does this discovery compare to that of the Mary Rose, which was found in 1971 and raised in 1982?
The Mary Rose Museum is brilliant, and if we are even half as good we’ll be doing very well. But in some ways the comparison is unhelpful: this is a 17th-century ship, on a completely different journey, surrounded by its own fascinating politics.
One of the things that the Mary Rose research did really well was highlight the multicultural nature of its crew and diversify 16th-century maritime history. I want to tell the stories of as many of the people that died, and survived, as possible – not just those of the great men.
As important as James is, we want to tell other stories, too. And the ship itself is the star.
This content first appeared in the August 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine. Here more from Professor Jowitt about the Gloucester and its discovery on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast: