The sinking of the Gloucester: the shipwreck that rocked Restoration England
In 1682, a warship carrying the future James VII and II sank off the Norfolk coast. Ruth Battersby Tooke, Benjamin Redding, Francesca Vanke and Claire Jowitt, curators of a new exhibition about the recently discovered wreck of the Gloucester, chronicle a disaster that shines a light on 17th-century power-politics
The sun was barely peeking over the eastern horizon when bleary-eyed passengers aboard the Gloucester were alarmed by a mighty crash. Sailing at speed north along the Norfolk coast, at about 5.30am on 6 May 1682 the regal warship hit a submerged obstacle and began to sink. Less than an hour after first running aground on sandbanks, the ship was lost – along with many dozens of its passengers and crew.
When it was announced last June that the wreck of the Gloucester had been found, after more than three centuries beneath the North Sea, it was described as the single most significant historical maritime discovery since the raising of the Mary Rose in 1982. Considering that there are hundreds of shipwrecks lying beneath the seas around Britain, what makes this one so important?
The answer lies partly with the most notable passenger aboard the Gloucester on its last voyage: Charles II’s brother James Stuart, Duke of York and Albany, who later ruled as James VII and II. Yet the story of the wreck – the background to the voyage, its aftermath, and the tales of bravery and suffering – also reveals fascinating insights into the Restoration era.
The Gloucester: decorated warship and royal taxi
The Gloucester wasn’t just any ship. It was built during the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652–54). After distinguished service in a number of battles – in at least one of which it suffered significant damage – in 1678–80 it was comprehensively and expensively refitted. Its gun deck was almost entirely freshly laid, with new wooden beams provided for the orlop, upper and quarter decks, and its bulkheads, head, galleries and stern were remade almost entirely. Carvers added ornate wooden decorations, glaziers fitted glass works, and a new furnace was installed.
In short, the Gloucester was virtually a new ship in 1682 when Captain Sir John Berry received orders to transport the duke and his party. Its final, ill-fated voyage was undertaken at a particularly sensitive political moment. As heir to the throne, James’s Catholicism had provoked a major constitutional row between 1679 and 1681 – the so-called Exclusion Crisis.
- Read more | A timeline of the Restoration period
A Protestant group called the Country Party – later the Whigs – attempted to exclude James from succeeding his brother as king, fearing that a Catholic monarch would make Britain subservient to France. In 1679, the House of Commons introduced the Exclusion Bill, which sought to debar James from the line of succession. To prevent it be coming law, Charles dissolved parliament.
At the same time, a number of conspiracies – real and imagined – were reported: plots to murder Charles and replace him with his brother. James was forced to leave London, first for the continent and then for Scotland. By March 1682, though, the dust had settled, and Charles invited James to return to court, with an eye to resolving the succession.
So on 4 May 1682, James transferred from a royal yacht to the Gloucester off the Kent coast and sailed, accompanied by a small fleet, to collect his family and settle royal affairs in Edinburgh before returning to London. His wife, Mary of Modena, was pregnant – with a boy, it was hoped, who would be born in England and secure the Stuart succession.
Just two days later, the Gloucester lay at the bottom of the North Sea. Because the ship sank so quickly, many people perished. No muster list for the voyage survives, so we can’t be certain of numbers, but of some 330 on board probably between 130 and 250 died.
Was Prince James unfit to steer the “ship of state”?
The event was significant as it raised the question: what does it suggest about the fitness to rule of a royal prince and a former Lord High Admiral – as James had been until 1673 – if he couldn’t navigate his own ship? James risked being regarded as a commander unable to steer the “ship of state”.
So the events leading up to and following the wreck were telling. On the evening of 5 May, an argument flared regarding the best route for the fleet to take to ensure that it cleared the north Norfolk sandbanks. The discussion involved the ship’s pilot, James Ayres; senior officers including Berry and Master Benjamin Holmes; Captain Christopher Gunman of the yacht Mary, which accompanied the Gloucester; and the duke himself.
Ayres, experienced in sailing the coastal route, advocated navigating between the coast and the sandbanks. Holmes, without local knowledge, supported a deep-sea route beyond the sandbanks, the standard course taken by big ships heading north. James argued for a middle path between the two routes – which was agreed, and which the pilot was instructed to follow.
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According to Berry, at 4am Ayres “presuming and confident, affirmed that this course would carry the ship out of all danger, and that we were past [the sandbanks]”, and went to bed. Some 90 minutes later, the Gloucester hit sandbanks about 28 miles north-east of Great Yarmouth.
Though James survived the wreck and completed his journey to Scotland on another vessel, the target of blame for such a major tragedy became a significant political and naval issue.
Who was held responsible?
Two courts martial were held in June 1682 to determine responsibility. The first was brought against Ayres, who was condemned to life imprisonment. (A year later, when the scandal had died down, King Charles II ordered Ayres’ release.) Gunman, who presented evidence against Ayres, was also subsequently accused of misconduct.
Together with his first mate, he faced a court martial for failing to follow admiralty orders requiring a ship to adequately warn accompanying vessels of impending danger. Strictly speaking, the Mary – which had been sailing ahead – was required to alert the Gloucester of shallow water by firing a shot. Gunman admitted that he had ordered flags to be waved instead – normal practice, he claimed.
The mate was acquitted, but Gunman was found guilty of misconduct, imprisoned, fined and dismissed from his post. He was furious. He claimed that witnesses who gave evidence against him had also attempted to intimidate others into giving false testimony about his neglect of duty. Gunman suggested that there was a conspiracy against him, alleging that the naval officer Sir Richard Haddock – who had presided over both courts martial – was prejudiced.
No direct evidence survives to support these claims, though Haddock spoke favourably of Ayres’ skills as a pilot while identifying Gunman as culpable for the wreck. Recent research has uncovered evidence of attempted witness tampering among members of Gunman’s crew to increase the impression of the yacht captain’s culpability. But if senior figures arranged this conspiracy, their identity remains a mystery.
What can the wreck and its aftermath tell us about the Restoration era?
One reason Gunman might have been made a scapegoat was his close relationship with the Duke of York, who was known to be reliant on him. It is possible that convicting Gunman sent a message to James about the dangers of royal interference in the navy. James’s return to political power in the London court was likely to shake up naval policy, and senior admiralty officers feared he might attempt to influence future strategy.
In any case, Gunman did not languish in prison for long. James intervened on his behalf, and within 10 days Charles II reinstated him to his role as captain of the Mary. What these intrigues suggest is that, despite the waning of the Exclusion Crisis, the Duke of York remained a controversial figure. There was clearly an effort by the Stuarts and their supporters to deflect blame for the tragedy away from James.
And many were seeking someone to blame, not least the families of several high-profile nobles who drowned in the wreck. These included Donogh O’Brien, Lord Ibrackan; John Hope, laird of Hopetoun; Sir Joseph Douglas; and the young Robert Ker, Earl of Roxburghe, a rising Scottish politician aged just 23 or 24 at the time of the disaster. His story is particularly moving: a tale of loyalty and romance, and of tender relationships between servant and master as well as a man and his wife.
When the Gloucester ran aground, the Earl of Roxburghe was still asleep in his cabin. The Duke of York, reluctant to abandon the sinking vessel until it was on the brink of foundering, was finally persuaded by his courtiers to leave in his rowboat, and called for the earl to evacuate with him. Roxburghe, though, could not be found in time.
The Earl of Roxburghe was forced to jump into the sea, but he couldn’t swim. His servant, James Littledale, a more competent swimmer, took him on his back...
Becoming aware of the problem, the earl offered 20,000 guineas for a boat – without success. Instead, he was forced to jump into the sea, but he couldn’t swim. His servant, James Littledale, a more competent swimmer, took Roxburghe on his back and headed towards one of the rowboats sent out from the nearby royal yachts to rescue those in the sea. However, another desperate wreck victim pulled them all underwater, dislodging the earl from Littledale’s back. Roxburghe drowned immediately; Littledale made it to a boat but was dead within an hour.
On receiving the news in Scotland, Roxburghe’s young wife, Lady Margaret, ordered her servant Alexander Ramsay to travel to Great Yarmouth to try to recover the earl’s body. Arriving in the Norfolk town on 14 May, Ramsay commissioned a fisherman to take him to the wreck site, where the Gloucester’s topmast was still visible above the water line.
The two men searched for Roxburghe’s body for two or three days, without success. Ramsay then proceeded to scour the coast line, hoping to find news of the body being washed up, but the earl was never found. Lady Margaret survived her husband by more than 70 years, but never again married.
Full picture: the stories of those on board
Roxburghe’s elite social position ensured that his story is well-documented. At present, far less is known about his servant, or about the impact of Littledale’s death on his family. Ongoing research about the history of the Gloucester aims to piece together knowledge about all classes, races and nationalities of people on board – possibly including a number of women – to create as full a picture of the passengers and crew as possible.
Another striking story is that of Sir Charles Scarburgh, the royal physician, who was travelling north to attend on James’s pregnant wife. He did not evacuate with the Duke of York, and had to jump into the sea as the ship sank, surviving the ordeal by clinging to a plank of wood. When he was picked up by the yacht Katherine’s rowboat he was “almost dead” according to Samuel Pepys, who viewed events from the safety of the yacht.
Scarburgh was 66 at the time of the wreck, and took weeks to recover. Tales about his miraculous survival were swiftly satirised; he was described as having to compete for the plank with one of James’s dogs, Mumper. These stories form only part of the overall picture.
The discovery of the wreck and salvage of artefacts
We’re also learning much from the ship itself and from the objects recovered from the wreck. Since running aground in 1682, the Gloucester lay on the seabed, its exact whereabouts unknown, until June 2007. That was when the wreck was discovered by divers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell and James Little, marking the climax of a four-year, 5,000-nautical-mile search.
To find the Gloucester, the Barnwell brothers bought a 12-metre boat suitable for use offshore and equipped it with a magnetometer, learning how to survey the seabed to measure magnetic fields and pick up the deviation caused by ferrous material such as iron cannons and anchors. When they detected a magnetometer reading indicating an early modern ship, the team dived the site – and realised they had found a historically important wreck. News of their discovery was initially kept under wraps to protect the site until jurisdiction over the wreck, and ownership of artefacts on and around it, could be established.
When the find was announced, on 10 June 2022, it made headlines around the world. To date, some 450 artefacts from the Gloucester have been retrieved and conserved, including the ship’s bell, dated to 1681. Passengers’ and crew’s personal possessions – ranging from clothes and personal care items to cutlery and wine for individual consumption, and professional and business items – all sank with the vessel. Items rescued so far are at-risk surface artefacts exposed to environmental factors and the impact of fishing.
A charitable trust is being established to protect the Gloucester wreck site. In the meantime, the exhibition at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery is bringing together finds from the wreck site with loans from national and international collections and private lenders, sharing for the first time ongoing historical, scientific and archaeological research. Together, these items are helping to tell the stories of the passengers and crew, and of life on board the ship.
To find the Gloucester, the Barnwell brothers bought a 12-metre boat suitable for use offshore and equipped it with a magnetometer, learning how to survey the seabed
One standout artefact is a distinctively shaped glass urine flask – an essential item in every physician’s equipment, because urine was used to assess the health of a patient. It could have belonged to Scarburgh, though there was also a ship’s doctor, John Jones, on board. Jones drowned in the wreck.
Accompanying the Duke of York on the voyage were a number of royal musicians. Brothers Mathias and William Shore, both trumpeters, were two who survived the disaster. Mathias was one of eight trumpeters who marched in the coronation procession of James II on 23 April 1685.
In October 1687, he was promoted to the position of Serjeant Trumpeter to manage the king’s trumpeters and kettledrummers. In 2008, a brass mouthpiece was rescued from the seabed. It is possible that such a mouthpiece would have been attached to the silver instrument of one of these royal musicians, or that an additional trumpeter belonging to the ship’s company was on board.
Those who lost their lives when the Gloucester sank may be long gone. But their voices, and the many items that sank with them, could still yield new insights into Restoration-era life.
Ruth Battersby Tooke, Benjamin Redding, Francesca Vanke and Claire Jowitt are the curators of The Last Voyage of the Gloucester: Norfolk’s Royal Shipwreck, 1682, which runs at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery until 10 September 2023. Visit the museum website for more information
This article was first published in the March 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine. You can hear more from
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