In 1665, a British Warship Mysteriously Blew Up—And Soon We Might Know Why

349 years ago, the warship The London exploded in the Thames Estuary. Now archaeologists are trying to figure out why

London wreck
The London as it looked before it blew up Cotswold Archaeology

In 1665, the London—a rather impressive British warship most famous for its part in bringing Charles II back to England—blew up in the Thames Estuary. The explosion killed more than three hundred people, including both sailors and a strangely large number of women, the wives (or love interests) of the men on board. 

The mysterious explosion was big news at the time, and though public opinion laid the blame for the explosion on sailors refilling cartridges with gunpowder, for centuries, the London's wreck has remained one of the more mysterious shipwrecks in the United Kingdom. But now, nine years after the ship was rediscovered in 2005, archaeologists are bringing up numerous artifacts that point to different causes for the disaster, as the Guardian reports

Working mainly by touch and the faint glimmer of their head torches, the divers are helping map the wreck and bring up finds every day: the most recent haul includes a pistol and musket shot, part of a weighing scales and spoons. The clay pipe and the tallow candles they also found "look very much like a smoking gun", archaeologist Steve Webster observed.  

It's not enough to say for sure what caused the accident, but both the pipe and candles could have been sources of flames that set off a larger explosion. And artifacts like these could provide enough clues to the London's fate for archaeologists to finally understand what actually happened—if they work fast. 

As soon as it was discovered, the wreck was placed on English Heritage’s Heritage at Risk register. Though the wreckage is very well preserved, the site is classed as highly vulnerable—it's under constant threat from looters, the nearby shipping lane and the pull of the tides, which expose and re-cover the wreckage under sediments. 

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.