Three years before he ascended the throne in 1685, the future James II of England narrowly survived a shipwreck that claimed the lives of an estimated 130 to 250 people. Running afoul of a sandbank off the North Sea coast on May 6, 1682, the H.M.S. Gloucester sank on what was supposed to be a quick, celebratory jaunt to Edinburgh.
As Ben Macintyre writes for the London Times, the accident became “an instant political controversy,” with critics of James—then known as the Duke of York, heir to the English throne—pointing out that his refusal to board the Gloucester’s sole lifeboat until the last possible moment cost people their lives. (Protocol dictated that seafarers could only abandon ship after royalty had disembarked.) To make matters worse, detractors soon accused James of placing the safety of his pet dogs ahead of that of the passengers and crew.
“This was a wreck that literally helped to change history,” cementing James’ unpopularity at a time of deep political and religious division, Claire Jowitt, a maritime history expert at the University of East Anglia (UEA), tells National Geographic’s Roff Smith.
Almost 350 years after the maritime disaster, experts have finally pinpointed the exact location of the ill-fated ship. Per a statement from the university, brothers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell found the wreck off the coast of Norfolk County in 2007; authorities confirmed the vessel’s identity in 2012 after analyzing a ship’s bell recovered from the wreckage but kept its discovery under wraps until they were able to properly secure the site.
The owners of a Norfolk printing service, the Barnwells are licensed divers who searched for—and later explored—the Gloucester in their free time, conducting more than 200 dives to the wreck site over the past 15 years, reports Liz Coates for the Great Yarmouth Mercury.
“We were starting to believe that we were not going to find [the ship],” says Lincoln in the statement. “We’d dived so much and just found sand. On my descent to the seabed, the first thing I spotted were large cannon[s] laying on white sand. It was awe-inspiring and really beautiful.”
In the statement, Jowitt, who recently published a paper on the Gloucester in the English Historical Review, deems the find “the single most significant historic maritime discovery since the raising of the Mary Rose.” (A favorite warship of Henry VIII, the Mary Rose sank in 1545 at the Battle of Solent and was recovered to great fanfare in 1982.)
Speaking with the London Times’ Jack Blackburn, Jowitt adds, “This time capsule under the sea is just incredible in what it might tell us.”
The Barnwell brothers and their collaborators at UEA and Norfolk Museums Service have recovered an array of artifacts from the wreckage, including clothing, shoes, wine bottles (some unopened), navigational tools, ceramic vessels, naval equipment and personal possessions. As of now, the team doesn’t plan to raise the ship’s remains from the seabed, but a selection of artifacts and informational displays will go on view at the Norwich Castle Museum next year.
Built in 1652, the Gloucester was involved in naval campaigns during the Anglo-Spanish War and the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars. According to the Gloucester Project portal, the ship was about to be sent on a naval mission but was reassigned at the request of England’s Protestant king, Charles II.
Because Charles’ children were all illegitimate, his younger brother, the Catholic James, was his sole heir. In 1679, after rumors of a Catholic plot against the crown sparked unrest and a concerted effort to exclude James from the line of succession, the king sent James and his wife Mary to Scotland. By 1682, tensions had eased enough for Charles to allow James’ return to England; the Gloucester was tasked with retrieving Mary, who was pregnant at the time, from Edinburgh ahead of her child’s birth.
The mood on the ship and its squadron of accompanying vessels was festive, with James and such upper-class companions as diarist Samuel Pepys; John Churchill, the future Duke of Marlborough; and a host of Scottish nobles enjoying wine, gourmet cuisine and live music.
“The Gloucester was party central,” Sean Kingsley, a marine historian and the founder of Wreckwatch magazine, jokingly tells National Geographic. “The duke and his cronies were having a fine old time.”
Soon, however, an argument broke out among the ship’s crew, with pilot James Ayres calling for the Gloucester to stay close to the coast and shipmaster Benjamin Holmes advocating for the deep-sea route. James, as a former Lord High Admiral, settled the matter by picking a middle course.
“He’s clearly a man that believes in his own importance, his own beliefs and the rightness of what he’s saying,” says Jowitt in a separate UEA statement. “He thinks he knows best. But, importantly, when it goes wrong, it’s never his fault.”
The Gloucester struck parallel sandbanks at approximately 5:30 a.m. and sank within an hour. Between 130 and 250 of the 330 passengers and crew died. In the aftermath, James refused to accept any responsibility, instead blaming Ayres and calling for his immediate hanging. Though Ayres was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, he was released after serving just a year, perhaps as a tacit acknowledgement by Charles II that he’d been scapegoated.
The wayward duke took the throne in 1685. His reign proved unpopular, and he was deposed in favor of his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband, William of Orange, less than four years later, during the Glorious Revolution of 1688. While not the main impetus for James’ ousting, his handling of the Gloucester disaster certainly didn’t bolster his reputation.
“A tragedy of considerable proportions in terms of loss of life, both privileged and ordinary, the full story of the Gloucester’s last voyage and the impact of its aftermath needs retelling, including its cultural and political importance, and legacy,” says Jowitt in the statement. “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.”