Years ago I met Julian and Lincoln Barnwell, two brothers with a very big secret. Lovers of diving and the treacherous waters off the Norfolk coast where they were raised, they had set out to find a legendary missing 17th Century wreck, that of HMS Gloucester. I was thrilled when they then informed me that they had only gone and found it. It is the find of a lifetime and a secret that had been kept for many years.
On 10 June 2022, the dramatic discovery of a royal shipwreck from 1682 was revealed to the public for the first time. Four years of searching over 5,000 nautical miles culminated in discovering the location of HMS Gloucester, which ran aground while carrying the future king James Stuart. It’s arguably the most important maritime discovery since the Mary Rose.
HMS Gloucester was built as the modern British navy was itself being forged. It was laid down by the victorious military dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell. He knew that his new Republic was vulnerable to foreign invasion, and an army landing on the coast would have the heir to the executed Charles I in its baggage train, Charles Stuart, the penniless prince who wandered through western Europe looking for a backer to seize back his father’s throne. So Cromwell’s British state maintained a mighty army and built the best navy yet.
Men of talent captained ships irrespective of their birth. Ships were built and maintained in dockyards that were funded properly by the standards of the time. Gloucester played its part in the wars that sprang from Cromwell’s religiously inspired foreign policies. It was Britain’s destiny to wrench the New World from the papist Spaniards and Gloucester sailed to the West Indies in an expedition which enjoyed very mixed success and showed God’s will was slightly more ambiguous than Cromwell thought….
When Cromwell died Prince Charles was summoned as an alternative to war or anarchy and placed on the throne of his father as Charles II, Gloucester was quickly renamed HMS Gloucester, its identity rebranded with the stroke of a pen. It would go on to fight the Dutch, in a series of battles between neighbours over control of the trade that flowed into Europe from Asia and the Americas. After three tumultuous decades Gloucester’s career came to an end, not in battle, but while carrying a crew of VIPs to Scotland including Charles’ brother and heir, the Duke of York, the future James II.
The weather was reasonable on the morning of 6 May, 1682. But the sea is treacherous on that coastline even in good conditions and at 0530 Gloucester slammed into a sandbank. Within an hour she had gone down and perhaps 200 people were dead. Naval administrator (and secret diarist) Samuel Pepys, who witnessed events from another ship in the fleet, wrote his own account.
He described the harrowing experience for victims and survivors, with some picked up “half dead” from the water. The Duke of York made it off, as did John Churchill the future Duke of Marlborough (who would betray James in 1688) but men like Robert Ker, 3rd Earl of Roxburghe, would not.
A spectacular archaeological discovery
It was the end of the story of the Gloucester until the Barnwell brothers made it their business to find her. For four years they searched, trailing a magnetometer, a maritime metal detector, behind their boat looking for a metal signature on the seabed. In 2007 they picked something up a signal, kitted up and went diving to check it. There on the seabed they found a mass of 17th century cannon.
The Barnwell brothers are that classic sort of British enthusiast that makes your heart swell with patriotic pride. Passionate about history and their corner of the country, more at home on the water than on the land, and eccentric enough to spend every spare moment and pound of cash in a hopeless search for a lost ship. But they did it. In the years that followed they found the all important ship’s bell which definitely identified the wreck as Gloucester.
It is a spectacular archaeological discovery and will give us an unparalleled insight into the world of the 17th Century navy, the crucible for the almost unbeatable Royal Navy of the 18th Century. On top of that, the objects on board include some of the oldest intact wine bottles we have. Corks still in! Glass seals on bottles was the fancy new fashion and every aristocrat aboard seemed to have his own stash. Fascinatingly one of the bottles bears a glass seal with the crest of the Legge family – ancestors of George Washington, the first US President. That crest features the stars and stripes, so a forerunner of the American flag and Presidential insignia.
For anyone who loves maritime archaeology, this is a huge find and the excavation is only just beginning.