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“The most important maritime find since the Mary Rose.”
A report[1] on BBC News about the discovery of a shipwrecked warship that sank while carrying a future king of England hailed as the most important maritime find since the Mary Rose caught my eye when it was published on 10th June 2022. HMS Gloucester[2] ran aground off the coast of Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, on 6th May 1682, nearly killing the Duke of York, who later became King James II of England.

HMS Gloucester was a 50-gun Speaker-class third rate (see HMS Speaker), originally built for the English Navy in the 1650s, and taken over by the Royal Navy after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The ship took part in multiple battles during the Anglo-Spanish War (1654–60) and the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars. Although the ship was wrecked in 1682, it was not rediscovered until 2007. The 2007 discovery was only made public in 2022, the delay being to allow protected investigation of the site, which is in international waters.

The celebrated diarist, Samuel Pepys, had been asked to sail with James but refused the invitation, preferring to travel in one of the other ships. Through, it was claimed, the captain’s negligence, the ship foundered on the Lemon and Oar shoal off Yarmouth. The Duke of York escaped with several other notables, including John Churchill (afterwards Duke of Marlborough), but up to 250 people perished in the incident. The Gloucester’s whereabouts were a mystery until it was discovered 15 years ago, half-buried in the seabed 28 miles (45km) out to sea, having sunk while navigating treacherous sandbanks.

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The Wreck of the ‘Gloucester’ off Yarmouth, 6 May 1682 This painting represents the wrecking of the ‘Gloucester’ while carrying the Duke of York to Leith.
Johan Danckerts, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons,

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About the Ship
Gloucester had a length at the gundeck of 117 feet (35.7 metres), a beam of 34 feet 10 inches (10.6 metres), and a depth of hold of 13 feet 6 inches (4.1 metres). The ship’s tonnage was 755 11⁄94 tons burthen[3]. Originally built for 50 guns, in 1667, she carried 57 guns (19 demi-cannon, four culverins, and 34 demi-culverins). This was raised to 60 guns in 1677. The ship had a crew of 210–340 officers and ratings.[4]

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The Wreck of Gloucester off Yarmouth, 6th May 1682
Monamy Swaine, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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HMS Gloucester was the first ship in the Navy to be named after the port city[5] of Gloucester[6]. Part of the 1652 Naval Programme, the ship was commissioned in December 1652. She was built at Limehouse in east London under the direction of Master Shipwright Matthew Graves and was launched in March 1653, having cost £5,473[7].

In 1682, HMS Gloucester was assigned to carry James Stuart, Duke of York (the future King James II), from Portsmouth to Edinburgh. The Duke, the Catholic heir to the Protestant throne, and his entourage boarded at Margate. The purpose of the trip was to allow the Duke to conduct business at the Parliament of Scotland and to collect his pregnant wife, Mary of Modena, from Scotland so that she could give birth in England.[8]

At approximately 05:30 on the morning of 6th May 1682, HMS Gloucester struck a sandbank off Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. In a strong easterly gale, the ship was pounded against the sand until the rudder broke off, and the ship was holed.[9] It sank within an hour. The Duke of York and John Churchill (the future Duke of Marlborough) were rescued in the ship’s boat, although the Duke of York waited until the last minute to leave, as initially, he was unconvinced the vessel would be lost. Protocol dictated that nobody could abandon the ship while there was still a member of the royal family aboard, so James’ intransigence delayed the start of the evacuation.

Boats from accompanying ships managed to save some of the crew, but up to 250 sailors and passengers drowned. Victims of the sinking included Robert Ker, 3rd Earl of Roxburghe, Donough O’Brien, Lord Ibrackan, and Sir John Hope of Hopetoun, Hope of Craighall.[10] Afterwards, the Duke denying any responsibility for the loss of life, blamed the ship’s captain, James Ayres.[11]

The wreck was discovered by brothers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell from Aylsham, who predominantly self-funded the dives.[12] They were accompanied by their father and two friends, following a four-year search covering more than 5,000 nautical miles[13]. An exhibition relating to the wreck is planned at the Castle Museum, Norwich, for spring 2023. The exhibition, “The Last Voyage of the Gloucester: Norfolk’s Royal Shipwreck 1682”, will bring together artefacts from the wreck, new research into the context, and artistic responses to the discovery.[14]

The Politics of a Royal Shipwreck[15]
The wreck occurred at a sensitive political moment when, within the violent turmoil of the Exclusion Crisis[16] (1679–81), the Duke was hopeful of securing his place in the succession. However, the disaster risked James being regarded as the ‘pilot’ and commander unable to steer the nation. Because his political enemies could use the shipwreck as propaganda to undermine his position as heir to the throne, the event in general, and especially the Duke’s behaviour in delaying the ship’s evacuation, became popular topics being debated and contested from Whig and Tory viewpoints. Since the tragedy occurred at sea, one arm of early modern state apparatus that was especially responsive to these debates was the English Navy, which was itself in the midst of a power struggle between the Crown and admiralty for control over its future direction.

King James II (formerly The Duke of York)[17]

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James II by Peter Lely
Attribution: School of Peter Lely, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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James II was born on 14th October 1633, at St James’s Palace, London. As a prince, he was created Duke of York 1644–85) and Duke of Albany (1660–85). James II was the second surviving son of Charles I and Henrietta Maria. He died in Saint-Germain, France, in September 1701.

As king of England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1685 to 1688, he was the last Stuart monarch in the direct male line to the throne. He converted to Catholicism in the late 1660s and was forced to resign his offices in 1673, following his noncompliance with the Test Act of that year.

Deposed in the Glorious Revolution (1688–89), he was replaced by William III and Mary II as joint monarchs. That revolution, engendered by James’s Roman Catholicism, permanently established Parliament as the ruling power of England.

Sources and Further Reading

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Picture: HMS Gloucester aground on the Lemon and Ower Sandbank, off Great Yarmouth, with H.R.H. James, Duke of York aboard, 6th May 1682, by Isaac Sailmaker, in the Public Domain,
File URL: H.M.S_Gloucester_aground_on_the_Lemon_and_Ower_Sandbank,_off_Great_Yarmouth,_with_H.R.H._James,_Duke_of_York_aboard,_6th_May_1682_CSK_2000.jpg ‎

  1. See:
  2. Referred to also as HMS Glocester, see:
  3. Explanation: Burthen (an archaic form of burden) is an obsolete or historical, nautical term, marking the tonnage of a ship based on the number of tuns of wine it could carry in its holds. See also page 159, The Ship of the Line – Volume 1: The Development of the Battlefleet 1650–1850, by Lavery, Brian (2003), published by Conway Maritime Press. ISBN 0-85177-252-8.
  4. Source: Winfield, page 408, see:
  5. Gloucester is linked via the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal to the Severn Estuary
  6. Source: Colledge, page 143., Ships of the Royal Navy: The Complete Record of all Fighting Ships of the Royal Navy. ISBN 978-1-86176-281-8
  7. Source: Winfield, page 408, see:, British Warships in the Age of Sail 1603–1714: Design, Construction, Careers and Fates, ISBN 978-1-84832-040-6.
  8. According to: “Shipwreck The Gloucester hailed most important since Mary Rose”. BBC News. 10 June 2022.
  9. Source: Hyde Rochester, Laurence (17 February 2018). The Correspondence of Henry Hyde, earl of Clarendon and of his brother Laurence Hyde, Earl of Rochester. pp. Narrative From Sir John Berry, Knight, Late Commander of His Majesty’s Ship Gloucester. ISBN 978-1377780337.
  10. Source: Ibid
  11. Source: “Duke of York’s shipwreck found ‘full of wine’ off Norfolk 325 years later”. Metro (British newspaper) (
  12. Sources: (1) Coates, Liz (10 June 2022). “The brothers who spent a fortune searching for lost royal ship”. Great Yarmouth Mercury, and (2) “Royal Ship Discovered off the English Coast after funding support from ABG”. Alan Boswell Group. 14 June 2022.
  13. Source:
  14. Source: “Royal shipwreck inspires new research”. University of East Anglia.
  15. Source: Extract from: The Last Voyage of the Gloucester (1682): The Politics of a Royal Shipwreck, by Claire Jowitt in The English Historical Review, ceac127, at:
  16. The Exclusion Crisis ran from 1679 until 1681 in the reign of King Charles II of England, Scotland and Ireland. Three Exclusion bills sought to exclude the King’s brother and heir presumptive, James, Duke of York, from the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland because he was Roman Catholic. None of the bills became law. Source:
  17. Sources:,,,


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