Had King James II died on the Gloucester, England could well have seen a fierce war of succession.
The wreck of the HMS Gloucester, which sank in 1682 while carrying the heir to the English throne, James Stuart, Duke of York, has been located. The discovery was made by Julian and Lincoln Barnwell, who searched with their late father and two friends for four years. Now, historians are hailing the significance of the find, which they equate to the raising of the Mary Rose, King Henry VIII’s flagship, in 1982.
The wreck was first discovered in 2007, but it was not confirmed to be the Gloucester until 2012. CBS notes that the announcement of the ship’s discovery took so long because it was in the process of being protected as a historical site. Due to these protections, the exact location of the shipwreck has not been reported.
The Barnwells, who led the search team, said they initially identified the ship based on a cannon they found sticking up out of the sand. While the cannon gave them confidence that they were on the right course, they acknowledged that it could still be one of many shipwrecks recorded in the region. It was not until they identified the ship’s bell, in 2012, that they were certain they’d found the Gloucester.
According to the ship’s history, the Gloucester bore the Duke of York to Portsmouth in order to conduct business with the Scottish Parliament and to collect his pregnant wife so she could give birth in England. The ship never made it to port, however, as squall winds caused it to hit a sandbar and run aground about 28 miles from the coast.
The Guardian reports the Duke of York is generally considered responsible for the tragedy that followed. He delayed his evacuation to argue with the ship’s pilot and when he did begin to leave, he spent valuable time accounting for his valuables, dogs, and priests before heading to the lifeboat. This was significant because laws of the time dictated that no passenger or crew member could abandon ship before a member of royalty.
It is estimated that between 130 and 250 people died on the Gloucester, partially due to the Duke’s hesitation and the royal protocol. Be that as it may, James took no responsibility for the deaths and he had the pilot, James Ayres, court-martialed and imprisoned.
James Stuart would go on to become King James II of England and reigned as the nation’s last Catholic king before he was deposed in the Revolution of 1688.BBC notes that had the Duke of York died, the throne would have gone to King Charles II’s illegitimate son, James Scott. This in turn could have started a fierce war over the right of succession in England.
Professor Claire Jowitt, a maritime cultural history expert from the University of East Anglia, equated the discovery of the Gloucester to the raising of the Mary Rose. She said that the circumstances of the Gloucester’s sinking make it a valuable piece of cultural history. She said:
“The discovery promises to fundamentally change understanding of 17th-century social, maritime and political history. It is an outstanding example of underwater cultural heritage of national and international importance … the full story of the Gloucester’s last voyage and the impact of its aftermath needs re-telling.”
Since the Gloucester’s discovery, the team has pulled many artifacts out of the sunken ship, including shoes, clothing, unopened bottles of wine, navigational equipment, and personal effects. They have yet to discover any human remains, but they say that they would like to tell the stories of the many unidentified individuals who lost their lives to the tragic events.
There are currently no plans to raise the Gloucester out of the sea, but there will be an exhibition focused on the artifacts the team found. Titled “The Last Voyage of the Gloucester: Norfolk’s Royal Shipwreck 1682,” the exhibition will commence from the Castle Museum, in Norwich, in the Spring of 2023. It is expected to utilize new research to bring historical context to the items, while including historical artistic responses to the sinking of the Gloucester.