Lost royal wreck dubbed 'Norfolk's Mary Rose' found off Great Yarmouth

The wreck of The Gloucester has been found off Great Yarmouth

The wreck of the Gloucester off Yarmouth, 6 May 1682, by Johan Danckerts. It was one of the most famous ships of the 17th century which sank 340 years ago while carrying the future King of England, James Stuart. - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The discovery of a ship lost off the coast of Great Yarmouth 340 years ago has been hailed as the most significant maritime find since the raising of the Mary Rose.

The Gloucester was heading to Edinburgh carrying a future king of England and an array of nobles when it collided with a sandbank 45km off Great Yarmouth on May 6, 1682, sinking within an hour.

Julian and Lincoln Barnwell with the wreck of the Gloucester off Great Yarmouth

Brothers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell measuring a canon on the seabed. The discovery of the royal Gloucester has set historic hearts racing. - Credit: Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks

And because the ship sank so quickly nothing was saved, offering the tantalising prospect of chests full of personal and royal items waiting to be explored.

Up to 250 people died in the tragedy, but crucially James Stuart the Duke of York - later James II - was saved, changing the course of British history.

Artefacts recovered so far include clothes, shoes, and unopened wine bottles, providing a rich time capsule of life on board a 17th century ship and firing imaginations across the world.

The ship itself, the most famous warship of its day, is half buried in sand and there are currently no plans to raise it.

It was found in 2007 by Norfolk divers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell, with their friend James Little, after a four-year search covering 5,000 nautical miles.

Julian and Lincoln Barnwell found the remains of the Gloucester off Great Yarmouth after a four year search.

Brothers Julian and LIncoln Barnwell are Norfolk-based printers, licensed divers and honorary fellows in the School of History at UEA. They located the wreck of the Gloucester in June 2007 after a four-year search covering 5000 nautical miles. - Credit: UEA

The long process of identifying it by its cannon as well as issues around site security mean the discovery is only now being made public.

Most Read

Prof Claire Jowitt, a world-leading authority on maritime cultural history at the UEA, said: “Because of the circumstances of its sinking, this can be claimed as the single most significant historic maritime discovery since the raising of the Mary Rose in 1982.

Prof Claire Jowitt is co-curating an exhibition about The Gloucester found off Great Yarmouth

Professor Claire Jowitt is co-curating an exhibition about the Gloucester and has described its discovery as 'the single most significant historic maritime discovery since the raising of the Mary Rose in 1982'. - Credit: UEA

"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.

"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 re-telling, including its cultural and political importance, and legacy.

Bottle with Legge family crest, forerunner to US flag, found on wreck of the Gloucester off Great Yarmouth

One of the wine bottles bears a glass seal with the crest of the Legge family – ancestors of George Washington, the first US President. The crest was a forerunner to the Stars and Stripes flag. - Credit: Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks

"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.”

No human remains have been found. The Duke's quarters in the stern are buried and could yet yield treasures.

Lincoln Barnwell said he was partly inspired to search for the wreck after watching the lifting of the Mary Rose on television as a child.

James Duke of York was saved from the Gloucester in 1682 although his behaviour during the disaster was questioned.

James, Duke of York (1633-1701), by Henri Gascar. He was saved from the wreck of the Gloucester and acceded to the throne in 1685 as England's last Catholic king only to be ousted less than four years later in the 'Glorious Revolution.' - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“It was our fourth dive season looking for Gloucester,” he said.

“We were starting to believe that we were not going to find her, we’d dived so much and just found sand.

"On my descent to the seabed the first thing I spotted were large cannon laying on white sand, it was awe-inspiring and really beautiful.

Lost royal ship the Gloucester found off Great Yarmouth

Bothers Lincoln and Julian Barnwell with some of their finds from the Gloucester. - Credit: UEA

“It instantly felt like a privilege to be there, it was so exciting.

"We were the only people in the world at that moment in time who knew where the wreck lay. That was special and I’ll never forget it.

"Our next job was to identify the site as the Gloucester.”

The bell of the Gloucester found off Great Yarmouth

A detail on the bell which confirmed the Gloucester's identity. It was among the most famous ships of its day, its discovery said to equal that of the Mary Rose, Henry VIII's warship raised in 1982. - Credit: UEA

Julian Barnwell added: “When we decided to search for the Gloucester we had no idea how significant she was in history.

"We had read that the Duke of York was onboard but that was it.

"We were confident it was the Gloucester, but there are other wreck sites out there with cannons, so it still needed to be confirmed.

A bottle recovered from the wreck of the Gloucester found off Great Yarmouth.

A quarter size shaft and globe bottle with glass stamp is among items recovered from the wreck of The Gloucester, found off Great Yarmouth. - Credit: Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks

“There is still a huge amount of knowledge to be gained from the wreck, which will benefit Norfolk and the nation.

"We hope this discovery and the stories that are uncovered will inform and inspire future generations.”

Researchers at the UEA will continue to analyse finds ahead of a major exhibition planned for Spring 2023 bringing the story to life.

The wreck of the Gloucester, a royal ship lost off Great Yarmouth has been discovered.

A pulley block exposed on the seabed belonging to the 17th century war ship the Gloucester. - Credit: Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks

The Last Voyage of the Gloucester: Norfolk’s Royal Shipwreck, will be jointly curated by UEA and Norfolk Museums Service and staged for five months at Norwich Castle Museum  and Art Gallery. 

Lord Dannatt is supporting the historic rescue project of the Gloucester found off Great Yarmouth.

Lord Dannatt, Norfolk Deputy Lieutenant, and former head of the British Army said the Barnwell bothers who found the wreck had 'touched history'. - Credit: UEA

Lord Dannatt, Norfolk Deputy Lieutenant, is supporting the historic rescue project. 

“This is going to be Norfolk’s Mary Rose,” he said.

The discovery of the wreck of the Gloucester off Great Yarmouth

Lincoln Barnwell, Prof Claire Jowitt, Dr Ben Redding, and Julian Barnwell with some of the finds from the wreck of the Gloucester. - Credit: UEA

“Julian and Lincoln have touched history, history that could have changed the course of this nation. It’s such an amazing story to tell. Our aim is to bring that story to life and to share it with as many people as possible.”

Ship's timeline

1654 - The Gloucester is launched after being built at a private dockyard in Limehouse as a republican war ship. 

1654-60 - Takes part in multiple battles during the Anglo-Spanish war.

1660 - Taken over by the Royal Navy after the restoration of the monarchy.

1665 - 1673 - Takes part in multiple battles in the second and third Anglo-Dutch Wars, such as the Battle of Lowestoft (1665) and Battle of Sole Bay (1672).

1682 - Wrecked on a sandbar while carrying the Duke of York, the future James II.

2007 - Brothers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell pinpoint the wreck site after four years of searching.

2012 - One of the rescued finds, the ship’s bell, is used to conclusively confirm the wreck is the Gloucester. 

2022 - Discovery made public and hailed as 'Norfolk's Mary Rose'.

The bell of the Gloucester which sand in 1682 off Great Yarmouth

The Gloucester's bell was the key to its identity after the remains of the ship were located in 2007. - Credit: UEA

Who was the King James II?

James Stuart, the Duke of York, came to the throne in 1685 on the death of his brother Charles II. He was England's last Catholic king and was deposed by the Glorious Revolution less than four years later.

His reign is remembered mainly for struggles over religious tolerance and over the principles of the divine right of kings.

His role in the Gloucester saga contributed to his downfall in that it was sailing to his course, against the advice of others, making him responsible for the tragedy, some said.

His detractors also claimed he saved his dogs and Catholic priests at the expense of the lives of his courtiers and the ship's crew, and blamed the pilot who was imprisoned.

If James had drowned in 1682, Charles II’s illegitimate son, James Scott, the Duke of Monmouth, may have come to the throne.

In that case the 1688 revolution, which deposed James and created a new type of state giving parliament the upper hand, would not have happened. 

He died aged 67 in exile in France.

Glasses case recovered from the wreck of the Gloucester found off Great Yarmouth

A glasses case recovered from the wreck of the Gloucester. - Credit: UEA

A pair of glassed recovered from the wreck of the Gloucester

A pair of glasses in their original case recovered from the wreck of the Gloucester - Credit: UEA

Glasses case among artefacts raised from the wreck of the Gloucester

The decorative case of a pair of glasses brought up from the seabed from the wreck of the Gloucester. - Credit: UEA