HMS Gloucester: Six fascinating finds from royal shipwreck

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

Last month it was revealed Norfolk brothers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell had found HMS Gloucester, dubbed "Norfolk's Mary Rose".

After discovering the wreck diving off Great Yarmouth they had to wait 15 years before going public.

The announcement made headlines around the world. But it's not just the ship and its royal connections to James II causing a stir, it is the many extraordinary items on board.

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

An exhibition is planned at Norwich Castle in 2023, with a permanent home for the collection being scouted for in Great Yarmouth.

Here Ruth Battersby-Tooke and Francesca Vanke, of Norfolk Museums Service outline six of their favourite finds and the stories behind them:

Navigational dividers

Items found at wreck site of royal wreck HMS Gloucester off Great Yarmouth.

Dividers were used to plot courses on charts. All the pairs found are missing their nibs due to the corrosive effects of salt water. - Credit: Norfolk Museums Service

Six pairs of dividers have been recovered, three of which were packed safely in one of two trunks of personal possessions at the wreck site.

Dividers were an essential tool used to measure distances on a chart. They work on the same principle as a pair of compasses drawing a circle and are "walked" across the chart to plot a course.

All the dividers are missing their sharp steel points, with only the brass arms and hinge surviving the corrosive effects of salt water.

Most Read

Pewter spoon

Items found at wreck site of royal wreck HMS Gloucester off Great Yarmouth.

A pewter spoon found at the wreck site of HMS Gloucester. Many finds have been connected to food and drink and the ship which sank in 1682 has been described as a Royal party boat. - Credit: Norfolk Museums Service

A high proportion of finds relate to eating and drinking, including bowls made of wood, fine wine glasses, and several spoons made of pewter.

This beautiful example is a "trefid" spoon, the name refers to the distinctive shape at the top of the handle, which has two small notches creating a three-lobed outline.

This style of spoon was quite a short-lived fashion that first appeared at the time of the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and remained popular into the early years of the 1700s.


Items found at wreck site of royal wreck HMS Gloucester off Great Yarmouth.

The right shoe of a preserved pair found packed away in a trunk on the wreck of HMS Gloucester ready to worn on arrival in Edinburgh. The ship never made it after hitting a sand bank off Great Yarmouth. The incident would stain the character of James Stuart Duke of York, weakening his reign as James II. - Credit: Norfolk Museums Service

Some of the most poignant items are those that remind us of the individual lives either cut tragically short, or changed forever.

There are dozens of fragmentary pieces of leather from custom-made shoes found at the wreck site, and one pair which remain intact.

This photograph is of the right shoe and was taken before conservation when it was still wet and stored submerged in water.

They were found in one of the trunks of personal items, stowed away to be worn on arrival in Edinburgh. The heel is made of five layers of thick leather nailed to the sole. Other examples found feature wooden heel blocks that were covered in leather.

Wine bottle with Washington seal

Items found at wreck site of royal wreck HMS Gloucester off Great Yarmouth

The Legge wine bottle is one of the few finds that can be connected to an actual passenger on board HMS Gloucester when she sank quickly in 1682 after hitting a sandbank off Great Yarmouth. - Credit: Norfolk Museums Service

This glass wine bottle is one of a small number of items connected to known passengers.

Recovered in August 2019, it bears a glass seal which may represent the Washington family coat-of-arms.

This links it to George Legge (1647-91). He was on the ship as a close associate and former Groom of the Bedchamber to James Stuart, Duke of York and Albany.

Legge’s mother was Elizabeth Washington whose cousin, John Washington, settled in Virginia, North America, in 1657.

The First President of the United States, George Washington, was directly descended from John Washington. The Washington family coat of arms includes three red stars and two stripes.

Bartmann jug

Items found at wreck site of royal wreck HMS Gloucester off Great Yarmouth.

The 'Bartmann' jug or bearded man jug would have probably been one of very many on board the Gloucester. They were made in Germany and widely used. - Credit: Norfolk Museums Service

The bearded face motif was a distinctive feature of these salt-glazed, stoneware jugs.

They are called "Bartmann"  jugs (German for "bearded man") or "Bellarmines" after Cardinal Bellarmine who it was said to resemble.

Made in Germany there would probably have been a great many on board.

Ship's bell

Items found at wreck site of royal wreck HMS Gloucester off Great Yarmouth,

The ship's bell helped to identify the Gloucester and is a spectacular find in its own right having such a crucial part to play in life on ship. - Credit: Norfolk Museums Service

The bronze bell was an early discovery by the Barnwell brothers, identifying the Gloucester.

A ship’s bell was central to life on-board regulating time at 30 minute intervals, marking changing shifts for the crew, as well as sounding alarms.

Poignantly, the last time it would have sounded was when the Gloucester was sinking.

The bell was identified by its date 1681 and the mark WW for William Wightman who ran a bell foundry in London. 

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

The two brothers measuring the cannon on HMS Gloucester. - Credit: Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks

A charitable trust is being set up to support future archaeology and conserve the finds.

The UEA is holding donations for the 1682 project under its own charitable status.

Those wishing to contribute should email David Ellis at