Uncovering the stories behind Norfolk's Mary Rose

THE GLOUCESTER

painting of the gloucester, a seventeenth century warship

The Wreck of the Gloucester off Yarmouth, 6 May 1682, by Johan Danckerts, c. 1682_Royal Museums Greenwich_BHC3369_Wikimedia Commons

The Wreck of the Gloucester off Yarmouth, 6 May 1682, by Johan Danckerts, c. 1682_Royal Museums Greenwich_BHC3369_Wikimedia Commons

In 1682 a royal ship carrying the heir to the English throne ran aground and sank off the Norfolk coast. The wreck was discovered by two brothers in 2007 and has remained a closely kept secret until now.

Today, researchers at the University of East Anglia are starting to unearth the mysteries behind the ship’s tragic end. Their work will reveal the lives of those on board, build a clearer picture of 17th-century society and tell stories of corruption, political intrigue, gossip, scapegoating and class.      

Brothers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell have spent decades diving wrecks off the Norfolk Coast. The seabed of this part of the UK coastline is particularly rich, with German U-boats and 18th-century warships partially submerged by the shifting sands. Nothing compares, however, to the discovery the brothers made after a 5000-nautical-mile search off the coast of Great Yarmouth.

The shipwreck they discovered in 2007 was the Gloucester, a royal warship that ran aground  in 1682 with the future King James II on board. When the brothers discovered the ship it had been lying on the seabed for more than 300 years, but the items they’ve found have been amazingly well preserved. Spectacles kept in a decorative case, the ship’s bell, a jar of ointment, navigational instruments, women’s clothes, and many wine bottles, some with their corks intact and original contents inside.  

These precious artefacts offer a rare glimpse into life in 17th-century society. Now UEA’s Professor Claire Jowitt and Dr Ben Redding will use the discovery to build a comprehensive picture of life on board and help us understand the wider impact of the terrible and tragic story.  

underwater photograph of two divers measuring a canon

Barnwell brothers measuring a cannon on the wreck of the Gloucester © Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks

Barnwell brothers measuring a cannon on the wreck of the Gloucester © Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks

A royal mistake – and a cover-up

That tragedy occurred in early May 1682.  

The Gloucester was sailing north along the Norfolk coast, heading for Edinburgh. James Stuart, Duke of York and heir to the throne, was only recently back in favour with the royal court in London following the Exclusion Crisis of 1679. He was travelling to Scotland to re-join his pregnant wife Mary and family and bring them home to London.  

In the early morning, disaster strikes. The Gloucester was navigating through a difficult stretch of the North Sea when it hit a sandbank and ran aground. Between 130 and 250 crew and passengers drowned and, though James survived, controversy surrounded his role in the disaster. “It's clear from all the accounts that there was a dispute between a number of individuals onboard about which route to take,” says Prof Jowitt, whose new paper titled ‘The Last Voyage of the Gloucester (1682): The Politics of a Royal Shipwreck’ offers a comprehensive academic analysis of the disaster and its political implications and legacies. “The pilot, James Ayres, was experienced at navigating through these waters. He wants to hug the coast. The master of the ship, Benjamin Holmes, favours the deep-sea route. James argues for a middle course.”  

"The very fact that this event didn't truly tarnish his opportunity to become king is quite staggering"
Dr Ben Redding

Ultimately, James – the heir to the throne and a former Lord High Admiral of England - made the final decision. He pulled rank, and it cost those onboard dearly.  

“He’s clearly a man that believes in his own importance, his own beliefs, and the rightness of what he's saying,” says Prof Jowitt. “He thinks he knows best. But, importantly, when it goes wrong, it's never his fault.” 

painting of king james the second

James, Duke of York (1633-1701), by Henri Gascar, 1672-3_Royal Museums Greenwich_BHC2797_Wikimedia Commons

James, Duke of York (1633-1701), by Henri Gascar, 1672-3_Royal Museums Greenwich_BHC2797_Wikimedia Commons

Tellingly, there are few direct references to this failure of command in the records made at the time. These come in memoirs written 20 or 30 years later, after James’ death. This, says Dr Redding, Senior Research Associate and maritime historian at UEA, tells us a lot about the influential position James was in.  

“It’s a big political event,” says Dr Redding. “James had just been welcomed back to court and it was accepted that he was going to be the next king. His brother Charles II was ageing and ill in 1682 and so important people were gravitating to James to gain his favour.” 

His failure of command on board the Gloucester could have undermined him, not least at a time when the public was developing an appetite for political scandal. “The very fact that this event didn't truly tarnish his opportunity to become king is quite staggering,” says Dr Redding. 

"There's a lot we don't know. A lot we need to uncover"

Prof Claire Jowitt, UEA

Message in a bottle

Each item rescued by the Barnwell brothers has the potential to tell us something new about life at the time. These inanimate objects offer clues about 17th-century styles, tastes, and social structures, and of all the objects recovered, Prof Jowitt and Dr Redding are especially fascinated by the wine bottles, and the country of origin of the wine inside.   

 “Wine drinking was highly politicised at the time,” says Dr Redding. “French wine, even though it was perceived as being the best quality, was banned in England from 1678 because of growing diplomatic tensions. French wine was ‘Catholic’ wine. No one is officially allowed to drink it but in fact French claret was smuggled in via Portugal, Spain, Scotland, or the Netherlands.”  

"Consuming it so openly is perhaps a symbol of his power and his belief in his superiority over his subjects"

They suspect, therefore, that the wine on board was indeed from France. “James is likely to have been drinking claret,” says Prof Jowitt. “The Tories, the royal party, they drink claret and consider it patriotic to do so.” James, whose past is so entwined with religious controversy is flouting Parliament by being associated with an outlawed product. But consuming it so openly is perhaps a symbol of his power, indicative of his taste for luxury, and his belief in his superiority over his subjects.   

Using modern day scientific techniques, the UEA team hope all the wine’s origins can be traced.  

conserved metal spoon and navigational instruments

A selection of items rescued from the Gloucester wreck, including navigational instruments

A selection of items rescued from the Gloucester wreck, including navigational instruments

old wine bottles with wide base and narrow spout

Selection of rescued wine bottles

Selection of rescued wine bottles

seventeenth century spectacles in a protective case

Spectacles, recovered from the Gloucester

Spectacles, recovered from the Gloucester

Item 1 of 3
conserved metal spoon and navigational instruments

A selection of items rescued from the Gloucester wreck, including navigational instruments

A selection of items rescued from the Gloucester wreck, including navigational instruments

old wine bottles with wide base and narrow spout

Selection of rescued wine bottles

Selection of rescued wine bottles

seventeenth century spectacles in a protective case

Spectacles, recovered from the Gloucester

Spectacles, recovered from the Gloucester

A deeper history

Of course, there’s much more to learn from the Gloucester than the story of a future king. “The old history is the history of great men,” says Prof Jowitt. “We need to move beyond that. Now we need to see history, not just of kings, but of all people.” The UEA team hope to connect objects to their owners so that their descendants can hear the stories of those who died, both noble passengers and their servants, as well as women associated with the tragedy and the ordinary crew.   

One story illustrates this. It starts with a ‘great man’, the Earl of Roxborough, but dig a little deeper and a tale of loyalty and romance shines a light on 17th-century relationships between man and wife, servant and master.   

As the Gloucester runs aground, the young Earl of Roxborough is in his cabin, undressed and unprepared. James is apparently calling for Roxborough to join him in his boat and escape. The scene is chaotic. The Earl either doesn’t get the message or struggles to reach James and, soon, it’s too late. Roxborough, who can’t swim, ends up in the water.  

L-R: Lincoln Barnwell, Prof Claire Jowitt, Dr Benjamin Redding, Julian Barnwell

L-R: Lincoln Barnwell, Prof Claire Jowitt, Dr Benjamin Redding, Julian Barnwell

His servant, James Littledale, can swim. Littledale finds his master among hundreds of others and pulls him onto his back. They swim together towards the small boats launched to rescue them. But as they approach, a third man grabs onto Littledale and all are dragged under. Roxborough drowns. His servant, loyal to the last, is pulled onto a lifeboat but dies within the hour. 

“It’s a terribly sad story,” says Dr Redding, “and it’s made sadder still by the fact Roxborough has a young wife, Margaret, who is clearly devastated by his death. She’s desperate for news and she sends out servants to search for her husband. He’s never found. And Margaret lives for 71 years as a widow.” 

“It’s an awful story of Roxborough’s and Littledale’s drowning. But it’s also a romantic story of lost love, and of loyalty between master and servant” says Dr Redding. “We hope our research will find out as much about Littledale’s family as Roxborough’s.” 

“The old history is the history of great men. We need to move beyond that. Now we need to see history, not just of kings, but of all people"

Prof Claire Jowitt, UEA

Lessons for today

The site of a 300-year-old shipwreck might seem an odd place to discover parallels of how we live today. But the rigorous research conducted by Prof Jowitt and Dr Redding, informed by the objects recovered by the Barnwell brothers, brings relevance and colour to our world.  

What the Barnwell brothers have rescued so far is the tip of the iceberg and the discovery promises to fundamentally change our understanding of 17th-century social, maritime, and political history. Documenting this voyage fully and properly is vital. 

“There’s a lot we don’t know, a lot we need to uncover,” says Prof Jowitt. “The tension between the highest in the land and the ordinary lives is fascinating. But it’s not just the high politics, the monarchic shenanigans, and the luxury of the voyage. We’re interested in the wider historical context and concerned to tell all people's stories.” 

A wine bottle. A scandal supressed. The account of a heartbroken widow. These objects, moments, and events uncover stories of an all-powerful ruler, of fake news, of ‘one rule for them, another for the rest of us.’ By revealing the mysteries behind a 17th-century shipwreck, the UEA team are exposing a narrative that has lessons for life today. 

Together, funded by a grant from the Leverhulme Trust, Prof Jowitt and Dr Redding are writing a cradle-to-grave history of this 17th-century warship, to assess its contribution to naval history and the wider importance of this wooden world to our understanding of early modern social, political, and cultural history. For more information visit www.gloucestershipwreck.co.uk

A major exhibition ‘The Last Voyage of the Gloucester: Norfolk’s Royal Shipwreck 1682’ is planned for Spring 2023, the result of a partnership between the Barnwell brothers, Norfolk Museums Service, and academic partner UEA. The exhibition at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery will display finds from the wreck - including the bell that confirmed the ship’s identity - and share ongoing historical, scientific, and archaeological research.

Alongside UEA, Norfolk Museums Service and the Barnwell brothers, foundational partners in the project are the Alan Boswell Group, the Ministry of Defence, the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth, York Archaeology, the Leverhulme Trust and Maritime Archaeology Trust. The project is also being generously supported by Birketts LLP

All artefacts remain the property of the Ministry of Defence; however, where items are positively identified as personal property, ownership will then default to the Crown.

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