What a sight it must have been on a blustery spring morning in 1682: a magnificent 50-gun frigate with a gilded stern and the royal standard fluttering from its top mast. The ship was the H.M.S. Gloucester, storied veteran of the Anglo-Spanish War. Now on royal duty, it was making a run up the coast to Edinburgh to retrieve Mary, wife of the Duke of York, and bring her to London.
Aboard was the duke himself, younger brother to King Charles II and heir to the English throne. He and scores of glittering hangers-on were traveling first class, with choice delicacies to eat, rare wines to drink, and musicians on hand to provide entertainment.
“The Gloucester was party central,” jokes Sean Kingsley, a marine historian and founder of Wreckwatch magazine. “The duke and his cronies were having a fine old time.” Among the junketeers was the indefatigable diarist and social climber Samuel Pepys, who wrote an account of the voyage from his berth aboard one of several yachts that accompanied the Gloucester.
By dawn on May 6 the little fleet was 30 miles or so off the coast of Norfolk and making good time, driven along by a fresh gale. But the festive mood had been soured the previous night by a heated dispute between the various captains and pilots. Some had argued for heading farther out to sea to avoid the sandbars that lurked along this stretch of coast. The duke, who had served as Lord High Admiral and fancied himself a navy man, stepped in and made the fateful decision to stay the present course and bearing.
Hours later, at 5:30 A.M., the 755-ton Gloucester slammed into a sandbank at a brisk six knots, a racy clip for a 17th-century frigate. The violence of the collision tore off the rudder, killed the man at the tiller, and sank the ship within 45 minutes. Of some 330 souls aboard, an estimated 130 to 250 perished. The future king survived, but the disaster earned him the scowling disapproval of the Royal Navy and gave his many enemies plenty of ammunition for character assassination during his brief, tumultuous reign.
For centuries the location of the ill-fated Gloucester was a mystery; for the past 15 years it has been a secret. Two amateur archaeologists found timbers and cannons from the wreck in 2007. But their discovery was kept under wraps until the wreck’s identity could be confirmed and the vulnerable site protected.
Brothers Lincoln and Julian Barnwell, diving enthusiasts from the seaside town of Yarmouth, began searching for the wreck in 2003. What started as a hobby quickly grew into an expensive obsession. The men took out a mortgage to buy a 40-foot boat and devoted every spare moment of the short summer diving season to looking for the wreck.
“We covered over 4,000 miles in the search, and all we ever seemed to find was sand,” says Lincoln. “But then one day I went down and saw cannons scattered all over the sea floor. It was unforgettable.”
But as the brothers soon learned, finding a shipwreck and pinning a name to it are two different things. For a wreck as historically important as the Gloucester, there had to be proof. The recovery of the ship’s bell in 2012 provided the proof, but with the wreck likely to be rich in artifacts, plans had to be made to protect it. And so the find has remained a secret until now.
“This was a wreck that literally helped to change history,” says Claire Jowitt, a maritime history expert at the University of East Anglia. Arguments over just what happened, and how, and who was to blame raged on for years. James denied all responsibility and urged the immediate hanging of the Gloucester’s pilot. (He was court-martialed instead, sentenced to prison “in perpetuity,” but then quietly released a year later.)
But the future king’s many detractors gleefully painted him as a reckless wanton who ordered his dogs to be rescued while scores of sailors drowned. His scapegoating of the pilot earned him the lifelong enmity of the Admiralty and left even his allies dismayed. James was damaged goods, and although he tried to restore his image by paying out compensation to the families of the men whose lives were lost, the stain stuck.
His reign, when it came, was brief. James was deposed in less than four years, and while he lost his crown mainly because of his religion, politics, and bullishness, the Gloucester disaster hung over his character like a bad smell. “There was no way that was ever going to be forgotten,” says Jowitt.
Nor will it be now, with the wreck opening an intriguing window into a what-might-have-been moment in history and the people who lived it. Among the intriguing finds are unopened wine bottles still containing 17th-century claret, some of them embossed with the stars-and-stripes crest of the Legge family, ancestors of George Washington. (See why there's more to shipwrecks than sunken treasure.)
“What’s been found so far is just the thin end of the wedge,” Wreckwatch’s Kingsley says. “The really mouth-watering prospect is what the good and great lost, not to mention whether any royal baggage still lies below.”
The Gloucester, says Kingsley, “is a dramatic porthole into the privileged world of palaces and high society in Stuart England. It’s Buckingham Palace meets Downton Abbey at sea.”