(CNN)– A warship carrying some 330 people, including James Stuart, the future king of England, ran aground and sank on May 6, 1682. Now, the location of the wreck has finally been revealed off the coast of England 340 years later. .
When the HMS Gloucester sank, it was half buried in the seabed. There was no official passenger manifest, but it is estimated that between 130 and 250 crew and passengers lost their lives.
Stuart, who would be crowned King James II of England and Ireland and James VII of Scotland nearly three years later, narrowly added to the list of victims.
At the time of the calamity, the then Duke of York was a Catholic heir to the Protestant throne at a time of political and religious tensions. His near miss stands out in British history, as does the significant loss of life.
“Due to the circumstances of its sinking, it can be said that it is the most important historical maritime discovery since the lifting of the MaryRose in 1982,” Claire Jowitt, professor of English and history at the University of East Anglia, UK, said in a statement.
“The discovery promises to fundamentally change the understanding of the social, maritime and political history of the 17th century.”
Artifacts from the site have already been collected and preserved, including clothing, shoes, navigational and naval equipment, and many bottles of wine, including some that remain unopened.
One of the wine bottles bears a glass seal bearing the crest of George Washington’s ancestors, the Legge family. And the design of that shield predates the American Stars and Stripes.
An exhibition of the wreck’s finds will open this spring at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery. Jowitt is co-curator of the exhibition and author of a new study on the shipwreck.
The wreck’s discovery has just been announced, but it was initially found in 2007. The delay was due to the time needed to confirm the identity of the ship and protect the endangered site, located in international waters off the Norfolk coast.
Historic England, a public body of the British government that oversees England’s historic sites will protect the ship.
Looking for a shipwreck
Brothers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell decided to search for the ship after being inspired by the raising of the ship Mary Rose that they saw on television when they were children. The brothers are printers in Norfolk, as well as chartered divers and honorary members of the University of East Anglia’s School of History.
The Barnwell brothers and their late father, Michael, along with their friend and fellow diver and former Royal Navy submariner, James Little, found the wreck after four years of searching. The Gloucester was split at the keel, with parts of the hull still submerged in the sand.
“It was our fourth season diving for Gloucester,” Lincoln Barnwell said in a statement. “We were beginning to believe that we were not going to find it, we had dived so much and we had found nothing but sand. When we descended to the seabed the first thing I saw were large cannons lying on the white sand, it was impressive and really beautiful. We were the only people in the world at the time that they knew where the wreck was.
The ship’s bell, made in 1681, was recovered from the shipwreck. The Wreck Receiver and the Ministry of Defense used the bell to identify the vessel as the Gloucester in 2012.
A shipwreck with many consequences
The Gloucester was first used as a 50-gun warship in 1654, becoming a Royal Navy ship in 1660. When the time came for the Duke of York to sail from England to Scotland to conduct royal business and collect to his daughter Anne and his pregnant wife, Mary of Modena, in 1682, the Gloucester was commissioned. The Duke of York and his family would reside at the court of Charles II.
“It was politically advantageous for Mary’s baby to be born in England; the royal family expected him to be a prince to further entrench the Stuart dynasty,” Jowitt wrote in his study.
By 1682, Charles was getting old and had already suffered a stroke. Power was already passing into the hands of the Duke of York in some respects. He was accompanied on his journey by prominent courtiers from England, Ireland, and Scotland.
On May 6, at 5:30 a.m., the ship ran aground 28 miles off the coast of Great Yarmouth. The Duke, a former Lord Admiral of the Royal Navy, argued with the pilot over control of the ship’s course, and they quarreled over the best way to navigate Norfolk’s notoriously treacherous sandbanks.
The ship sank within an hour, and the Duke delayed abandoning the ship, believing it could be saved, until the last minute. Protocol dictated that no one could be evacuated before royalty, which contributed to the tragedy. By the time the duke and a ship containing his safe of memoirs and political documents were loaded, only one other ship was able to escape.
Among the deceased were high-ranking nobles, relatives of the duke, and much of the staff of the duke’s household. According to Jowitt, the identity of only part of the victims is currently known.
The Gloucester was part of a fleet of ships, so there were many eyewitnesses to the tragedy. The Duke had influenced the choice of the dangerous route, but he did not accept any responsibility for the disaster and blamed the pilot, who was imprisoned.
Some saw the sinking as a way to question the duke’s judgment under pressure and his fitness to rule as a future monarch, Jowitt said. His reign was brief, lasting from 1685 to 1688, before he was overthrown during the glorious revolution and replaced by the Protestants: his daughter María Estuardo and her husband, Guillermo de Orange.
An accompanying historical research project will explore the failures that led to the sinking of HMS Gloucester, as well as conspiracy theories about the cause of the tragedy and the long political shadow it cast.