In 1682, the HMS Gloucester ran aground navigating sandbanks off the eastern English coast. In just an hour, it sank killing upwards of 250 on board.

One of the survivors, the Duke of York James Stuart would go on to reign as King James II of England and Ireland and as James VII of Scotland from 1685 until he was deposed in 1688 in the ‘Glorious Revolution.’

Julian and Lincoln Barnwell, together with their late father and two friends, spent four years combing nearly 4,000 miles of seabed on diving expeditions looking for the HMS Gloucester. The team was feeling defeated until they spotted a “large cannon laying on white sand” in 2007 about 28 miles offshore.

“It was awe-inspiring and really beautiful. 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.”

The discover was confirmed in 2012 with the finding of the ship’s bell, but was only just made public last Friday to allow for protected investigation of the “at risk” site in international waters.

“We had read the Duke of York was on board 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. There is still a huge amount of knowledge to be gained from the wreck, which will benefit Norfolk and the nation. We’ve only just touched the tip of an iceberg.”

Maritime cultural history expert from the University of East Anglia Professor Claire Jowitt said “this can be claimed as the single most significant historic maritime discovery since the raising of the Mary Rose in 1982.”

“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 retelling, including its cultural and political importance, and legacy. 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. I think this is a time capsule that offers the opportunity to find out so much about life on a 17th-century ship. The royal nature of the ship is absolutely incredible and unique.” 

No human remains have been found. However, clothes, shoes, navigational equipment and many wine bottles have been – one bottle even bears a seal with the crest of the Legge family, the ancestors of the first U.S president George Washington. That same crest is said to be a “forerunner” to the Stars and Stripes flag.

Because much of it is buried in the sand, there are currently no plans to raise the wreck of the Gloucester. An exhibition is planned for spring of 2023 in Norwich’s Castle Musuem titled “The Last Voyage of the Gloucester: Norfolk’s Royal Shipwreck 1682.”

Exiled to France after being deposed by a Protestant coup, could James II, the last Catholic King of England, become a saint?  

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