Explained: The Gloucester shipwreck, and its importance in British political history

It was over 300 years ago that a royal ship carrying the future king of England, Ireland and Scotland sank killing hundreds onboard. It also nearly killed the Duke of York, who later reigned as King James II, but could never shake-off the criticism that came his way in the aftermath of the ship’s sinking.

The discovery of the royal shipwreck was revealed recently on June 10, and has since been hailed as one of the most significant discoveries of maritime history. A look at The Gloucester’s last voyage, and the significance of finding the wreckage of one of the 17th century’s most important ships.

What is known about The Gloucester’s last voyage?

The Duke of York, James Stuart, and his retinue set sail for Scotland on May 4, 1682 on royal business and to bring back the Duke’s wife to England. With the reigning monarch, King Charles II, aging, and power slowly gravitating towards James, it was considered politically beneficial for his child – he hoped for a male heir – to be born in England.

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Around 330 crew and passengers onboard included the Duke’s personal staff and his closest advisors. The passengers, pointed out a National Geographic report, traveled first-class with rare wines, choicest delicacies and musicians for entertainment.

Hours before it sank, there was an argument about the ship’s course between its pilot, Captain James Ayres, other senior officials and the Duke. It was discussed if it would better to head farther out to the sea to avoid sandbanks lurking near the coast.

The protracted argument ended as a middle-path between the deep-sea and coastal routes was agreed with the Duke’s nod, the highest-ranking individual onboard and an experienced naval commander himself.

On the morning of May 6, 1682 – around 5.30 am – The Gloucester struck a sandbank off the town of Great Yarmouth on the eastern English coast. It sank in less than an hour.

The estimates differ, but it believed that around 130 to 250 people onboard died. The future monarch survived.

It has been suggested by historians that the Duke delayed abandoning ship till the last minute, and that his supporters ensured that the boat he left on was “under-filled” to protect him at the sea. As protocol prevented other passengers from leaving before royalty, the delay in the Duke’s departure led to countless deaths.

According to a BBC report, witnesses also claimed the future king saved Catholic priests and his dogs over courtiers and crew.

What happened in the aftermath of the sinking?

The tragedy happened as Britain battled political and religious tension. James had become a Catholic and there remained opposition to him staying the heir to a Protestant throne. Those opposing the Duke of York threw their weight behind the Duke of Monmouth, James Scott, the illegitimate son of Charles II.

But the king backed his younger brother James Stuart and in 1881 ensured that a bill – Exclusion Bill – to keep him out of the race to the throne was nixed.

With James succession to the throne still not settled, his behavior on The Gloucester became a topic of wide discussion. It soon became a debate about his leadership capabilities, and fodder for the future king’s opponents. James didn’t help his case by trying to pin the entire blame on the pilot, despite his role in deciding the course.

The Duke accepted no blame for the sinking of The Gloucester and instead demanded the hanging of Captain Ayres, the pilot.

As part of legal proceedings over what caused the tragedy, Ayres was court-martialled and imprisoned. A year later on June 5, 1883, he walked out of prison after his release was ordered by Charles II.

James rose to the throne after his brother’s death, and reigned from 1685 till the time he was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Why is the discovery significant?

Had the future king died in the shipwreck it would have changed the course of British political history. The discovery can now bring forth evidence that can help piece together to the story of The Gloucester’s last voyage and all that played out after it sank.

The future king’s death would have strengthened Duke of Monmouth’s claim to the throne. But after he survived, a Catholic king’s accession to the throne became the precursor to the Glorious Revolution, which led to a realignment of power in Britain with constraints on the monarchy’s authority.

Claire Jowitt, an expert in maritime history at the University of East Anglia, told the Associated Press that the wreck was “one of the important ‘almost’ moments in English history”.

Brothers Julian Barnwell and Lincoln Barnwell, along with Professor Claire Jowitt and Dr Ben Redding of University of East Anglia, sit next to artefacts recovered from the shipwreck of The Gloucester. (University of East Anglia/REUTERS)

“If he had died, we would have had a very different British and European history as a result… 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,” ​​she said, calling the discovery the most important maritime discovery since the Mary Rose, the warship from the Tudor navy of King Henry VIII.

What artefacts have been found on the shipwreck?

Artefacts found on the wreck include clothes, shoes, navigational equipment, a report in the Associated Press said.

There are many wine bottles too, with one bearing the seal with the crest of the Legge family — the ancestors of George Washington, the first US president.

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Why the wreckage’s discovery was kept hidden for 15 years?

The wreck site was first discovered in 2007 by the Barnwell brothers – Lincoln and Julian, both diving enthusiasts.

It was not until the ship’s bell was found later that it was confirmed to be The Gloucester in 2012.

The site, which lies in international waters, was considered to be at risk due to its maritime and historical importance and had to kept a well-guarded secret.

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