The Sinking of the Gloucester

Last month it was announced that the wreck of a ship known as the Gloucester had been found off the coast of Great Yarmouth in Norfolk. The ship had been wrecked on the sandbanks in 1682, whilst carrying the then heir to the throne, James Stuart, Duke of York, who later became James II. Whilst I am interested in the Stuart era, I must admit, I didn’t know anything about the sinking of this ship, so  whilst it has been in the news a lot recently, I thought it best to explain the context around the sinking and why it has been such an important discovery. I also recently wrote a short piece on why this amazing discovery was needed by the town of Great Yarmouth, which can be viewed here.

Greenhill, John; James II (1633-1701), as Duke of York; Dulwich Picture Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/james-ii-16331701-as-duke-of-york-200078

James Stuart was heir to his older brother, Charles II, as Charles had had no legitimate children. As James was a Catholic in a Protestant country, this did cause issues. By the time of 1682, Charles had made James and his family live in Scotland, mainly due to the issues of the succession. Many had tried to bar James from becoming King, whilst there was also a Popish Plot in 1679, where Catholics had attempted a conspiracy to kill Charles in favour of his brother, James.[1] In early 1682, when these issues appeared to be settling down, James was allowed to return to England, with plans being made to allow him and his family, including his pregnant second wife, Mary of Modena, back to court. In order to do this, James was to collect Mary by boat from Scotland and bring her back to England, with the hopes that she would give birth to a boy and thus secure James’ claim to the throne.

The ship chosen for this journey was the Gloucester. It had been originally commissioned in 1652 and was launched in 1654, so by the time it was used by James, it was already of some age. In fact, it had been out of action due to a poor state of disrepair and had been refitted between 1878 and 1680.[2] In order to collect James from Margate in Kent, which is on the east coast, it had to leave the dock at Portsmouth on the south coast. As well as the Gloucester, there were also five other ships and four yachts that formed the escort.[3] When the time came for boarding, there was a bit of chaos. It took several hours to load the tons of baggage and the estimated 350 passengers on board. Some, passengers decided to change which boat last minute. One of these passengers was Samuel Pepys, the famous diary writer. As he suffered from sea sickness and was worried that the amount of people on board would make him worse, he decided to change boat.[4]

John Hayls, Samuel Pepys, oil on canvas, 1666, © National Portrait Gallery, London

Bad weather made the journey an awkward one. One the first day of sailing, the Gloucester decided to moor due to the terrible conditions. When this decision was made, the ship fired a cannon to announce the decision but this only caused confusion. Instead, some the ships in the escort took this as a sign to move seawards again and were separated from the rest.[5] When the ship got closer to the coast of North Norfolk, an argument ensued between the pilot, some of the crew and naval experts, and the Duke of York, as to which route would be best to take. The area was known for its treacherous sandbanks, so a wrong decision would have been fatal. This proved to be true in the case of the Gloucester.

At 5:30 am on the 6th of May, the ship hit two parallel sandbanks known as the Leman and Ower sandbanks off the coast from Yarmouth. James was reluctant to leave the ship, thinking that they could save it.[6] Instead the opposite was true. It only took the ship around an hour to sink. The rest of the passengers couldn’t leave as etiquette dictated that no one could leave until royalty had gone first. In the end, it has been estimated that around 130-250 people died that day, including some from the nobility. James had also lost a brother of his first wife, Anne Hyde, and according to one source, “all the Dukes cooks but one, all his footmen, and all the rest of his servants”.[7]

As would be expected, the sinking caused a lot of emotions within the witnesses and the families of those who had died, with all wanting answers. The pilot of the Gloucester, James Ayres, was sentenced to life in prison, although there were some, including the Duke of York, who were calling for his execution.[8] Instead, the pilot only served a year of his sentence. Others blamed James, for one being involved in the argument about navigation, and two, for taking so long leaving the ship, meaning others couldn’t escape.[9] No matter who was really to blame for the wreck, the reality was that many people had lost their lives in the tragic accident.

In the aftermath, James’ reputation was at stake. With his reputation only just beginning to rebuild, the Gloucester did little to help, despite some reporting hoping to diminish the collateral damage. Poems, ballads and plays were all written about the event, meaning the news of it was everywhere.[10] With the succession being so fragile already, this event was again another thing used by some against James to show he wasn’t the right person to become the next king. Others who did support him were willing to place the blame elsewhere and continue their support for him. One such way of doing this was by the production of a medal to commemorate the event and to circulate rumours that it was a republican plot to kill James and end monarchy in England once again.[11]

The future Charles II is pictured centre, with James being second left. After Sir Anthony van Dyck, Five Children of King Charles I, oil on canvas, 17th century, based on a work of 1637, © National Portrait Gallery, London

Whilst James did eventually become king in 1685, following the death of his brother, Charles II, he was ousted during the Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which his own Protestant daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange, were invited to take the throne. Perhaps the Gloucester was one of the many reasons used against James’ rule. Whatever the case may be, the discovery of the shipwreck has brought up many fascinating artifacts that capture the moment in time when it sank on the 6th May 1682, including spectacles that would have once been used by someone on board. I hope the discovery helps to add more context behind the life of James and of course be used as a way to remember those who lost their lives on that day. For that reason, I very much look forward to seeing what will happen with it in the future, starting with a planned exhibition next year.


[1] The Gloucester Project, https://www.gloucestershipwreck.co.uk/

[2] Ibid

[3] Claire Jowitt, ‘The Last Voyage of the Gloucester (1682): The Politics of a Royal Shipwreck’, English Historical Review (2022), p. 2

[4] Claire Tomalin, Samuel Pepys : The Unequalled Self (London: Penguin, 2003), p. 331

[5] National Maritime Museum, The Sinking of the HMS Gloucester, https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/hms-gloucester-shipwreck-history-james-ii

[6] Ibid; Claire Jowitt, ‘The Last Voyage of the Gloucester’, p. 12

[7] Letter from Scotland Giving a True Relation of the Unhappy Loss of the Gloucester-frigot, Whereof Sir John Berry was Commander. With a Particular Account of the Persons of Quality Drowned therein, and the Miraculous Escape of His Royal Higness the Duke of York (London, 1682), cited in Claire Jowitt, ‘The Last Voyage of the Gloucester’, p. 13

[8] Meilan Sully, ‘Wreck of Long-Lost Royal Battleship Discovered Off English Coast’, Smithsonian Magazine, 14 June 2022, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/shipwreck-gloucester-james-king-england-180980250/

[9] Claire Jowitt, ‘The Last Voyage of the Gloucester’, p. 15

[10] Ibid, pp. 16-17

[11] National Maritime Museum, The Sinking of the HMS Gloucester, https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/hms-gloucester-shipwreck-history-james-ii

The Discovery of The Gloucester Shipwreck

Whilst as a rule I don’t usually share about history themed news pieces, I have made an exception, just this once. A few days ago, it was announced that the discovery of a ship, known as the Gloucester, which sank in 1682, with James, Duke of York (the future James II) on board, was found off the coast of Great Yarmouth in Norfolk. You may ask why this is significant and why I’m particularly excited to share this news with you.

Great Yarmouth is where I have holidayed regularly for many years now. For this reason, it holds a special place in my heart. It’s a traditional British seaside town, full of fun and amusement arcades. The pirate golf there is a must visit and is actually education too! Best of all is the famous reputation it has for it’s fish and chips. I have to agree that they taste like know where else.

Greenhill, John; James II (1633-1701), as Duke of York; Dulwich Picture Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/james-ii-16331701-as-duke-of-york-200078

However, the town does struggle with poverty due to its reliance on seasonal tourism. Whilst I must admit this is an issue that does need addressing, it is a place full of history if you know where to look. It was once a thriving fishing town and port. During my own research, I have seen these aspects referenced many times. One particular part of its history has become well known: the many old passageways that the inhabitants of the town used to live and do business from, which are known as The Rows. However, I must acknowledge that the town’s history and heritage is not always celebrated as much as it should. There are pockets of it, if you are interested and they certainly do have a very good maritime festival along the quayside.

From this, you may be wondering why I find it so exciting that a 340 odd year old shipwreck is such a welcome thing to the town. The Gloucester wreck has been described as an important a find as the Mary Rose, the flagship of Henry VIII’s fleet that was raised from the seabed off Portsmouth in 1982. The Mary Rose was a time capsule thanks to the many artefacts onboard and it seems the Gloucester is no different. There are even wine bottles with their contents still inside! The ship’s bell was still intact too, helping to identify the wreck.

If like me, you want to know all that there is to know about this amazing discovery, click here to learn more about the significance and some of the findings. An exhibition of the discovery is due to be held at Norwich Castle museum from Spring 2023 and I for one will definitely be attending and if you can, I hope you will too. I also hope that this will be just one of the things that Great Yarmouth needs.

I will also be writing a post on the events around the sinking of the Gloucester in a few week’s time, so please do look out for that.