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

Creation of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich is now one of the things to visit in London, but it had a rather rocky first 10 years after it was opened by King George VI on 27th of April 1937. Small scale ideas for some form of national museum to celebrate Britain’s seafaring history had been in circulation since the centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1905, but none of these stuck until 1927.[1] From 1927, the Society for Nautical Research led a campaign to create some from of a national maritime museum. This was helped by a wealthy member of the Society, Sir James Caird, who purchased a large collection of naval themed items known as the A. G. H. MacPherson collection.[2] Originally, the museum was to be called the National Maritime Museum, as ingeniously thought up by Rudyard Kipling.[3]

Sir James Caird, Bain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

These acquisitions, alongside items either belonging to, or associated with, Lord Horatio Nelson, which had already been bought for the nation a long time before, formed the beginnings of the museum’s collection. It had built upon the small art gallery that had already been in existence at Greenwich, a former naval hospital similar to its army sister hospital at Chelsea, since the early 1800s.[4] This made Greenwich the perfect place to house the museum. However, the location being chosen, the process of turning the buildings into a museum worthy of the nation’s maritime heritage couldn’t take place until two things had happened. First, the Royal Hospital School, for sons of naval men, that already used the site had to move out, which they did when it moved to Suffolk in 1933; and secondly, an official act passed by Parliament granting the site national status was passed in 1934.[5]

On the 29th of April 1937, the museum officially opened to the public. Around 5,000 people attended on the first day alone, which in a time of financial hardship, was no mean feat.[6] One of the most popular galleries was No. 10, which was dedicated to all things Nelson. Sadly though, less than 3 years after it had opened, the museum had to close its doors at the outbreak of the Second World War.[7] The threat of bombs meant many of the precious items had to be moved outside of London, a decision which proved to be right as the site was bombed many times during the war.

When the museum was finally allowed to reopen at after the end of the war, things had changed very much. Sir Geoffrey Callender, the first Director of the museum, who had been an integral part of the creation of the museum, had recently died, leaving a large hole in the staff.[8] There was also a vacancy on the Board of Trustees, which was filled by the late Prince Philip, then a 27-year-old who was just out of the Navy himself.[9] This was a role he took seriously, not just for his own interests with the navy, but also preserving naval history for future generations, just as with his involvement in saving the Cutty Sark. The role as trustee was one he held until 2000, a total of 52 years. His long legacy with the museum will continue there through the Prince Philip Maritime Collection Centre, where royal maritime collections are held and cutting-edge conservation is practised.

With all the turmoil the National Maritime Museum faced in its first 10 years of life, it’s wonderful to see it thriving now. Sadly though, that isn’t really true with the current pandemic, but I sincerely hope it will last for many more years to come, especially as it’s on my list of places to visit one day when we can go places again.


[1] Littlewood, K. and Butler, B., Of Ships and Stars: Maritime Heritage and the Founding of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (London: The Athlone Press, 1998), p. 24.

[2] Royal Museums Greenwich, History of the National Maritime Museum, https://www.rmg.co.uk/national-maritime-museum/history

[3] Royal Museums Greenwich, History of the National Maritime Museum, https://www.rmg.co.uk/national-maritime-museum/history

[4] Royal Museums Greenwich, History of the National Maritime Museum, https://www.rmg.co.uk/national-maritime-museum/history

[5] Downer, M., Nelson’s Lost Jewel: The Extraordinary Story of the Lost Diamond Chelengk (Stroud: The History Press, 2017), pp. 230-231.

[6] Downer, M., Nelson’s Lost Jewel, p. 231.

[7] Downer, M., Nelson’s Lost Jewel, p. 231.

[8] Littlewood, K. and Butler, B., Of Ships and Stars, p. IX.

[9] Downer, M., Nelson’s Lost Jewel, p. 232.