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.

Margaret Tryon: Wife of a North Carolina Governor

I recently took a short holiday to Norfolk. It’s full of history and as where I come from is the furthest away from the sea you can get, I love to be by the sea. For one day, we went into the city of Norwich, famous for it’s historical buildings. The city was once one of the largest in England, largely due to the wealth Norfolk got from its farming and wool trades. Of course, I also went because of its links to Anthony Woodville. Little did I expect when I’d booked to go round the Stranger’s Hall, a merchant’s house dating back to the 1200s, that there would be a connection to one of my favourite period dramas, Outlander. In the very lovely Georgian dining room, there was a portrait of Margaret Tryon, the wife of William Tryon, Governor of North Carolina, who features in series four and five of the drama. I would like to thank Cathy Terry, the Senior Curator of Social History at Norwich Museums, who left a copy of her research into Margaret near her portrait, who it turns out, was an amazing woman in her own right.

Portrait of Margaret Tryon by an unknown artist in the 1750s at the Stranger’s Hall in Norwich, Author’s own image

Margaret was born in London in around 1732 as the daughter of William Wake and his wife, Elizabeth. Elizabeth claimed descent from John Rolfe and his wife, Pocahontas, whereas William, was a wealthy merchant for the East India Company, who went on to be the Governor of Mumbai (then known as Bombay) between 1742 and 1750.[1] She went on to marry William Tryon in 1757, who was an aristocratic army officer. Margaret’s dowry was £30,000, which is around £3 million today, which showed just how wealthy her father had become.[2] It would seem that Margaret would be just any other military wife, but she had very different ideas about that. Not only was she a talented organ and spinet player, she was fascinated by all sorts of intellectual topics aspects of government, military strategy and religion.[3] These topics would keep her in good stead for the next aspect of family life, which saw the Tryons move to America.

William had been injured during a raid on Cherbourg in the Seven Years War, so a less physical role was needed for him. Thankfully, Margaret’s relations were able to help with this. One of her relatives was Lord Hillsborough, who was the Secretary of State for the Colonies, which explains why William’s next position was as Lieutenant Governor of North Carolina, which he took up in 1764.[4] The couple, along with their young daughter, also called Margaret, moved to Wilmington in North Carolina.

1769 Map of Willmington, North Carolina by Joseph Claude Sauthier. Map reproduction courtesy of the British Library’s King’s Topographical Collection.

Within a year, the existing Governor died, leaving William to take the promotion to Governor himself. Whilst in Wilmington, the family lived in a house on the Cape Fear River. It was there that a boy was born, but he sadly died in infancy. The couple often held social events inviting the upper classes from Wilmington and throughout the area. Margaret was known to seek out male, rather than female, company due to her masculine interests. On this, a friend known as Mrs Janet Montgomery wrote of her that:

‘Her mind was masculine. She studied everything difficult…. She published a book on fortifications and I fancy I could have won her heart if she could have given me a taste for such useful arts. The many called her mad; she certainly was eccentric. As trifling amusements had been beneath her lofty mind, and as they were essential to please the town, she found a substitute in me to amuse the circle and make the parties at the card tables.’[5]

She was also known to insist she be addressed as Your Excellency, a title which should have only been addressed to her husband, William.[6] William himself has been seen as a controversial man, and there is not enough time to go into the whys in this post, but he was known for his bad temper and he did isolate the people of Wilmington. Rebellions led by men called The Regulators dominated the area, blaming the Governor’s corruption and unwillingness to listen to grievances. The building of a new Governor’s Palace, known as Tryon’s Palace, in New Burn, nearly 100 miles away, was the last straw. Tryon had brought over an English designer and no expense was spared on the build, which was paid for by the citizens of Wilmington.[7] The Regulators were eventually stamped out by Tryon’s forces, but the damage was done. In order to get out of the situation, William accepted the Governorship of New York. Tryon Palace had only been lived in for a year before the family moved in 1771.

Photo of the reconstructed Tryon’s Palace in New Bern, North Carolina (2020), Wikimedia Commons

When William took up this post, the family moved into another richly decorated house at Fort George. They had little luck there either as the house burned down in 1773 after a fire lit in the council chamber got out of control.[8] The fire was so great that all of their possessions were lost. The estimated loss was £6,000 in possessions (around £523,000 in today’s money), and £900 in cash (around £78,500).[9] In order to claim compensation, detailed inventories of the contents of each of the 16 rooms of the house were required. These still survive and show just how richly the Tryon family lived. No wonder the family briefly returned to England in 1774.

The family did return to America following the outbreak of the American War of Independence. This was an awkward time for William Tryon, who’s duty was to the British Crown. Forces under Tryon were known for their brutality against civilians.[10] He also had a particular animosity towards George Washington, which led to him being embroiled in plot to assassinate Washington.[11] The Tryons did eventually return to England again in 1780, when William’s health began to deteriorate. They moved to Mayfair, a wealthy part of London that was seen to fit their status. Despite concerns for his health, Tryon was still given military duties, this time back in East Anglia. He was appointed to command the fortifications at Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, and also placed at Somerleyton Hall, his headquarters, where he was also in charge of forces from American and Canadian from.[12] William died in 1788 and left the bulk of his estate to Margaret. Tragically, their daughter, Margaret, died only 3 years after her father, when she fell onto railings outside the London home, when climbing down from a rope in an attempt to elope with her army officer sweetheart.[13] Margaret herself died on 16 February 1819 in Great Yarmouth, where she had retired to a respectable lodging house on the famous Yarmouth Rows, used by families as a holiday home.[14]

Tim Downie and Melanie Gray as William and Margaret Tryon in Series 4 of the Starz series, Outlander

No one is really sure just how long she lived in those lodgings for, but what is known is that she was buried alongside her husband and daughter at St Mary’s Church in Twickenham, London. Her memory, and that of her husband’s (whether deserved or not in his case), is continued by Tryon’s Palace in New Burn. This curious museum is not the original home of the Tryon’s, as that was seized by rebels at the start of the American War of Independence and burned down in 1798. Instead, it is a modern recreation based on the original plans, which opened in 1959. Still, it is used to remember a turbulent period of the history of North Carolina, of which Margaret Tryon, with all her masculine ways, played a part in.


[1] Cathy Terry, ‘A ‘fine accomplish’d lady’: Margaret Wake Tryon’, Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, https://norwichcastle.wordpress.com/2021/03/30/a-fine-accomplishd-lady-margaret-wake-tryon/; Trevor Nicholls, ‘Margaret Tryon c. 1732 – 1819’, Journal of the Great Yarmouth Archaeology and Local History Society, 2020, p. 63

[2] Cathy Terry, ‘A ‘fine accomplish’d lady’: Margaret Wake Tryon’, Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, https://norwichcastle.wordpress.com/2021/03/30/a-fine-accomplishd-lady-margaret-wake-tryon/

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid; Trevor Nicholls, ‘Margaret Tryon’, p. 64; B. D. Bargar, ‘Governor Tryon’s House in Fort George’, New York History, 35.3 (1954), p. 297

[5] Extract from Janet Montgomery’s Memoir, page 5

[6] Cathy Terry, ‘A ‘fine accomplish’d lady’: Margaret Wake Tryon’, Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, https://norwichcastle.wordpress.com/2021/03/30/a-fine-accomplishd-lady-margaret-wake-tryon/

[7] Ibid

[8] B. D. Bargar, ‘Governor Tryon’s House in Fort George’, p. 299

[9] Ibid, p. 298

[10] Cathy Terry, ‘A ‘fine accomplish’d lady’: Margaret Wake Tryon’, Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, https://norwichcastle.wordpress.com/2021/03/30/a-fine-accomplishd-lady-margaret-wake-tryon/

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid; Trevor Nicholls, ‘Margaret Tryon’, p. 61