On the evening of May 5, 1682, the officers of a British fleet sailing from England to Scotland were having a heated argument. Their vessels were quickly approaching sandbanks off the coast of Norfolk, and nobody could agree on the best course forward. Master Benjamin Holmes, for one, favored a deep-sea path, while pilot James Ayres thought sidling between the banks and the coast would work just fine.
James Stuart, Duke of York, believed they should head between the deep-sea path and the banks themselves: a happy medium of caution and efficiency. In addition to being a duke, James was also High Admiral of Scotland and Ireland—and, as the brother of Britain’s sitting king, Charles II, the heir to the throne himself. In the end, the powerful James prevailed, and Ayres verified that the course should keep them out of harm’s way.
Alas, it did not.
Around 5:30 a.m. the following morning, the HMS Gloucester—on which James, Ayres, and Holmes all sailed—ran up against a sandbank off East Yarmouth. Measuring 117 feet in length and weighing 755 tons, the frigate was a full-rigged beast of a warship (not unlike Sweden’s ill-fated Vasa) that proved much too unwieldy to break free from its sandy trap.
Within an hour, the ship had sunk. And for the next 325 years, its whereabouts remained a mystery.
The Gloucester itself was far from the only casualty: Roughly 130 to 250 of some 330 total passengers and crew members perished in the wreck. James wasn’t among them; a rescue boat delivered him to the Mary, one of the fleet’s royal yachts. But he may have compounded the death count by refusing to accept that the frigate was doomed and procrastinating his evacuation until its final moments. Per custom, nobody else was permitted to leave before a member of the royal family, so he left them precious little time to save themselves.
The extent of James’s role in the shipwreck not only threatened his credibility as a naval commander, but also had the potential to derail his entire political future. At the time, it was common to view a nation as a metaphorical ship and its monarch as the ship’s commander—a trope known as the “ship of state.”
“The captainless, rudderless boat was an enduringly popular early modern [theme], used in various ways … to represent allegorically the problems of governance,” Claire Jowitt, professor of English and history at the University of East Anglia, explained in “The Last Voyage of the Gloucester (1682): The Politics of a Royal Shipwreck,” published this month in The English Historical Review.
In other words, if you couldn’t keep a ship afloat, people might not trust you to keep a country afloat—and James had plenty of Parliamentary foes who would appreciate the chance to make that very argument about him. Britain had just emerged from what’s known as the Exclusion Crisis, when Protestant politicians attempted to pass legislation that would prevent James, a Roman Catholic convert, from succeeding his Protestant brother.
“A future monarch that can’t steer the ship of state offers an opportunity for [the Duke of York’s] political enemies to attack him, and it’s clear in particular that his supporters really seek very quickly to control how the event is told, presumably to neutralize the possibility of negative press,” Jowitt tells Mental Floss.
As Jowitt lays out in her paper, they accomplished this in part by producing artistic works—plays, ballads, etc.—that lionized the Duke. Tory poet Matthew Taubman composed a heartfelt ode likening him to Jonas, whom God had saved from a harrowing storm. (Taubman also claimed that the shipwreck was divine retribution for the Exclusion Crisis.) Royal medalist George Bowers celebrated James’s apparently valorous survival by designing a silver medal bearing the sinking Gloucester on one side and James’s regal silhouette on the other.
James fared well in the official investigation of the incident, too, mainly by pointing the finger at Ayres. The hapless pilot was sentenced to life in prison, though Charles II did release him after only a year. When Charles died in 1685, his brother took over as planned, becoming James II of England and Ireland and James VII of Scotland.
His reign was short-lived. In 1688, William of Orange—husband of James’s daughter, Mary—deposed James II by force. Within months, the couple were crowned William III and Mary II. According to Jowitt, it’s possible that William and Mary would have ended up on the throne a little earlier had James died when the Gloucester went down. As James’s oldest legitimate child, Mary had a tenable claim to the throne, maybe even better than that of Charles II’s oldest illegitimate son, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth. William himself was also a nephew of Charles II and James II, not to mention “arguably the most powerful prince in Europe at the time,” Jowitt explains. But the Duke of Monmouth had advantages of his own—namely, being Protestant, British, and male.
“I genuinely think this would have been a difficult choice for the nation, but if Charles II had decided to favor his son over his niece and nephew, then I think he had every chance of managing the situation to ensure he got what he wanted in those three years,” Jowitt says.
While the sinking of the Gloucester narrowly avoided altering the course of British history, it’s a fascinating example of what the intersection of pop culture, propaganda, and politics looked like in late 17th-century Britain. And for the last few centuries, the story has ended with a tantalizing cliffhanger: Where exactly is the shipwreck?
In June 2007, after searching for four years across 5000 nautical miles, brothers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell, along with their late father and two other companions, finally found out. As The Guardian reports, the divers spotted a cannon that led them to the cleaved keel and mostly buried hull of the actual wreck. It would be another five years before the ship’s bell was unearthed, which officials used to confirm that the Barnwells’ discovery was indeed the Gloucester. Another decade passed—long enough for the site, which is in international waters, to be fully secured—before the news was made public.
But researchers haven’t passed the time idly. Clothes, shoes, spectacles, a jar of ointment, naval instruments, and a number of wine bottles have already been recovered from the wreck. When asked about the most exciting detail she’s learned thus far, Jowitt says, “That 17th-century air survives in the intact and full wine bottles that Julian and Lincoln Barnwell have rescued from the seabed. I have learnt a new word, ullage, which is the space for air between the wine and the cork in the bottle.”
As French wine was prohibited in England at the time (due to France’s association with Catholicism), the researchers are eager to find out if any jugs in the Gloucester’s stash hailed from there. It was fairly common contraband, especially among Tories.
Right now, there aren’t any plans to exhume the shipwreck from its final resting place, but the Norwich Castle Museum is set to host an exhibition of artifacts from February 25 to July 25, 2023. Jowitt and her colleagues at the University of East Anglia have also launched The Gloucester Project, a site that will chronicle a “cradle-to-grave history” of the ship, explore its cultural significance, and more.
“I’m keen that we tell the stories of all the people onboard that day, rich and poor, and chart the impact the wreck had on the lives of all those touched by the tragedy. I’m also hopeful of telling in full, through the rich archaeology of this site, the material reality of how luxurious royal travel by sea was undertaken in the 17th century,” Jowitt says. “And, of course, I’d love to know exactly what they were all drinking.”