07 October 2022

Spotlight on the Gloucester

Lincoln Barnwell, Prof Claire Jowitt, Dr Benjamin Redding and Julian Barnwell.
Lincoln Barnwell, Prof Claire Jowitt, Dr Benjamin Redding and Julian Barnwell.

You probably know this by now, but allow us to fill you in anyway... In June, it was revealed to the public that in 2007 brothers and deep-sea divers, Julian and Lincoln Barnwell, had uncovered the shipwreck of the Gloucester warship. The ship, which ran aground and sank off the Norfolk coast in 1682, was carrying the Duke of York and Albany, who later became King James II of England.  

The discovery has since been hailed the most important maritime find since the Mary Rose was raised in 1982, and today, researchers at UEA are starting to unearth the mysteries behind the ship’s tragic end. 

This week, we’ve gone behind the scenes with maritime expert and Professor in English and History, Prof Claire Jowitt (second from left, above), and Senior Research Associate in Maritime History, Dr. Benjamin Redding (second from right, above), who are working together on a research project on the Gloucester, and detail their initial excitement at the discovery, explain how they were sworn to secrecy for three years and tell the story of how their research supports the story of a man blamed for the wreck. 

First of all, why is the discovery of the Gloucester so important? 

CJ: Britain is a maritime nation with a long tradition of seafaring, so the waters around our shores are littered with the carcasses of historical wrecks, but the Gloucester sank while carrying the heir to the throne. That makes it both politically important - the future king could have drowned and the causes of the wreck were controversial - but also materially important - in a period of luxurious royal travel, the opportunity to recover the opulent accoutrements of James, Duke of York and Albany, and his court is unprecedented.  

BR: With the Duke of York and Albany, as well as many other high-profile figures including John Churchill, the future Duke of Marlborough, sailing on the Gloucester, the discovery will show us how the royal court travelled at sea. What did these individuals bring with them? (We know that James did not travel light.) How were these goods stored on a ship? What did they do for entertainment during the journey?  

For me, the discovery is of major importance because of this context; it is a time capsule into the life of Restoration Britain.  

Where did your involvement in the discovery of the Gloucester begin? 

CJ: In the dog days of the summer of 2019, Prof Sarah Barrow, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Arts and Humanities, with the permission of the Vice Chancellor, who had signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement on the part of UEA after being told about this extraordinary discovery, arranged for me to visit the site where the rescued artefacts were stored, some already conserved, some awaiting conservation.  

I had no idea where I was going, but I met Julian and Lincoln Barnwell that night for the first time and learnt about the amazing story of their search for the ship. I simply could not believe my eyes when I saw the incredible range, number, and quality of the rescued artefacts. 

Having seen how important this discovery was, I then began to read everything I could about the wreck and the ship more broadly in existing historiography and started to scope out a research project and research questions, checking with Julian and Lincoln that they were happy with my approach, to write a cradle-to-grave history of the ship.  

I was lucky enough to be supported by some small seed-corn internal UEA funding that enabled me to recruit a part-time research assistant, maritime historian – and that was Benjamin (who I'd worked with on a previous project).  

BR: Three years ago, I received a phone call from Claire concerning an ‘exciting opportunity’. I was immediately interested, but I needed to swear to secrecy whatever the proposition was (to protect the site). I was blown away as Claire outlined the discovery of the Gloucester and asked whether I was interested in coming onboard to research the warship’s history.  

A find of such historic and national significance is a dream opportunity for a naval historian. I jumped at the chance and shortly after I was invited to meet Julian and Lincoln Barnwell and was able to see some of the amazing artefacts rescued. 

CJ: Then, at the beginning of 2020, we started to work on a large grant application to the Leverhulme Trust and a detailed timeline for the Gloucester. About a year later, after a two-stage application process, we were overjoyed to learn that the application had been successful, and we had three years of funding to enable us to write together what we hope will be a new sort of maritime biography, which focuses on the Gloucester as a complex social and cultural space just as much as a weapon of war. 

What sort of behind-the-scenes work were you involved in with the discovery of the Gloucester?  

CJ: Perhaps one the most significant things I have done for the project over the last three years is a series of secret, invite-only Saturday morning briefings to people that Julian and Lincoln hoped might be interested in helping guide and secure the future of the Gloucester wreck.  

This ranged across government ministers, heads of NGOs (non-governmental organisations), members of the peerage who had relatives on board the Gloucester when it sank, council and civic leaders, heads of marine and maritime companies and the broader business community. My role at these private briefings was to outline why the shipwreck was important within British history, and to situate and contextualise the tragedy for non-specialists.  

The overall aim of these secret, private briefings was to start to assemble the most appropriate group of individuals to help ensure appropriate governance structures were put in place to protect the site and manage the ship's heritage future, including considering whether it might be possible for the wreck and its artefacts to become a heritage asset for Norfolk. 

BR: Investigating the history of the Gloucester for that last three years without being able to discuss the discovery with my friends and colleagues has made everything feel like working ‘behind-the-scenes’. For me, some of the most exciting things to have been involved with concern the artefacts themselves and having the opportunity to handle some of these amazing finds allows you to immerse yourself within the history.  

There is a two-way relationship with these artefacts. We have been helping to identify and understand them and they in turn have aided our understanding of the events as they unfolded in May 1682.  

What has been the most interesting piece of information, or a fact that you have learnt based on the discovery? 

CJ: While researching the events and causes of the wreck, I became particularly intrigued by the story of a naval officer, Christopher Gunman, who was captain of one of the yachts, the Mary, which was accompanying the Gloucester on its journey to Scotland in 1682. Gunman, who was very close to James, Duke of York, and personally sailed him to Scotland after the wreck, became embroiled in the investigations to determine responsibility.  

Originally asked to give evidence against the pilot James Ayres, who was initially publicly blamed for the tragedy, Gunman's account of his own actions when sailing ahead of the Gloucester and finding shallow water, got him into trouble.  

Instead of firing a gun to warn the bigger vessel of the danger, Gunman ordered a flag to be waved, which the Gloucester either didn't see or wasn't able to react quickly enough to before it struck the sandbanks ahead. Gunman was furious that he was blamed, and his account of the events is palpably full of anger and outrage. Until now, though, it's not been possible to determine whether Gunman's claim of a conspiracy against him was true, but our project has found new archive evidence of witness tampering designed to blame Gunman, most likely in a politically motivated attack on his friend and supporter the Duke of York.  

I've grown quite fond of Gunman, so finding evidence that he was telling the truth, and was justly indignant at his treatment, was immensely satisfying. 

BR: Archival research is always an interesting experience. Reading documents produced more than 300 years ago often makes me want to jump up and cheer when discovering a new nugget of information relating to the Gloucester.  

In June 2021, I was at an archive and found a list of the seamen’s names that died in the wreck. No muster list is known to have survived from the Gloucester, but this document was a list of the royal bounty distributed to the partners and children of the sailors that drowned. For example, seaman Thomas Godwin died, and a fee was paid to the minister and churchwardens of Fareham Parish, Hampshire, who served as custodians of his two orphaned daughters, Mary and Elizabeth.  

Discovering this manuscript made me reflect on the personal loss experienced by many on the Gloucester. The stories of the average seamen are rarely told for the early modern period, and I hope that as the Gloucester Project progresses, we will continue to tell the stories of some of those people who tragically lost their lives. 

Learn more about the discovery of the Gloucester. 


More UEA stories