His Majesty’s Ship Gloucester to be viewed by the public for the first time

16 February 2023

His Majesty’s Ship Gloucester – Finds from the 17th-century royal shipwreck to be viewed by public for the first time since its discovery

Discover the Gloucester – a Major New Exhibition Coming to Norwich Castle.

The Last Voyage of the Gloucester: Norfolk’s Royal Shipwreck 1682 is an incredible exhibition at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery in 2023! Running from 25 February until 10 September this is one of the hottest ticket events in town this year – and certainly worth travelling for!

A story of fatal mistakes leading to tragedy, and a narrow escape for the future king – What really caused the sinking of the Gloucester, and what can the objects recovered from the Norfolk wreck tell us?

Hailed as the most important maritime discovery since the Mary Rose, the secrets of the Gloucester are about to be uncovered. Lost under the sea for over 300 years, artefacts from the 17th-century royal shipwreck will be able to be viewed by the public for the first time in a major new exhibition which will share ongoing historical, scientific, and archaeological research.

So, how did a royal warship end up at the bottom of the sea on the Norfolk coast?

The story begins in May 1682. Disaster struck when the Gloucester, a royal warship headed for Scotland carrying the future King of England and Scotland, James Stuart Duke of York and Albany (James II), hit a sandbank after an argument over navigation, running aground off the coast of Norfolk.

The ship sank within the hour, and while James survived the ordeal, between 130 and 250 of the crew and passengers drowned, including a number of prominent nobles. If James, the heir to the throne, hadn’t survived the disaster, this would have changed the course of British history.

James, Duke of York (1633-1701), by Henri Gascar, 1672-3_Royal Museums Greenwich_BHC2797_Wikimedia Commons

Meet the divers who found the shipwreck

The warship had been lying untouched beneath the sea for over 300 years, until it was discovered in 2007, about 45 km off Great Yarmouth…

Julian and Lincoln Barnwell, along with their friend and ex Royal Navy submariner and diver, James Little, had been searching for the wreck for four years and travelled 5,000 miles before they finally achieved what they called their ‘wreck-divers’ dream. Fifteen years have passed since the day these dedicated divers’ lives changed, but Lincoln still remembers the moment they found the Gloucester clearly. “Suddenly I just saw big shadows appear before me on the seabed,” he said. “Before I knew it, I was kneeling on the seabed surrounded by beautiful cannon.

“It just felt such an honour and it was just so unbelievably exciting to be the first person to touch the wreck since the day she sank.” The divers declared their find to the Receiver of Wreck, the Ministry of Defence and English Heritage, but they were unable to share their discovery with the world until now because of the sensitivity of the site.

Now, for the first time, a major exhibition at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery will reveal the lost ship’s secrets, displaying the fascinating objects retrieved from the wreck, including the ship’s bell. Discovered in 2012, five years after the wreck was found, the bell played a crucial role in confirming the ship’s identity beyond doubt.

Visitors will learn the story of the ship’s fateful, final journey, how it went down, and how it was discovered more than three centuries later, as well as seeing the ongoing research into the wreck and its importance.

“It is an outstanding example of underwater cultural heritage of national and international importance… the full story of the Gloucester‘s last voyage and the impact of its aftermath needs re-telling”

Professor Claire Jowitt, maritime historian, University of East Anglia

See for yourself the beautifully preserved personal effects retrieved from the wreck, each one telling its own story. Spectacles still in their wooden case, a jar of ointment, navigational instruments, bottles covered in barnacles… who did these items belong to, and what can they tell us about life at the time, and the people who were on the ship?

The sinking of the Gloucester was an event surrounded by controversy because of the number of people who drowned and because the ship was carrying the heir to the throne. Learn how an argument between naval officers, the ship’s pilot and the Duke of York about which path to take through the treacherous North Norfolk sandbanks ultimately led to a disastrous misjudgement and decide who you think was to blame for the lives lost. What role did the future King James II play in the incident…? Or was the shipwreck in the end a sheer mischance?

Make your own judgement as you explore this fantastic exhibition, but be sure to book your spot! Tickets are included in museum admission, and can be booked here.

“There is still a huge amount of knowledge to be gained from the wreck, which will benefit Norfolk and the nation. We hope this discovery and the stories that are uncovered will inform and inspire future generations.”

Julian Barnwell

‘The Last Voyage of the Gloucester: Norfolk’s Royal Shipwreck 1682’ exhibition is the result of a partnership between Julian and Lincoln Barnwell, Norfolk Museums Service, and academic partner UEA.

Alongside the Barnwells, Norfolk Museums Service and UEA, foundational partners in the exhibition are the Alan Boswell Group, Ministry of Defence, the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth, York Archaeology, the Leverhulme Trust and Marine Archaeology Trust. The exhibition at Norwich Castle is also being generously supported by Birketts LLP.

The curators are Ruth Battersby-Tooke (NMS), Claire Jowitt (UEA), Benjamin Redding (UEA), and Francesca Vanke (NMS).