Royal Shipwreck from 1682 Identified by Ship’s Bell

It was a bright and fresh morning. The HMS Gloucester was under full sail, bound for the Scottish capital at Edinburgh. The fluttering royal standard atop the highest mast denoted the presence of royalty and, indeed, the Duke of York, younger brother to His Majesty King Charles II and heir to the English throne, sat ensconced in his well-appointed cabins.

The blustery day was propelling the 50-gun frigate northward at a robust clip. Then things took a turn for the worse. At 5:30am, the ship slammed into a sandbank 30 miles or so off the coast of Norfolk. The violence of the impact tore off the rudder and instantly killed the man at the tiller. Forty-five minutes later, the entire ship had sunk beneath the frigid waves.

Of the 330 passengers aboard, an estimated 130 to 250 souls perished in the water. The Duke, a devout Catholic who enjoyed little love from the majority English Protestant population, saw his reputation sour in the minds of his people even further. For it was reported that it was he who selected the present course and bearing, and he again who stubbornly stayed onboard until the last possible minute. In an age where protocol dictated one could not abandon ship before royalty, it all but guaranteed significant casualties.

It did not help that the future king accepted no responsibility for his actions and imprisoned the scapegoated pilot through a court-martial. The Duke was crowned King James II three years later, though his reputation never recovered and his short reign was marked by crises and turmoil. He was deposed in less than four years.

The HMS Gloucester remained half-buried in the seabed for more than 300 years. That is, until a chance discovery by brothers Lincoln Barnwell and Julian Barnwell. In 2007, the diving brothers happened upon the wreckage, spotting cannons littered across the seabed. The fractured frigate was disintegrating, the gilded stern buried in the sand.

Ship’s Bell, Cast in 1681, Sinks in 1682

Two challenges remained. How do you identify what ship this had been and how do you protect it from further degradation? The answer to the former came in 2012 with the recovery of the ship’s bell. Cast in bronze in 1681 and installed that same year, the bell aboard the HMS Gloucester would broadcast the time, announce whether an important personage or officer had boarded the vessel, indicate the position of the ship in heavy fog, or honor a sailor who had died.

Brothers Lincoln Barnwell and Julian Barnwell with HMS Gloucester Ship's Bell

Image: Brothers Lincoln Barnwell and Julian Barnwell hold a bronze ship’s bell, recovered in 2012 from the wreckage of the HMS Gloucester. Courtesy: Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks.

The British Receiver of Wreck and Ministry of Defense conclusively identified the wreckage with this ship’s bell, which, after the calcification and barnacles were scrubbed away, bears the 1681 date of casting on its shoulder.

Detail of the Ship’s Bell from the HMS Gloucester

Image: Detail of the ship’s bell from the HMS Gloucester, bearing an inscription of the year the bell was cast: 1681. Courtesy: University of East Anglia.

To prevent looting of the priceless artifacts, the exact location of the HMS Gloucester is guarded, even now. But 15 years after locating the vessel in international waters, the discovery has been made public while investigation, recovery, and conservation efforts continue.

One intriguing find has already been pulled from the depths: A few bottles of unopened 17th-century wine embossed with the stars-and-stripes crest of the Legge family, ancestors of George Washington. What more will be brought to the surface? Only time will tell.

See the HMS Gloucester ship’s bell in person.

A landmark exhibition, ‘The Last Voyage of the Gloucester: Norfolk’s Royal Shipwreck’ about the finding of HMS Gloucester is planned at Norwich Castle Museum in early 2023 – jointly curated by Norfolk Museums Service and the University of East Anglia. The exhibition will display the most important finds to date which have been conserved, including the ship’s bell.

Cover image: Bell from the HMS Gloucester. Courtesy: Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks.