A royal shipwreck discovered off the coast of England is being called "the single most significant historic maritime discovery" for the country in four decades. Found by amateur divers in 2007 but only revealed this week, the wreck of the Gloucester—which ran aground and sank on May 6, 1682, while transporting the future King James II—has remained a well-kept secret for security reasons. Its exact location, 28 miles off Norfolk's Great Yarmouth, is still undisclosed. However, officials are now boasting of artifacts, including clothing, shoes, eyeglasses in the original case, navigational gear, and still-sealed wine bottles, including one bearing the coat of arms of the Legge family, from which George Washington descended, per the BBC.
The sinking marked a key moment in British history. Had James Stuart, then the Duke of York, died, "King Charles II's illegitimate son, James Scott, the Duke of Monmouth, might well have inherited the throne," per the BBC. But he survived to become King James II of England and Ireland and King James VII of Scotland upon his brother's death in 1685. He stayed only three years before he was deposed—allowing his daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange, to ascend to the throne—in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It was inspired in part by the Gloucester's sinking, as some participants faulted the Catholic king for the deaths of an estimated 130 to 250 of the 330 people on board, per the Telegraph.
Witnesses said he allowed priests and dogs to flee to other ships in the fleet before the crew and delayed his own escape even though, as a royal, he was to leave the ship before anyone else. "Because of the circumstances of its sinking, this can be claimed as the single most significant historic maritime discovery since the raising of the Mary Rose," says maritime expert Claire Jowitt of Norwich's University of East Anglia, referring to a 16th-century warship that was raised in 1982 along with thousands of weapons, sailing equipment, naval supplies, and other artifacts from the Tudor period. It was actually Mary Rose's lifting that inspired Norfolk-based printer brothers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell, their late father, and two friends to search for the Gloucester, per the BBC.
They were losing hope in their fourth year of searching when Lincoln spotted a cannon on the seafloor. "It was so exciting," he tells the BBC. "We were the only people in the world at that moment in time who knew where the wreck lay." The ship's bell was raised in 2012, confirming the wreck is in fact the Gloucester. Though it's considered an underwater grave, only animal bones have been found so far. Still, there are no plans to raise the ship, which is "split down the keel, with remains of the hull submerged in sand," per the BBC. An exhibition is planned at Norwich Castle Museum next year. (Read more shipwreck stories.)