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Last Voyage of The Gloucester exhibition at Norwich Castle Museum, Norfolk

Artefacts from a 17th century royal shipwreck have been unveiled for the first time in an immersive exhibition exploring its last voyage and the historical mysteries raised by its discovery off the coast of Great Yarmouth.

Spectacles – close up © Norfolk Museums Service, Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks Ltd

Focusing on an event that almost changed the course of Britain’s democratic democracy, The Last Voyage of The Gloucester: Norfolk’s Royal Shipwreck, 1682, has opened at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery and tells the story of its ill-fated voyage.

The Gloucester sank in the North Sea off the coast of Norfolk on May 4,1682 while carrying the future King of England and Scotland, James Stuart and it seems a staggering amount of alcohol – 149 bottles have been found so far, 49 still have a bit of wine in them while 29 are sealed. Perhaps this was the original booze cruise!

Apparently, it was James himself who insisted on a course that led the ship into a sandbank.

Leather pouch with crown symbols © Norfolk Museums Service, Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks Ltd

Had he drowned, British history might have been very different. James was one of our shortest-reigning monarchs, just three years, his Roman Catholicism leading him to be deposed in the Glorious Revolution and replaced by William III and Mary II. That revolution permanently established Parliament as the ruling power in England.

After lying on the seabed for 325 years, the Gloucester was discovered in 2007 by Norfolk brothers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell and their friend James Little.

Gloucester Ship’s bell © Norfolk Museums Service, Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks Ltd

Due to the age and prestige of the ship, the condition of the wreck and the accident’s political context, the discovery has been described as the most important British maritime discovery since the Mary Rose.

Now for the first time the public will be able to explore the story of the ship’s fateful final voyage and the painstaking work to retrieve, conserve and research some of its artefacts, in an expansive exhibition co-curated by Norfolk Museums Service and the University of East Anglia.

The exhibition is presented in two parts: the first section will delve into the history of the Gloucester and the events of the wreck, painting a picture of what life was like onboard before disaster struck and exploring what led to the tragedy.

Selection of glass bottles ©Norfolk Museums Service, Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks Ltd

Section two tells of the ‘second life’ of the Gloucester as a wreck site and research subject, including the story of its discovery by the Barnwell brothers and James Little, the conservation of the objects discovered so far, and the ongoing research to expand our understanding of this important period of British history.

Key objects include the Gloucester’s bell – the discovery of which in 2012 confirmed the identity of the wreck – alongside personal possessions of the passengers and crew that serve as poignant reminders of a disaster that cost hundreds of lives.

Barnwells measuring a cannon from The Gloucester ©Maritime Archaeology Trust, Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks Ltd

Visitors will view wine bottles encrusted with barnacles, the ship’s navigation tools, and personal items including a pair of spectacles along with their wooden case, combs and clay pipes, all of which have survived centuries on the seabed. Together they illuminate the wide range of social classes and professions of those onboard the ship.

Digital elements include a film exploring the discovery of the wreck, a 3D diver’s eye tour of the wreck site and a specially commissioned animation examining the circumstances of the sinking of the ship.

Glass urine flask from The Gloucester ©Norfolk Museums Service, Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks Ltd

Alongside objects from the wreck, prestigious museums in Britain and Europe are loaning key paintings, documents and objects associated with the maritime, political, cultural and social history of the period to set the wider context for the Gloucester’s story. The objects rescued from the Gloucester wreck site appear in this exhibition with the permission of the Ministry of Defence and Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks.

The Last Voyage of the Gloucester: Norfolk’s Royal Shipwreck, 1682, runs from Saturday 25 February – Sunday 10 September 2023, at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, Norwich, NR1 3JU. Tickets to the exhibition are free with museum admission (See admission prices). It is expected this exhibition will be very popular so it is recommended to book tickets in advance.