Artefacts from a 17th century royal shipwreck will be 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 Norfolk.
Featuring research from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the latest technological innovations, The Last Voyage of The Gloucester: Norfolk’s Royal Shipwreck, 1682, will open on 25 February 2023 at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery.
The Gloucester sank in the north sea off the coast of Norfolk in 1682 while carrying the future King of England and Scotland, James Stuart. After lying on the seabed for 325 years, the ship was discovered in 2007 by Norfolk brothers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell and their friend James Little. 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 UEA.
The exhibition will be 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. Section two will tell 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 the 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.
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.
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.
Curators of the exhibition Ruth Battersby Tooke and Dr Francesca Vanke, of the Norfolk Museums Service, and Prof Claire Jowitt and Dr Benjamin Redding, of UEA said, “We are delighted to share the extraordinary history of the wreck of the Gloucester and the artefacts that movingly speak of the tragic events of 6 May 1682.
“Artefacts rescued from the seabed are displayed for the first time, revealing some of the secrets that this important historic ship has to offer and providing unique insights into the lives and experiences of those onboard.
“It has been a privilege to work with Julian and Lincoln Barnwell and James Little to tell their remarkable story of the wreck’s discovery in 2007.”
Cllr Margaret Dewsbury, Cabinet Member for Communities, Norfolk County Council said, “Norfolk is home not only to the most remarkable heritage, but also the expertise needed to research this heritage and display it for the public to experience and enjoy.
“The partnership between Norfolk Museums Service, the University of East Anglia and Julian and Lincoln Barnwell is a testament to this culture of innovation and excellence. We are incredibly excited to be mounting this exhibition in Norwich and very grateful for the fantastic support from our business community which is helping us to achieve our ambitions.”
Pete Waters, Executive Director of Visit East of England said, “The East of England is proud to be the region to exhibit the fascinating artefacts from this tragic shipwreck and be able to help tell the story of The Gloucester to visitors and potential visitors.”
The Last Voyage of The Gloucester: Norfolk’s Royal Shipwreck, 1682, has been created by Norfolk Museums Service and UEA in partnership with Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks and The National Museum of the Royal Navy. It is sponsored by Adnams plc, Alan Boswell Group and Birketts LLP and is part of the wider historical research project led by UEA’s Prof Jowitt and funded by the Leverhulme Trust.
The Last Voyage of the Gloucester: Norfolk’s Royal Shipwreck, 1682, will run 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. The exhibition is expected to be very popular, so visitors are advised to book in advance.