LONDON — The wreckage of a Royal Navy ship, from which a future king of England narrowly escaped when it sank 340 years ago during a period of political strife, was discovered off the country’s east coast, researchers said on Friday.
The ship, named the Gloucester, was found off the coast of Norfolk in 2007 by the brothers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell and their friend James Little after a four-year, 5,000-mile nautical search, according to a statement from the University of East Anglia. Norfolk is a rural county about 100 miles northeast of London.
When the Gloucester ran aground and sank in 1682, it was carrying James Stuart, the Duke of York, who would go on to reign as King James II from 1685 to 1688.
The discovery has only now been made public because of the time required to confirm the ship’s identity and declare it to the government. The ship’s exact location cannot be made public, officials said.
Lincoln Barnwell said his search for the Gloucester was partly inspired by the researchers who raised the Mary Rose in 1982. That ship, which sank during an engagement with the French in 1545, was the pride of King Henry VIII’s fleet and was seen by historians as the forerunner of British Navy ships. It was raised from the mud a mile off Portsmouth, England, with most of its oak frame still intact. Salvaging it took 17 years and cost about $7 million. The project was hailed at the time as “the world’s most ambitious underwater archaeological operation.”
Lincoln Barnwell said he felt privileged to find the wreckage that was later identified as the Gloucester. “We were the only people in the world at that moment in time who knew where the wreck lay,” he said. “That was special, and I’ll never forget it.”
Findings from the wreckage, including a bell that helped researchers confirm the ship’s identity in 2012, will be put on display next year at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery. Clothing, shoes and professional naval equipment were also found alongside personal possessions and some unopened bottles with wine still inside.
“A tragedy of considerable proportions in terms of loss of life, both privileged and ordinary, the full story of the Gloucester’s last voyage and the impact of its aftermath needs re-telling, including its cultural and political importance, and legacy,” Claire Jowitt, a professor at the University of East Anglia and a curator of the exhibition, said in a statement.
Researchers hope the discovery of the wreck will lead to fresh insights into 17th-century history and the lives of up to 250 people who perished when the ship ran aground and sank.
The disaster was controversial because the Duke of York, the heir to the throne and a former Lord High Admiral, barely made it off the sinking vessel in time. Other passengers and crew members waited for him to disembark first as dictated by protocol. He had also argued with the pilot about the course of the ship, and later publicly blamed the man for the disaster.
Benjamin Redding, a senior research associate at the University of East Anglia who is a part of the team studying the wreck, said that there had been “small whispers” about the duke’s leadership abilities, as he was an experienced naval commander who became associated with a shipwreck, but that he had already been designated as heir by King Charles II.
“At the time, it was political suicide to blame James,” Dr. Redding said in an interview on Friday.
He said the researchers hoped to find out more about the duke by examining the contents of the wine bottles, which might show they were imported from France, despite a ban on such imports from a Catholic country.
“It would tell a lot about him,” Dr. Redding said. “One rule for everyone else, and a different policy for him.”
The researchers hope to find a “treasure trove of royal items” and packing chests in the stern, where James would have been on the ship and which is lodged in the sea floor. If they do, it will help separate fact from fiction, Dr. Redding said.
One of the first printed accounts of the shipwreck from 1682 said sailors gave the duke a “Huzza, and immediately drank his Health in Salt-water,” a reference to their drowning, said Dr. Redding, who has written a history of the English Navy.
“Again, seems hard to believe, but records do report it,” he said.
As with any well-told narrative of survival and tragedy, what is known about the Gloucester has been provided by accounts of survivors and witnesses aboard other vessels in the royal fleet.
One account came from Samuel Pepys, a navy administrator who was a prolific diarist from 1660 to 1669 and kept detailed descriptions of his daily activities. Pepys had embarked on the Royal Yacht Katherine at the time of the sinking. He later described the harrowing tragedy in a letter to a friend, saying survivors and victims were plucked “half dead” from the water.
Dr. Redding said the researchers wanted to know more about the names and ethnicities of the crew members and other passengers.
“What we do hope in the future is to see how ethnically diverse the crew was,” he said. “In previous periods where the Gloucester was an active warship, there were people of other nations onboard.”