On May 6, 1682, English warship HMS Gloucester sank after hitting a shoal off the coast of Norfolk. While some survived—including future King James II of England, Scotland and Ireland—many souls were lost, along with a stash of wine.
Divers have found about 150 bottles at the Gloucester wreck site so far. “[This number suggests] that the passengers were drinking, perhaps excessively, to celebrate the heir to the throne’s return,” University of East Anglia (UEA) history professor Claire Jowitt told Wine Spectator via email. Per Jowitt, it’s possible those revels worsened the tragedy, as passengers may not have been in any condition to escape Gloucester the morning it sank.
Working with their father and two friends, sibling divers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell found the lost Gloucester wreck in 2007 and have researched it since with UEA and its Gloucester Project. They couldn’t confirm the ship’s identity until 2012, and didn’t make the discovery public until June 2022, to protect the site’s security. It’s quite a significant find, for historians and wine experts alike.
“[It] will help researchers to understand how wine was enjoyed during a royal journey,” said UEA’s Dr. Benjamin Redding. “This promises to reveal significant new insights.” Around 30 bottles have remained sealed and full. The rest are in rougher shape, including one that would be surprisingly appropriate for July 4 celebrations (anachronisms aside).
The bottle of note displays a stars-and-stripes motif that’s possibly the coat of arms of the Washington family, as in the ancestors of U.S. Founding Father George. The design—three red stars over two red bars—is still found today on the flag of Washington, D.C., and on the Purple Heart, a medal introduced by George in 1782 as the Badge of Military Merit. Wine and Founding Father buffs will recall, of course, that, unlike Washington’s compatriot Thomas Jefferson, George himself was more of a Madeira man.
The stars-and-stripes bottle may have belonged to naval officer and Washington family relation George Legge, who survived the Gloucester disaster, along with John Churchill, ancestor of Winston. (Research on the bottle is still ongoing, of course).
While the provenance of the Gloucester’s wines has been lost to time, Jowitt and Redding hope that chemical analysis will provide answers—hopefully with an assist from wine-specialized biochemist Geoff Taylor. They already have some inklings: “The Francophile English court of Charles II had a taste for French claret,” Redding said, noting England banned French wine imports at that time, leading to smuggling.
So far, Taylor’s analysis has indicated the presence of at least two wine types: one with high levels of acidity and residual sugar that may have been made in a cooler-climate region like northern Germany, and another with characteristics closer to those of French wine. However, it’s possible these differences have more to do with age and storage than origin.
Sadly, none of the Gloucester’s wine is drinkable. But you can see some of these bottles, the ship’s bell and other artifacts at an upcoming exhibition, The Last Voyage of the Gloucester: Norfolk’s Royal Shipwreck, scheduled for February 2023 at England’s Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery. “[The] abundance of wine bottles makes it an important and unique find of global significance,” Jowitt said, “with the potential to revolutionize our understanding of the history of wine.”
But who does all this “treasure” belong to? If identified as personal property, ownership of some of the Gloucester’s artifacts may revert to the Crown, i.e., James II’s distant relative and noted sparkling wine lover, Elizabeth II.
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