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The significance of the wreck of the Gloucester on 6 May 1682 with James Stuart, duke of York, later James II and VII, enroute to Scotland is poorly understood. Based on new archival research, this article places the event in its political, cultural and naval contexts to re-evaluate its importance to British history and to correct a number of inaccuracies in recent historiography. The wreck occurred at a sensitive political moment as, within the maelstrom of the Exclusion Crisis (1679−81), the Duke was more hopeful of securing his place in the succession but, due in part to the cultural vigour of the ship of state trope, the disaster risked James being regarded as a pilot and commander unable to steer the nation’s future. Since his political enemies could use the shipwreck as propaganda to undermine his position as heir to the throne, the ways the event in general, and especially the Duke’s behaviour, were reported and memorialised became popular topics which were debated and contested from Whig and Tory viewpoints. Since the tragedy occurred at sea, one arm of early modern state apparatus that was especially responsive was the English navy, which was itself in the midst of a power struggle between Crown and admiralty for control over future direction. The article sheds new light on the far-reaching implications for James’s reign of the sinking of the Gloucester and argues afresh for the centrality of maritime history to Restoration political history.
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