Shipwrecks are among the most atmospheric of our monuments, partly because they have an air of mystery and are often inaccessible.
The wreck event itself is often the first phase of loss: they are lost to sight, lost to living memory, and lost to history, with written evidence lost or destroyed.
Although shipwrecks involve a considerable loss of life and destruction of ships and cargo, they also preserve archaeology that would otherwise be lost to us through the ages. The usual fate of a ship at the end of its useful life has always been scrapping.
Our shipwreck heritage is also unusual in that it is through destruction, rather than through building, that shipwrecks become monuments. Many wrecks connect with historic events and trade routes, and many more are to be discovered.
Here, we look at what six shipwrecks can tell us about our maritime heritage.
1. Salcombe Cannon site
The unique Salcombe wreck preserves not one but two different wreck events, neither of which has been identified.
The first is a mid-17th century wreck with a cannon, carrying cargo from North Africa, unusual enough and perhaps evidence of the ‘Barbary corsairs’ which sailed as far north as Iceland.
Further investigation revealed even more unusual remains: a Bronze Age assemblage whose artefacts originated in France. It will likely be a shipwreck cargo lost with the vessel, which has long since wholly disappeared: a tantalising glimpse into trade activity around 1200 to 1000 BC.
2. Grace Dieu
Even with more records available during the Middle Ages, identifying a medieval vessel remains a significant achievement.
The size, location, and construction style of a ‘very old’ wreck reported at Bursledon, Hampshire, in 1859 were important clues to its identity.
Surviving records pointed to the Grace Dieu, a ‘great ship’ built for Henry V in 1418, moored in the River Hamble, struck by lightning in 1439, and then broken up. Who knows, perhaps there were sightings between then and 1859?
3. Mary Rose
Built for Henry VIII, the Mary Rose has the advantage of being well documented, not least when capsizing in front of the King as he watched his fleet sail out to engage the French in the Battle of the Solent in 1545.
Some evidence for the wreck was nearly lost for good. Sir Anthony Browne, master of the King’s horses, commissioned some wall paintings shortly afterwards for Cowdray House, Sussex, one of which showed the wreck during the battle.
Unfortunately, the house and its contents were lost in a fire in 1793. Happily, a copy survives in the 1770s engraved by the Society of Antiquaries of London, the nearest thing we have to a contemporary illustration.
4. Great Storm of 1703
November 1703 saw the most significant storm ever recorded in English history, resulting in a significant loss of life at sea.
From a storm that affected the entire country, three shipwrecks identified through their naval connections – Northumberland, Restoration, and Stirling Castle – lie among the Goodwin Sands off Kent. It is rare for groups of associated wrecks to be found and rarer still for a group associated with a nationwide weather event to be identified in such a small area.
We don’t know how many ships were lost in the storm because smaller craft, such as fishing vessels, were less ‘newsworthy’ than warships. However, a few of these were included in a book on the storm published in 1704 by Daniel Defoe, who would write the most famous shipwreck novel of all time, ‘Robinson Crusoe’.
Much archaeological potential is still to be discovered on the seabed from this and other events.
5. Minehead wreck, late 18th to early 19th century
It is still not always possible to establish the identity of wrecks in the inter-tidal zone, which may appear and disappear regularly or be discovered following a storm eroding sand from a beach.
Public members often report such discoveries to Historic England, among them the Minehead wreck, uncovered in 2014.
These wrecks’ identities disappear from living memory even as the sand covers them. A shipwreck of 1736 was a potential candidate for identifying the remains, but investigation revealed that the vessel was built too late.
However, given the number of vessels afloat (and wrecked!) in the 18th and 19th centuries, the number of wrecks found is very small. Like this, those found preserve evidence of long-forgotten ship types and trade routes otherwise unknown in the archaeological record.
6. U8, 1915 (image below of U-118)
Even wrecks from relatively recent periods, such as the First World War, can be difficult to identify.
For cargo vessels, so many ships of the same type were lost to the same war causes in the same areas on the same routes, carrying the same cargo, that it can be very difficult to distinguish between them.
When divers first discovered the German submarine U8, they found it was older than most First World War U-boats sunk around the Straits of Dover. It was possible to narrow it down to one of the pre-war U5 classes, of which only four were built.
It is rare and was also the first known U-boat lost in English waters in 1915, captured without loss of life before being sunk.