Shackleton’s ‘Endurance’ ship found off Antarctica
The discovery of one of the largest shipwrecks ever unearthed sent shockwaves through the archeology world this week. The Endurance, the lost ship of legendary Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, was discovered at the bottom of the Weddell Sea some 107 years after it sank. It was destroyed by sea ice and plunged to the sea floor in 1915, forcing Shackleton and his crew to flee on foot and in small craft. Video footage shows that the ship is still sitting on the seabed at a depth of 3,008m and is remarkably preserved.
While wrecks such as the Endurance continue to amaze archaeologists and historians, one of the greatest mysteries of British maritime history remains largely forgotten.
Hundreds of ships have met their fate off the North Wales coast, particularly off Anglesey, and two stand out in terms of loss of life.
One – the Royal Charter – was recorded by Charles Dickens and later celebrated in song, while the other dates back around 1,000 years, but a third continues to be largely ignored.
Gareth Cowell, a Maritime historian, has spent years researching the lost wreckage of the 1625 disaster, and his research may finally provide the basis for telling the tragic story.
No memorial has been erected and no church has recorded the disaster, meaning the names and lives of those on board have been lost to time.
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Almost no evidence of the disaster remains.
The stern of the Endurance, discovered this week after 107 years on the seabed.
Mr Cowell told North Wales Live last year: ‘Perhaps the loss of life was so great and the embarrassment so acute that nobody wanted to acknowledge it.
In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, anti-Catholicism was rampant in the Irish province of Ulster, with frequent rebellions and a regular need for military support.
AH Dodd, a historian from Bangor, estimated in his book “Studies in Stuart Wales” that around 1,000 soldiers were sent to Ireland each year in the 1620s.
A dispatch of British troops set sail in the late winter of 1625 to deal with another uprising.
Some 550 soldiers set sail from Liverpool on six merchant ships on 29 March 1625, the sailing crews bringing the strength to 770.
Diagram showing how strong south-easterly winds drove Royal Troop ships towards Penmon Point.
Richard Rose, Liverpool’s mayor at the time, said the weather was “going south-westerly” when they left.
However, he confessed that the wind had changed direction to the northeast that same night and that “there was such a violent storm” when the ships passed Anglesey.
Unfortunately, the ships were no match for the strong winds and crashing waves.
Mr Cowell’s research revealed how the ships were blown with unstoppable force towards the limestone beach blocks near Penmon Point and Puffin Island.
Only one of the six ships survived, with 112 on board.
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A letter sent to the Admiralty following the disaster of 1625.
Of the five ships lost, 80 men came ashore from one ship and eight from another, but the remaining 470 men all lost their lives.
The only surviving ship reached Beaumaris, which was North Wales’ main port throughout the Stuart period.
Four days after the devastating storm, the “clarke of this ship’s company” returned to Liverpool, and the mayor of the city wrote an urgent letter describing the enormous losses suffered by the Lords of the Admiralty.
A second letter written by the nobleman William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby said the few survivors were “severely bruised” and “fighting for the preservation of their lives”.
Mr Cowell discovered the letter, one of only two known records of the disaster, at the National Archives in Kew.
The limestone rocks of Penmon Lighthouse.
He said: “It looks like the survivors may have gone wild at Beaumaris. They were probably freezing and hungry, but no one wanted to have anything to do with them.
Church records offer no insight into the dead and Mr Cowell found no evidence of burial. He added: “It’s hard to imagine that some weren’t washed ashore.”
The mystery of the 1625 disaster contrasts sharply with the Royal Charter.
Also a victim of northeast winds, it is often called Wales’ worst maritime disaster, with some 450 dead.
A memorial was erected at Moelfre and over 140 of the dead were buried in the nearby church of St Gallgo.
Charles Dickens was sent to Anglesey to report on the disaster, and later wrote about it in The Uncommercial Traveller.
Why the royal charter is remembered but the fleet heading for Ireland was not remains a mystery. Mr Cowell said: “No one really knows. However, the sinking of the Royal Charter is more recent and its history is more colorful.
Dickens’ ship was carrying a large amount of gold and had wives and children, with no survivors.
The only physical evidence of the Penmon disaster is the two culverin cannons discovered on the limestone seabed by independent diver David McCreadie in 1995.
Only one was raised and preserved in the National Museum in Cardiff after being cleaned and reassembled. Mr Cowell remains “almost certain” that there are “many more artifacts on the seabed”.