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Stirling Castle

Location: Goodwin Sands, Kent
Age / period: post medieval (1678-1703)
List entry number: 1000056
Reason for designation: historical significance
Depth: 15-20m

Wreck history and loss

The 'Stirling Castle' was a third rate 70-gun ship-of-the-line built in 1678 at Deptford as part of Samuel Pepys' regeneration of the English navy. Like the 'Northumberland' and the 'Restoration' she was rebuilt at Chatham in 1699 and she was refitted in 1701.

The 'Stirling Castle' was part of a squadron returning from the Mediterranean which had anchored in the Downs, just off the coast of Kent, during the Great Storm of 1703. Along with the Northumberland, the 'Restoration' and many other vessels the Stirling Castle was driven into the notorious Goodwin Sands and sunk. Overall 1190 lives were lost.

Onion bottles in concretion
Onion bottles in concretion © Seadive

Discovery and investigation

The site was first located in 1979 when local divers from Thanet were investigating a fisherman's net fastening. At that time the ship had been dramatically exposed by shifts in the Goodwin Sands, possibly for the first time since she was lost. The dynamic nature of the Goodwin Sands led the amateur divers to recover many objects which were at risk of being completely lost. The exposed hull was remarkably well-preserved and in tact, with enormous potential to provide information on the late 17th/early 18th century English navy; consequently the site was designated in 1980.

At this time the 'Stirling Castle' was purchased by the Isle of Thanet Archaeological Unit (now the Isle of Thanet Archaeological Society) but once more disappeared into the sand.

In the following years the site has been periodically monitored. During the 1980s and 1990s film footage and still photographs of the site were collected and a variety of geophysical techniques have been employed to study the movements of the ship. In 1998 the vessel once more began to emerge from the sand and a team formed under the name Operation Man O' War carried out survey work in 1999. This survey indicated that the ship had undergone substantial movement and internal collapse.

Heel of boot recovered from the Stirling Castle wreck site
Heel of boot recovered from the Stirling Castle wreck site © Seadive


When the ship is exposed many artefacts become visible and are recovered if they are considered to be at risk. Both organic and inorganic artefacts survive to a remarkable degree of preservation, enhancing the archaeological potential of the site.

Artefacts identified include guns and carriages, anchors, shot, buttons, keys, navigational equipment, various rigging elements, rope and ceramics. Some of the more extraordinary items include book covers, one of the only intact late Stuart copper galley kettles, a partitioned wooden box complete with medicinal bottles, a wooden log reel and a sieve. A ships bell similar to the one recovered from the 'Northumberland' originally helped to identify this wreck, both were marked with a naval arrow and the date 1701. Additionally, on both sites initials on pewter helped to identify which ship had been discovered.

In 2000 a complete gun and carriage were raised following the internal collapse. Collections of these items can be seen in the National Maritime Museum and the Ramsgate Maritime Museum.

Further work

The wreck of the 'Stirling Castle' is clearly under threat from the dynamic environment in which it rests. Without close monitoring delicate objects could be washed away and the hull could collapse further.

In 2003 a desk-based assessment of the site was commissioned to determine what actions could be taken and monitoring of the site through both diver and geophysical survey is carried out regularly. It is anticipated that the formation of a Goodwin Sands Joint Action Group, supported by English Heritage and local maritime heritage interests, will help solve some of these issues.

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