DAVID ARNOLD: Sunken HMS Sussex and her lost untold riches

The 1690 Battle of Beachy Head depicted in a contemporary painting by a French artist. No doubt there was little interest by British artists in recording a shocking defeat!
The 1690 Battle of Beachy Head depicted in a contemporary painting by a French artist. No doubt there was little interest by British artists in recording a shocking defeat!

Last week I told the story of HMS Sussex and how she sailed into Singapore to take the Japanese surrender in August 1945 while a band of Royal Marines proudly played “Sussex by the Sea” from her deck.

This week I tell the tale of a much earlier HMS Sussex that involves a sea battle off Beachy Head and lost treasure that may be worth several billions of pounds.

It begins in 1690, at the time of the Seven Years War, when Spain was an ally to Britain and France our sworn enemy.

Louis XIV sent his army across the Rhine to capture the German town of Phillipsburg.

As a consequence a grand alliance against him was formed by Britain, Spain, Holland, Portugal, Sweden as well as the German Holy Roman Empire. Talk about ganging up!

The odds seemed overwhelmingly in favour of the alliance but the French were far from dismayed.

Indeed Louis’s navy went on to win control of the English Channel by roundly defeating an Anglo Dutch fleet off Beachy Head on 10 July 1690.

The English and Dutch lost a dozen ships while the French fleet went unscathed.

The action was clearly visible to spectators atop the white cliffs.

As an irony, Beachy Head’s name is derived from the French description, Le Beau Chef – the beautiful head.

The defeat caused panic in England. This had happened at the same time as William of Orange was in Ireland fighting King James II for the crown of England.

Indeed the decisive Battle of the Boyne that finally ousted James (who had the support of the French) took place a day later onJuly 11.

However, the reverse in the Channel was seen as a major threat to William’s ability to cross the Irish Sea and return to England.

There also appeared little to stop the French launching an invasion.

The diarist John Evelyn wrote: “The whole nation now exceedingly alarmed by the French fleet braving our coast even to the very Thames mouth.”

Evelyn had been brought up in Southover Grange in Lewes and was educated at Lewes Old Grammar School.

Fortunately the invasion scare came to nothing as the French king failed to follow up his success.

By the end of August the Allies had some 90 warships gathered in the English Channel and French naval dominance was blunted.

The Battle of Beachy Head had far-reaching consequences for Britain’s maritime future. She had no choice but to build a more powerful navy.

A private institution, the Bank of England, was set up to raise money for a fleet that was to be four times larger than previously.

A strong navy would be key to Britain becoming a dominant world power and building a huge empire.

One of the first of the new ships was given the name HMS Sussex by King William III as a stern reminder of the defeat at Beachy Head.

She was built at Chatham Dockyard and with 80 guns and 500 crew became the pride of the Royal Navy.

As the flagship of Sir Francis Wheeler (a survivor of the Battle of Beachy Head) she set sail from Portsmouth on 27th December 1693, escorting a fleet of 48 warships and 166 merchant vessels to the Mediterranean.

Aboard HMS Sussex was a secret cargo; 10 tonnes of gold coins and bullion then worth a million pounds.

The gold was intended for the Duke of Savoy who had agreed to spend it in large part on the raising of a mercenary army to fight the French in southern Europe.

On the afternoon of 17th February, soon after Admiral Wheeler’s fleet cleared Gibraltar Bay, a tremendous storm blew in off the African coast.

HMS Sussex was caught in the open sea with, it is believed, her gun ports open.

Water poured in to swamp the low riding ship causing her to quickly founder.

She went down with all lives lost bar two.

No less than 23 other ships of the same fleet were also sank and over 1,200 crewmen were drowned.

Admiral Wheeler’s body was found several days later on the eastern shore of the Rock of Gibraltar still clad in his night-shirt.

It was one of the worse disasters to ever befall the Royal Navy and the ship’s cargo of gold made HMS Sussex one of the most valuable wrecks of all time.

It will be no surprise to learn that finding HMS Sussex is a treasure hunter’s dream.

A Florida-based company called Odyssey Marine believes it has located the remains some 2,550 feet down on the sea bed.

Robot cameras have photographed cannons and other tell-tale artefacts.

In law should the gold be recovered, it will be the property of the British government and an agreement has been reached on sharing any proceeds with the salvage company.

However, the Spanish authorities are not happy with the situation and attempts to resolve the matter amicably have so far met with no success.

Meanwhile, with inflation, that cargo of gold, if it exists, becomes worth more with each passing year. Right now it could fetch as much as £4bn.