Coronation finery and Charles I's silver treasure lie in estuary mud the mud of the

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KING CHARLES I thought it an act of the Devil when he watched the royal ferry Blessing of Burntisland capsize in the Firth of Forth, taking priceless Stuart treasure and members of his entourage to a watery grave.

Nineteen witches were rounded up in Lancashire for invoking the squall that swamped the vessel in 1633 and a distraught Charles cut short his coronation tour of Scotland and retired to London. The witches died in jail. And Charles, a staunch believer in the divine right of kings, lost his head on the block in Whitehall - 350 years ago today.

Now the waters of the Forth may be about to yield up the wooden hull of the Blessing as well as tons of royal possessions - perhaps worth pounds 500m in today's values.

Marine archaeologists yesterday detailed the discovery of a wreck very similar in profile to the ill-fated ferry, buried in several feet of silt. Howard Murray, the leader of the project, said the wreck had a "better than evens chance of bring the Blessing". But though a diver has touched the heavily encrusted timber, no artefacts will be brought to the surface until the wreck has been fully surveyed and conservation facilities are in place. "I have no intention of being known as the person who destroyed Charles I's treasure," Mr Murray said.

The wreck lies a mile off Burntisland on the north bank of the Forth, at the same spot indicated in 1997 by Jim Longton, 67, a "dowser", who used a map and pendulum in a technique similar to water divining.

Members of the Burntisland Heritage Trust and the Royal Navy have been searching for the Blessing since 1991. But until Mr Longton's divination hopes were dwindling.

Then last September sonar equipment on board HMS Roebuck located the wreck site. The computer-produced survey images were encouraging and last month divers went down beneath 120 feet of water to begin verification work.

Excited comparisons are being made with the recovery of the Mary Rose. But whereas Henry VIII's magnificent flagship was equipped as a warship, the Blessing was a humble ferry carrying the silverware, finery and coronation gifts of a monarch in his pomp.

Charles I's coronation in Scotland has been largely overlooked by historians in Scotland and England. The trust hopes that the discovery of the wreck will rekindle interest in the event north of the border and perhaps bring about a rerun. With a Scottish Parliament coming into being this year after almost 300 years, it would be fitting if another Charles - the III as he would be - also had a coronation in Edinburgh.

"It would be a wonderful example of history coming full circle," said Alex Kilgour, a spokesman for the trust. "When we started this project in 1991, we would never have believed we would get a Scottish Parliament. Somehow it is all coming together."

The 17th-century Edinburgh Parliament had told Charles he had to be crowned in Scotland if he wanted to wear the Scottish crown. So eight years after being crowned in London he travelled north for one of the most extravagant tours ever undertaken by a monarch.

Fountains flowed with red wine and royal portraits by Van Dyck hung in the Royal Mile as the king paraded from the Castle down to Holyrood Palace for the coronation. From there he went on to Linlithgow Palace and Stirling Castle. He revisited his birth place at Dunfermline and as an entertainment for his courtiers had a pontoon built over water on which 50 Highlanders danced a fling.

The last stop before the ferry crossing was the royal hunting lodge at Falkland Palace. His 3,000-strong entourage included 150 English nobles and 350 soldiers. And as they approached the Forth, 1,000 horses were needed to pull 200 carts loaded with gifts and royal baggage. The treasure was said to be worth pounds 100,000 - one fifth of the entire Scottish exchequer. Not surprisingly, the likely cause of the Blessing's sinking was not the witches but simple overloading.

A contemporay account records that on a "somewhat tempestuous day some Englishmen, the King's servants and rich coffers were drowned in sight of the King's pinnace, [boat] which made the King melancholy that night".

To the great relief of the project team, Donald Dewar, the Secretary of State for Scotland, slapped a Protection of Wrecks order on the site yesterday to keep treasure hunters away. "We are not treasure hunters, but the the knowledge that they might move in on the site has been one of our biggest worries," Mr Kilgour said.

He dreams of finding the ferry cabin boy's pipe in the wreck with Charles' books and Bibles, not just the fabled 280-piece silver dinning service of King Henry VIII.

A full recovery and conservation operation could cost pounds 5m or pounds 6m - way beyond the trust's means. The team are hoping for Lottery money. And if the ferry is raised, they want it to remain close to the old port of Burntisland.

The story of the coronation tour and loss of the Blessing is told in a book launched yesterday by Mr Murray. Sales will help to fund further work. Copies at pounds 9.75p can be ordered via Freephone 0800 833 957 or Internet site www.kingcharles-wrex.co.uk

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