Novice divers find wreck of 17th century warship

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A fisherman and a novice diver may have made a remarkable discovery in British waters close to the Sussex coast - the wreck of the famous 17th-century warship, HMS Resolution.

The Culture Minister David Lammy will announce today that the remains have protected status, in a bid to deter rogue divers from raiding the site while archeologists confirm whether it is the 70-gun vessel sunk in the great storm of November, 1703.

Three divers from Eastbourne made the remarkable discovery on 17 April last year when they were asked to clear some trapped lobster pots for local fishermen. The discovery has been kept secret until now, while English Heritage and the Government discussed how best to protect it.

"It was unbelievable," said Paul Stratford, who first donned scuba gear just four years earlier. "We went down there expecting to get some fishing junk and found a huge anchor. Visibility was poor but we kept finding cannon after cannon. We have been fishing and then diving in this area since we were kids, so were astonished to find this in our bay. It feeds your imagination about what else might be down there."

A preliminary survey at the site, nine metres below sea level, about one-and-a-half miles offshore in Pevensey Bay, found at least 45 guns and the timber hull. It identified the well-preserved remains of a large warship dating between 1600 and 1800 and "likely" to be the Resolution.

"This is a hugely significant find," said Adrian Barak of the Nautical Heritage Association, whose trust owns the wreck. "We can't say it is definitely Resolution but it is almost the exact right place. It is remarkable that this wreck hadn't been discovered before. It may be that the seabed was moved by winter storms which uncovered it."

Mr Lammy has designated the warship under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973, banning diving within 100m. There are 58 protected wrecks in UK waters.

Built in Harwich between 1665 and 1667, the Resolution, some 121ft long and weighing 885 tons, sank in the legendary 120mph "perfect hurricane" that ripped across the south of England during the night of 26 November 1703. "No pen could describe it, nor tongue express it, nor thought conceive it unless by one in the extremity of it," wrote Daniel Defoe of the storm. Coastal towns such as Portsmouth "looked as if the enemy had sackt them and were most miserably torn to pieces".

At least 8,000 sailors were swept overboard to their deaths as hundreds of merchant and Royal Navy ships were sunk, many returning from helping the King of Spain fight the French in the War of the Spanish Succession. The Resolution was blown across the Solent, hitting the Owers Banks, before the crew could raise a scrap of sail and round Beachy Head. Captain Thomas Liell tried unsuccessfully to beach her in Pevensey Bay, but the crew had to abandon ship, and made it ashore.