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HMS Sussex in storm off coast of Gibraltar
Cutaway of HMS Sussex
Pilots guide the ROV during Odyssey's search for HMS Sussex shipwreck site
Odyssey crew prepares to launch ROV to the site believed to be HMS Sussex
Iron cannon on the shipwreck site believed to be HMS Sussex

HMS Sussex Historical Overview

HMS Sussex was a 157 foot-long, 80-gun English warship lost in a severe storm in the western Mediterranean in 1694. Research suggests when the Sussex sank she was carrying a substantial cargo of coins. Odyssey believes it has located the shipwreck of HMS Sussex and has signed an exclusive partnering agreement with the Government of the United Kingdom for the archaeological excavation of the shipwreck site.

Launched at Chatham Dockyard on April 11, 1693, HMS Sussex was the seventh of 13 ships built in a special naval program aimed at countering French expansionism. The War of the League of Augsburg in which she would briefly play a part had begun in October 1688 and would last until 1697.   

Under the command of Admiral Sir Francis Wheeler, HMS Sussex set sail on its first major voyage in December 1693 as the flagship of the Royal Navy fleet assigned strategic duties in the Mediterranean Sea. Thirty-eight warships made up the military component of the “Straits Fleet” (as it was called). Six others were to join the fleet at Cadiz, along with four Dutch warships.

The Sussex’s mission in the Mediterranean was part of a grand strategy by a coalition of nations to weaken an aggressive France ruled by the Sun King, Louis XIV. A pivotal figure in the strategy was Victor Amadeus, the Duke of Savoy, and an ally of England, Holland, Spain and others in the War of the League of Augsburg. Savoy's entry in the war threatened France with the risk of attack through a poorly defended area. When France offered a generous payment to persuade the Duke of Savoy to switch sides—3,000,000 "in money," and six tons of gold—the English hurried to deliver a large fortune to counter France’s bribe.

Historical records suggest that a shipment of money equal to a million pounds sterling was destined for Savoy, shipped aboard HMS Sussex. That amount would have closely equaled the bribe Louis XIV offered the Duke to abandon the allies. Other 1693 documents including the Calendar of State Papers, the official diaries of the English Court, show that just as Wheeler's fleet was assembling to sail for the Mediterranean, an order was sent to the Exchequer* to issue "a million pounds in money for the use of the Fleet, and that "a great summ of money is sending hence for Savoy."

On December 27th, 1693, Wheeler’s fleet sailed for the Mediterranean from Spithead, a naval port on the southeastern end of Great Britain guarding the English Channel. The entire fleet of merchant and naval ships, 199 vessels in total, filled the harbor of Cadiz, Spain, to take on supplies and reorganize for nearly a month before breaking into smaller groups for various destinations in the Mediterranean. HMS Sussex and a number of other warships then sailed to Gibraltar to rendezvous with merchants waiting for an escort to convoy to Italy and the eastern Mediterranean ports of the Levant. There, a gathering of 85 merchant vessels and warships then prepared to set out to sea. As archival records indicate, Sussex may have held a secret commission to deliver a huge subsidy to secure Savoy's loyalty and continued participation in the war against Louis XIV.

On the afternoon of February 17th, soon after Admiral Wheeler’s fleet cleared Gibraltar Bay, a fierce storm blew in off the African coast. The Sussex and her convoy were caught in the open sea as the storm increased in strength. On the morning of February 19th, 1694, HMS Sussex sank. Of the more than 600 crew aboard, all but two drowned. Among the victims was Admiral Wheeler, whose body was found several days later on the eastern shore of the rock of Gibraltar.

Thirteen ships of the fleet were lost in the storm, many on Gibraltar's rocky shore or in the Bay of Gibraltar. HMS Sussex was the largest and most heavily armed of all of the ships that foundered in the open sea. There were approximately 1,200 casualties in total, in what remains one of the worst disasters in the history of the Royal Navy. The sinking of the Sussex was observed by several eyewitnesses who later testified at a hearing held by the Royal Navy. Two vessels also witnessed her sinking and reported the loss in their logs. This data combined with other reports was essential to Odyssey in its early research and subsequent search for the wreck of HMS Sussex.

The secret funds never reached Savoy. Compelling evidence suggests that the Duke’s enormous payment went down with the ship. A year later, England again shipped money to Savoy, but it was too late. The Duke of Savoy had taken the French offer and changed sides. In the secret Treaty of Turin negotiated in early 1696, Savoy reaped considerable gains in land, fortifications, and acceptance in the French royal family. His defection brought the war to an end in stalemate a year later with the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697.

Shortly after the loss of HMS Sussex, the English Crown immediately sought to raise one million pounds sterling in new revenues, a sum that corresponds precisely with the money that is believed to have been aboard the ship when she sank deep in the Mediterranean.

*In British history, the government department that was responsible for receiving and dispersing the public revenue.

At this time, England financed her fleet operations by running a deficit. At no time in 1693 had a million pounds of money been issued from the Exchequer to pay for victuals, crew and officers' salaries, or shipyard work. This order was an extraordinary action taken by a desperately cash-strapped government and the best explanation is that it was intended for the Duke of Savoy.

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