In 1690, at the time of the Seven Years War, when Spain was an ally to Britain and France the enemy, Louis XIV sent his army across the Rhine to capture the German town of Phillipsburg - the town surrendered within weeks – but alarmed by his success a grand alliance against him was formed by Britain, Spain, Holland, Portugal, Sweden and the Italian Duchy of Savoy, Victor Amadeus II, as well as the German Holy Roman Empire. Louis’s navy won control of the English Channel by defeating the Anglo Dutch fleet of Beachy Head, Sussex.
William III ordered the building of the HMS Sussex as a reminder of the defeat in the channel.
Under the command of Admiral Sir Francis Wheeler, the 80 gun warship with a 500 man crew set sail on its first major voyage in December 1693 as the flagship of the Royal Navy fleet to take up station near Cadiz with orders to protect the Spanish ‘Plate’ Fleet who carried precious cargoes from the Philippines and the Americas, going on to deliver to Mediterranean ports.
Aboard the HMS Sussex was a secret cargo known only to a few, ten tonnes of gold coins and bullion, to the value of a million pounds worth. This gold was destined for the Duke of Savoy, a bribe in order to enlist mercenary soldiers to fight Louis XIV, thus diverting the French troops to the northern front.
On the afternoon of February 17th, soon after Admiral Wheeler’s fleet cleared Gibraltar Bay, a fierce storm known as ‘a levant wind’ blew in off the African coast. The HMS Sussex was caught in the open sea with water entering her gun ports to overload the already low riding ship to the point where she lost her natural buoyancy. She sank with all lives lost bar two.
23 other ships of the same fleet of 80 were also lost with a loss of life that ran to 1200 – Admiral Wheeler’s body was found several days later on the eastern shore of the rock of Gibraltar.
The Duke of Savoy was left without his promised funds, so he changed sides and supported Louis XIV – this allowed the French to increase pressure in the north making fresh gains in German speaking Alsace and Lorraine.
Reputedly, this loss prompted William III to summon Sir John Houblon and instruct him to begin the plan he had been trying to convince the King to embark on – The Bank of England, and collect loans from the public to help him fight the French. As Huguenot, Houblon and his compatriots lent William III money to fight their erstwhile enemy, Louis XIV. The bank opened at John Houblon’s house before moving to its famous location in Threadneedle Street.
Peace was finally signed in 1697, giving Louis XIV Alsace and much of Lorraine – regions which would be fought over and change hands many times during the next 250 years.
Annexed by the German Kaiser in 1871 and again in 1940 by Hitler, although they had a largely French speaking population. They were returned to France in 1945 at the end of WWII.
Between 1998 and 2001, Odyssey Marine Exploration located the shipwreck off Gibraltar at a depth of 821 metres. In September 2002 Odyssey reached an agreement with the rightful owner, the British government, on a formula for sharing any potential spoils, under which it would get 80 percent of the proceeds up to $45 million, 50 percent from $45 million to $500 million and 40 percent above $500 million. The British government would get the rest.
Unfortunately, the Spanish Government stopped the project, insisting Spanish archaeologists take part in order to ascertain the shipwreck is indeed the Sussex and not a Spanish galleon. The wrangling over ownership, salvage rights and diving in Spanish waters is still ongoing.