His Majesty’s Ship Invincible began life as the French warship L’Invincible and was launched at Rochefort, France, in 1744. With two decks, 74 guns, and a crew of 700 this was one of the elite fighting ships of the day. Such firepower could outmatch all but the largest three deck warships and was coupled with the speed and agility of much smaller vessels, making L’Invincible a far superior design. The 74 gun ship became the backbone of the Fleet for over half a century and 16 such vessels were present at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
In 1747 L’Invincible, under the command of Captain Saint-Georges, was escorting a French convoy to India. On the 14 May, when the 30 ship convoy was off Cape Finisterre in northwest Spain, it was intercepted by a British squadron of 14 warships led by Admiral Anson. L’Invincible, though hopelessly outnumbered, fought valiantly to give the convoy time to escape. L’Invincible was the last ship to strike its colours at the Battle of Cape Finisterre. Of the 14 French warships, only two escaped. The rest were captured and put into service in the Royal Navy, or sunk.
L’Invincible was taken as a war prize and recommissioned as Invincible (without ‘HMS’, which was not an official abbreviation until several decades later). During her service with the Royal Navy she was the flagship of three Admirals, took part in two wars against the French and served as far away as the West Indies and Nova Scotia. Despite seeing little combat, the ship’s powerful attributes meant that its fourteen year sailing career included a variety of roles from flagship to fast troop transport.
On February 19th 1758, Admiral Boscawen’s fleet set sail from Portsmouth bound for Nova Scotia on a second attempt to take the French fort of Louisbourg. Invincible was meant to take part in this (ultimately) successful mission, but never left the Solent. After a calamitous series of events the esteemed warship ran aground on Dean Sand and, despite continuous attempts at refloating, the hull was flooded and fell over on its beam ends in gale force winds with seas breaking over the top.
After all that could be salvaged was retrieved, Invincible settled into the sandbank and became entombed for the next 221 years. In 1979 a local fisherman, Arthur Mack, brought up some remarkable timbers after snagging his nets on a sandbank in the eastern Solent, and the site now known as Horse Tail was dived by local divers Jim Boyle and John Broomhead, and later by Commander John Bingeman.
The team successfully identified the extensive wreck and formed The Invincible Committee (1758) to research and excavate the site. In September 1980 Invincible was designated as a Historic Shipwreck under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973.
The Archive Project
The vast quantity of documentary records associated with this site has not been readily accessible until recently. In 2008 the MAT, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, began making this research archive publicly available by copying, sorting and digitising the great quantity of dive logs, site plans and artefact records and enabling public access on-line via the Archaeology Data Service (ADS). To see the results of this work, please visit the interactive site-viewer.
In 2009 an inspection of the Invincible protected wreck site was completed in conjunction with the Solent Marine Heritage Assets project. The monitoring dive assessed the structural remains extant on the seabed and recorded newly exposed items such as cable/cordage and a silver tankard/jug. The Solent Marine Heritage Assests Invincible Site Report is available to download for more information.
References & Further Reading
Bingeman, J. 2010. The First HMS Invincible (1747-1758): Her Excavations (1980-1991). Oxbow Books
Lavery, B. 1988. The Royal Navy’s First Invincible. The ship, the wreck and the discovery. Portsmouth: Invincible Conservations (1744-1758) Ltd.
Fenwick, V. and Gale, A. 1998. Historic Shipwrecks. Discovered, Protected and Investigated. Stroud: Tempus.