THE wreckage of a 17th century warship, which lies off the Southend coast, has been given official protection.

Culture Secretary Barbara Follett has officially designated the wreck of HMS London.

This bans any interference with the wreck by drivers.

The move to designate the wreck was recommended by English Heritage, which feared the rediscovered warship would be plundered of valuable artefacts. HMS London blew-up and sank in the Thames Estuary in March 1665, as she was being brought up the river from Chatham, in Kent, killing more than 300 people.

Historians say the ship blew up accidentally, possibly as the gun crews reloaded old cartridge papers with gunpowder.

Alice Taylor, south east regional spokeswoman for English Heritage, said: “The ship was at very high risk of further uncontrolled salvage, following the recovery of a bronze cannon from the vessel last summer.

“The 90-gun warship is historically important. It is the only wreck site identified from this period and served in the Commonwealth Navy at a time when British naval power was emerging on the European stage.

“HMS London is known to have played a role in the Dutch War between 1652 and 1654.”

The ship later formed part of an English Squadron which was sent to collect Charles II from the Netherlands and restore him to the throne, following the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658.

Wessex Archaeology and the Port of London Authority, which regulates the river, use 3D survey equipment to locate the wreck.

The site is off the coast of Southend, but its exact location will not be revealed.

Mrs Follett added: “These rare and well-preserved remains provide a unique insight into one of the most significant periods in England’s history.

“I am delighted we can extend the proper protection to this shipwreck.”