What Happened to the Merchant Royal Treasure Ship?

It is said that when the Merchant Royal ship sank in 1641 it did so with vast - almost unimaginable - treasure on board. But what really happened to the British gold ship? And where is she now?

3 January 2023

The Merchant Royal has been called the ‘ship of gold’ and the ‘El Dorado of the seas’. Some say it’s the most valuable shipwreck in history, with estimates valuing its cargo at up to £1 billion in modern terms. But many question how much of the story of this ship, sometimes called Royal Merchant, is maritime folklore and how much is true.

So, what happened to the merchant gold ship? Has the Merchant Royal been found? And exactly how much money was on the Merchant Royal when she went down? Wetsuits at the ready, because we’re taking a deep dive, starting with the most startling question of all: Is the Royal Merchant ship real?

Is the Royal Merchant Ship Real?

Cadiz. Engraving depicting the city with the port (Photo: PHAS / Contributor via Getty Images)

The Royal Merchant ship certainly existed. The 700 ton galleon was built in London’s Deptford Dockyard in 1627. Her captain was John Limbrey, who traded with the Spanish colonies in the West Indies between 1637 and 1640.

She was on her way back to England from one such trading trip in the summer of 1640 when the ship’s hull sprung a leak. Calling in at the Spanish port of Cadiz, Limbrey had the hull repaired. While he was there, another ship caught fire. Spotting an opportunity to make some extra money, Limbrey offered to deliver that ship’s cargo aboard the Merchant Royal. This was said to be a haul of treasure intended to pay 30,000 Spanish troops in the Belgian city of Flanders.

The Sinking of the Infamous British Gold Ship

Gold treasure (Photo: dit: Universal History Archive via Getty Images)

In tandem with her sister ship, the Dover Merchant, the Merchant Royal left Cadiz in the last week of August 1641. She was laden with a staggering amount of gold, silver and other valuables. However, somewhere along the voyage, she began taking on water yet again.

Struggling around Britain’s southwestern coastline with a huge leak and broken pumps, the vessel sank on 23 September 1641 around 30 miles off the coast of Land’s End.

Gold, ship and crew all went down.

All told, eighteen souls were lost but Limbrey and forty others were rescued by the Dover Merchant.

It was said that Limbrey refused to leave his treasure, saying that he had grafted for years for his money but as soon as the ship started to sink, he reconsidered.

The loss of such a huge amount of money – some sources suggest it may have been as much as one-third of the national exchequer – made the headlines. So much so that it’s believed proceedings in the House of Commons were halted for the news to be announced.

How Much Money Was on the Merchant Royal?

A pile of silver bullion bars and coins (Photo: Az Jackson via Getty Images)

Whilst it is often called the “British gold ship” or “Land’s End gold ship”, the Royal Merchant’s cargo contained much besides. The Spanish loot alone included silver bars, gold bullion and Spanish dollars. However, there’s no definitive account of her cargo at the time.

Sources have put the value of the sunken treasure as high as £20 billion and as low as £250 million. A contemporary pamphlet said the ship went down with ‘300000 in ready boliogne’ (bullion) and ‘100,000 pound in gold and as much value in jewels’.

If the 100,000 pounds of gold was the weight and not the monetary value, then at late 2022 prices of around £1,500 per ounce, 100,000lb would be worth in the region of £2.4 billion. The same again in jewels and whatever is meant by ‘ready bullion’ doubles that to somewhere approaching £5 billion. Conversely, if 100,000 pounds was the monetary value then it would be worth in the region of £35 million.

In the State Papers of King Charles I, it states ‘I suppose you have understood of the loss of the Royal Merchant coming into our road, which is the greatest that was ever sustained in one ship, being worth 400,000l. at least. The merchants of Antwerp will be the greatest losers, for she had in her belonging to them 300,000l. in bullion; if so be the Infante Cardinal lose not upon it Flanders for want of money to pay the soldiers.’

Historical map of Lands End (Photo: Print Collector / Contributor via Getty Images)

Has the Merchant Royal Been Found?

In a word, no. Over the years, a number of different salvage teams have tried and failed to locate the wreck of the Merchant Royal and its associated treasure haul.

However, in March 2019, a clue may have been discovered around 20 miles off the Land’s End coast. Almost 380 years after the ship went down, a fishing trawler called the Spirited Lady netted an admiralty patterned long shank anchor. It’s thought to be from the Merchant Royal but no conclusive proof has ever been offered.

The Legend of the Land’s End Gold Ship

Open treasure chest underwater (Photo: fergregory via Getty Images)

To this day, the mystery of the lost treasure of the most famous, or infamous, British gold ship remains just that. A mystery. Will it ever be found? Who knows, but it won’t stop people seeking this most elusive of lost ships.


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