The ship of gold: The '£1 billion' lost treasure of the Merchant Royal

Merchant ship

The El Dorado of the sea

On 23 September, 1641, an English galleon named the Merchant Royal, loaded with gold and silver, sank off the coast of Cornwall. The wreck remains lost to this day.

Within her soggy hulls is thought to be one of the most valuable shipwreck treasures in history. Or is it?

It is almost certainly a large haul of treasure, but is it the ‘billion-pound wreck’ described by some sources and news outlets?

What did the ship get up to in her time?

The Merchant Royal was built at the Royal Naval Dockyard in Deptford and launched in 1627.

Not much is known of the ship’s captain, John Limbrey, aside from the fact that he was living in Limehouse, London after the sinking.

Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, England and Spain flitted between periods of peaceful relations and war. In the 1630s, Captain Limbrey took advantage of this period of stability to spend several years trading with Spanish colonies in the New World, including the Caribbean.

The 700-ton ship had a crew of ’80 seaman, besides passengers’, according to a contemporary account.

On his way back to England, in a ship already brimming with riches from a successful trading mission, Limbrey called into Cadiz in Spain for a long pitstop.

What was she doing when she sank?

When the galleon got into difficulties off the Cornish coast in September 1641, she was on her way to Flanders, possibly with the aim of hugging the south coast of England on the way and calling in at her homeport of Dartmouth for vital repairs.

While in Cadiz, Captain Limbrey struck a lucrative deal with the Spanish authorities to transport silver and gold to the port city of Antwerp to pay the 30,000-strong Habsburg garrison there.

The ship had been troubled by leaks for some time, with repairs taking place in Cadiz. These apparently failed to cure the problem, as the ship’s hull once again sprung a leak after leaving Cadiz. With stormy seas and malfunctioning pumps, the ship began to take on more and more water. On 23 September, 1641, off the west coast of Cornwall, ‘ten leagues [about 34 miles] from Land’s End’, the merchant vessel sank.

Eighteen lucky crewmembers were rescued by another ship, though presumably without saving any of the valuable treasure, for it was said that the captain afterwards was a broken man.

What was on board and what would it be worth today?

Online news articles and websites discussing the wreck vary in their estimates of the value of the sunken treasure. The highest figure given is around £20bn, and the most conservative estimate is £250m. One commonly cited number is £1bn, which is likely a value frequently repeated because it is an exciting amount but not ridiculously high.

So, which of these valuations is nearest the mark?

The contents of the wreck being worth £20bn is baseless, bearing no resemblance to any surviving information about the ship. The crucial error that has been made with these valuations is, in my view, the interpretation of contemporary sources. A 1641 pamphlet held in the British Library gives an account of the shipwreck. It describes the Merchant Royal as having gone down with ‘300000 in ready boliogne’ (bullion) and ‘100,000 pound in gold and as much value in jewels’.

This accords with the estimate given in a section of Charles I’s state papers of 30 September 1641, in which news of the sinking of the Merchant Royal is discussed. In this he describes the loss of the cargo as ‘the greatest that was ever sustained in one ship, being worth 400,000l. [£400,000] at least’.

These sources appear to have been misinterpreted by some as referring to pounds in weight. This would indeed make the treasure trove astronomically valuable, but I believe that these sources are clearly talking about pounds in currency.

Whether or not the value of the jewels from the description in the 1641 pamphlet can be inferred as being £500,000 or £800,000, depending on how you read it, if we take the figure of £400,000 from Charles I’s memo as being a conservative value of the haul, the value of the trove becomes a little leaner than a billion pounds.

According to the currency converter on the website of the UK’s National Archives, £400,000 in 1640 was worth just over £47m in 2017. The changes in the price of gold must of course be considered. In 1641 the price of gold in England was roughly £3.73 per troy ounce [a unit of measure for precious metal weight]. This means that the £100,000 of gold referred to in the pamphlet must have weighed about 26809 troy ounces. At today’s prices, this would be worth just under £35m.

Also on board was ‘each man’s adventure’, meaning each crew member’s personal haul of goods, possessions or money. So, considering the changes in the prices of silver and gold and allowing for different interpretations of the sources, together with the fact that the full extent of what is down there is unknown, a liberal estimate would be a valuation of £150-300m.

Has the wreck been found?

In short, no. The wreck of the Merchant Royal has to this day never been located. In 2007, an American company found a large, valuable shipwreck in the northeast Atlantic. At the time it was rumoured to be the Merchant Royal, but it is now thought to be an 18th or 19th-century Spanish ship. While the identity of the ship that they located and salvaged treasure from has not been conclusively determined, experts are quite certain that it is not the Merchant Royal.

In March 2019, Cornish fishermen pulled up something a tad larger than a tuna – a huge anchor, 20 miles from Land’s End and around 300ft down. Experts believe it could be from the lost galleon, as it matches that type that would have been used by the Merchant Royal.

As of the 380th anniversary of the sinking, though, the search for the treasure of the Merchant Royal continues.

Written by:

James Brigden