23 September 1641: the Merchant Royal sinks with 1.5 million ounces of gold

On this day in 1641, the Merchant Royal became the most valuable shipwreck in history when it sank off Cornwall with over £20bn-worth of gold.

The early to mid-1600s was a strange time for England, in that it wasn't constantly at war with half of Europe. And while it was at peace with Spain, Captain John Limbrey hired out his services and those of his ship, the Merchant Royal, to ferry gold, silver and jewels to Spain from the New World, and supplies, troops and ammunition the other way, making some £10,000 for himself in the process.

On his final voyage across the Atlantic in 1641, his ship sprung a leak, so he put in to Cadiz for repairs. While docked there, a fire broke out on a neighbouring vessel. As it happened, that ship had been contracted to take a cargo of gold and silver to Antwerp to pay for Spanish troops in Flanders. Limbrey was happy to add the cargo to his already bulging hold.

The Merchant Royal and its sister ship, the Dover Merchant, set sail in tandem. In total, the Merchant Royal was carrying 100,000lb of gold – almost 1.5 million ounces worth around £20bn at today's prices – 400 bars of Mexican silver and nearly 500,000 pieces of eight, plus “as much again in jewel”.

But on this day in 1641, as they approached the English Channel in poor weather, disaster struck. The ship's pumps broke and it began taking in water. The crew launched the ship's longboat and called for Limbrey to join them. But he was adamant he was staying with his treasure, claiming he'd worked hard in Spain to amass his fortune.

It didn't take long for him to reconsider, however, and soon he fired the ship's cannon to alert the Dover Merchant, which came to his assistance. He was the last man off the ship alive.

The Merchant Royal went down some 30 miles or so off Land's End. None of the treasure has ever been found.

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