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.

Land's End, Cornwall © RDImages/Epics/Getty Images
The ship sank 30 miles off Land's End
(Image credit: © RDImages/Epics/Getty Images)

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”.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

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.

Ben Judge

Ben studied modern languages at London University's Queen Mary College. After dabbling unhappily in local government finance for a while, he went to work for The Scotsman newspaper in Edinburgh. The launch of the paper's website, scotsman.com, in the early years of the dotcom craze, saw Ben move online to manage the Business and Motors channels before becoming deputy editor with responsibility for all aspects of online production for The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Edinburgh Evening News websites, along with the papers' Edinburgh Festivals website.

Ben joined MoneyWeek as website editor in 2008, just as the Great Financial Crisis was brewing. He has written extensively for the website and magazine, with a particular emphasis on alternative finance and fintech, including blockchain and bitcoin. As an early adopter of bitcoin, Ben bought when the price was under $200, but went on to spend it all on foolish fripperies.