Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Special Report: Did Thames Wreck Take on the Armada? Volume 58 Number 2, March/April 2005
by David Keys

[image] Archaeologists recovering a section of the hull from the Thames Estuary Wreck site (© Wessex Archaeology Ltd. 2004) [LARGER IMAGE]

The submerged wreck of a massive Elizabethan merchant ship, thought to be one of the English vessels that fought the Spanish Armada in 1588, has been discovered in the estuary of the Thames where it flows into the North Sea, 50 miles east of London.

Huge timbers discovered over the past 18 months during dredging for the Port of London indicate that the vessel was one of the largest Armada-period English merchant craft ever built. The evidence so far suggests that the vessel may have been Royal Merchant, a historically important ship. If so, it would be the first major English vessel discovered that was involved in confronting the Armada.

Royal Merchant (also known as Merchant Royal) was one of the London-based armed merchant ships that joined government warships to face the Spanish invasion of England. (Trading vessels were often armed in order to defend themselves against enemy warships or pirates, or because they were operated by pirates.) In 1587 it had been the flagship of the London merchants' squadron that participated in Sir Francis Drake's preemptive strike on Cadiz famous for "singeing the King of Spain's beard." In 1590, its captain was the notorious English pirate Samuel Foxcraft, who sought to prey on Spanish shipping around the Azores, but instead captured a friendly Dutch ship and brutally tortured its crew. Foxcraft was charged with piracy but was never brought to trial.

The following year, Royal Merchant, still commanded by Foxcraft, took part in one of English maritime history's most important undertakings--a bid to establish English sea power in the East Indies. With two other vessels, it set sail on the voyage that laid the foundations for the East India Company, which much later evolved into Britain's Indian empire. Foxcraft died en route, and Royal Merchant returned to England carrying those members of the expedition who were suffering from scurvy or fever.

The ship transported goods across the Mediterranean for English merchants associated with the Levant Company for several decades until disappearing from the historical record in 1627. With a career lasting more than 50 years, it was one of the longest-surviving merchant ships of the period.

The evidence that the Thames Estuary wreck may well be that of Royal Merchant is circumstantial but persuasive. The oak trees used to make the ship's timbers were felled in 1574, according to dendrochronological analysis of the timbers. The consensus is that ships of this particular period were likely built with green wood, and most experts believe the craft would therefore have been built in 1574 and 1575.

Judging from the tree-ring data, the most likely origin of the timber is the county of Essex (immediately northeast of London), an important source for London Elizabethan shipbuilding yards. Moreover, the sheer size of the ship also suggests that it was constructed in the capital. "Judging by the scale of the vessel's timber framing, the ship was probably in the 300-400-ton range," says Collin McKewan, a Tudor ship specialist who has analyzed some of the timbers.

Marine archaeologists from the contract firm Wessex Archaeology, who examined the wreck in great detail in the estuary and lifted its timbers from the seabed, believe the keel would have been up to 100 feet long. Some 15 to 20 percent of the vessel has survived, including 50 feet of the port side of the hull running from the bow.

The only other Tudor wreck brought to the surface is the famous Mary Rose, flagship of Henry VIII. The enormous 700-ton warship sank in 1545 and was excavated in the 1970s and 1980s.

If the Thames Estuary wreck was indeed a 300-400-ton London-based vessel built in 1574-1575, a Tudor manuscript dated March 1576 may reveal which ship it was. This document, Ships newly builded since the beginning of the year 1571, lists only two London vessels in that range: Royal Merchant and Edward Bonaventure.

Bonaventure was wrecked in the Caribbean in 1593. That leaves Royal Merchant as the only likely candidate, if the vessel was completed in London prior to March 1576. But if it was launched in London after that date, one has to examine a 1582 survey of merchant vessels, and the only three potential candidates on that later list are Royal Merchant and two other ships with unknown fates, Galleon and Swan.

The Levant Company records suggest that Royal Merchant had an extremely long career, and the many repairs discovered on the hull of the Thames Estuary wreck are consistent with that. Unfortunately, researchers are unable to determine when or how the ship came to rest at the bottom of the estuary.

When it sank, the vessel was armed with at least ten cannons, and was carrying a cargo of casks of red lead (minium), and large numbers of tin and lead ingots and folded iron bars. The tin and the lead were almost certainly from England. The origin of the iron bars is at present unknown but they may have come from southeast England or more likely from Spain. It is difficult to ascertain the original size of the cargo because of the fact that some artifacts, including a very large number of iron bars and all of the red lead, were removed from the area by commercial salvors over a century ago, while others likely remain deep in the muddy riverbed. Archaeological divers also discovered a Spanish olive jar on the wreck--a find which would be consistent with Royal Merchant's long Mediterranean career. The cargo may have been bound for London.

At this time, the hull remains of the Thames Estuary wreck are being placed in a salt water lake near Portsmouth, where they will be used as a training site for archaeological divers.

David Keys is ARCHAEOLOGY's London correspondent

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America