In this week’s edition I’d like to have a look at the Ark: no, not Noah’s, though it seems that we might emulate his example if the recent weather continues!
The first Ark Royal, a name with a distinguished tradition in the Royal Navy, was built as Ark Raleigh for Sir Walter Raleigh in 1587. The date was ominous. She was purchased by the Crown as the clouds of war gathered, and became the Ark Royal, flagship of the English fleet that issued out of Plymouth in July 1588 in response to a threat spotted by a scout off the Lizard. At a much later date, Macaulay described the scene, evocatively but with more romance than accuracy:
It was about the lovely close of a warm summer day,
There came a gallant merchant-ship full sail to Plymouth Bay;
Her crew had seen Castile‘s black fleet beyond Aurigny’s* isle
At earliest twilight, on the waves lie heaving many a mile . . .
Ark Royal, then, was involved in events that have become the very stuff of history and legend intermingled, with names that ‘everyone knows’ from history. Ark Royal was where Howard of Effingham wrote his despatches as the English pursued the Armada up-Channel. The legend of Drake’s cool finishing of his game of bowls has been interpreted by several commentators as an acknowledgement that it would take some time to warp the fleet out of Plymouth against the flood tide. There was also the ‘Protestant Wind’ that scattered the Armada; and Queen Elizabeth’s speech of defiance at Tilbury the following month: I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king . . .
By a strange twist of fate, Tilbury, too, was where Ark Royal met her end in 1636, leading to an official enquiry. According to her master: ‘Soon after 8, the flood coming on, she floated again, and sheered in a whole cable’s length to the north of her anchor, where she was in four fathom and a half of water, not complaining any way, for aught he could perceive. Then she took ashore offwards to the south, and touched upon some bank . . . and presently they cried out in hold there was a great leakage, and whilst they were loosing the foresail and topsail to run her to the north shore, the ship suddenly overset to the larboard (port side).’ She was recovered by the summer of that year, but was so badly damaged that it was more profitable to sell her hull for £300 than to repair her for £5,000, so that she was broken up at Blackwall.
A career that included one of the most famous actions in maritime history ended up literally mired in controversy, as, while she lay in the mud and men hacked holes in her to get at their personal effects, their masters wrangled over who was to blame for her being ‘bilged on her own anchor’.