The Ark Royal

by Heather R. Darsie* (with help from Burns Darsie III)

My father observes his 75th birthday this year. He asked me to write an article about the Ark Royal to commemorate his birthday. When he was a young man, my father purchased a remarkable hand-made paper replica of the Ark Royal and gave it to my grandfather. It now sits in my father’s office. I did not understand the significance of that paper ship despite having seen it hundreds, if not thousands, of times. I was enlightened by my father earlier this year when we were discussing birthday gifts for him.

My father grew up with a keen interest in ships and military history. He went on to study history for his BA before pursuing an MBA and moving to New York. During his time on the east coast, my father was able to embrace his love of ships by teaching himself how to sail a sloop. He took our family out on the sea from time to time, and thereby introduced me to my love of the ocean and open water. To honor my father, his love of history, and thank him for supporting my work, we have co-written this piece on Elizabeth I’s ship, the Ark Royal. I do hope you enjoy it.

The Ark Royal was ordered by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1586. She began her life as Ark Raleigh. Sir Walter Raleigh, an ambitious 32-year-old, was knighted by Elizabeth I in 1585 because of his service and good standing with the queen. In January 1587, the galleon was purchased by the Crown. It featured a quarter deck, poop deck, two gun decks, and a double forecastle. In short, this was a massive, heavy ship that rocked upon the water more than it glided through. She carried upwards of 400 persons, most of whom were sailors in charge of wrangling the powerful behemoth. Much to the chagrin of the crew, this gigantic warship had a heavy roll at sea.

The Ark Royal was similar to the formidable Swedish ship Mars, which was rediscovered in 2011. The Mars sank in 1570 during the Seven Years’ War, fought in part in the Baltic Sea. Built during 1563 to 1564, the Mars boasted three masts. Additionally, the ship carried multiple cannons on her five decks. The Mars was an important component of Edward XIV of Sweden’s navy. The hopeful suitor of Elizabeth I sent his portrait to her in 1561, and carried on with hypothetical marriage negotiations between himself and Elizabeth for a period of years. These, of course, came to naught.

Paper model of the Ark Royal, owned by the Darsie family

In January 1587, after the galleon was purchased from Raleigh, she was renamed Ark Royal. The Ark Royal was thence the flagship of the English Navy under Lord Admiral Charles Howard. Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham, was appointed to the position in 1585. Howard and the Ark Royal were launched into glory during the 1588 battles with the Spanish Armada.

An unofficial Anglo-Spanish war began in 1585 when Elizabeth I sent her favorite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, to the Netherlands with a military force. The goal was to support the States General of the Netherlands in their opposition to the Habsburgs. The Habsburgs, as Holy Roman Emperors and Regents, had maintained control over the Netherlands since at least 1438 with the election of Maximilian I.

In February 1587, Lord Admiral Howard was involved in the death Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary was a Catholic contender for the Protestant Elizabeth I’s throne. Several plots and intrigues to set Mary on the throne of England took place from 1558 through to 1587. By this time, Elizabeth was 53-years-old and would not have any children. A plot that Mary was allegedly involved in was uncovered, and a trial set. Howard was named as a commissioner for Mary’s trial, though it is not known whether he attended. What is known it that Howard encouraged Elizabeth to sign Mary’s death warrant. Mary was executed on 18 February 1587.

In April and May 1587, Francis Drake led an attack on the Spanish navy ships docked at Cádiz. Drake left from Plymouth on 12 April 1587 with the mission of inspecting the Spanish preparations for attacking England and ham-stringing the Spanish fleet. Elizabeth, as she was wont to do, sent instructions sometime after Drake’s departure that he was not to attack the Spanish. Of course, Elizabeth’s change of mind was never communicated to Drake.

The Ark Royal
lmage, circa 1880, from the historical archives of LIFE magazine (which was published between 1883-1972). Online via Mundo Historia, a Spanish-language website.

The English, with some help from the Dutch, sailed into the Port (Bay?) of Cádiz on the evening of 29 April 1587. The English commenced their attack, and the Spanish feebly fought back until 1 May 1587. In the end, the English destroyed more than 25 Spanish ships.

By 1588, the Ark Royal was the English Navy’s flagship, under the control of Lord High Admiral Charles Howard. One of Elizabeth I’s maternal great grandfathers and one of Charles Howard’s paternal grandfathers was Thomas Howard, 2d Duke of Norfolk, making Elizabeth and Charles first cousins, once removed. The English fleet took on the Spanish Armada. After repelling the Spanish attack, the Ark Royal and a few other English ships chased the Armada to the North Sea. The Ark Royal continued building her legacy as a threat to the Spanish when she served as the flagship of the English fleet in 1596 for another attack on Cádiz, and again in 1599 when the Spanish threatened invasion again.

After James I & VI came to the throne, the Ark Royal was renamed the Anne Royal after James’ queen consort Anne of Denmark. The Anne Royal was refitted with guns and improved in 1608, before serving as a threat to the Spanish once more in another raid on Cádiz in 1625. She finally met her demise in 1636 when her anchor caught ground, splitting the ship’s hull. The Ark Royal sank. Despite expensive attempts at raising the great ship, she was ultimately dismantled, her parts incorporated into other ships by 1638.

Love learning about history? Then pre-order my book, Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’, a new biography about Anne of Cleves told from the German perspective!

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Amazon UK: Anna, Duchess of Cleves: UK Pre-Order

*Please note this article first appeared on

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Sources & Suggested Reading

  1. Wood, Peter, Oliver E. Allen, Douglas Botting, Henry E. Gruppe, Brendan Lehane, Melvin Maddocks, Russell Miller, Richard Humble, David Armine Howarth, John Rousmaniere, Colin Thubron, Bryce S. Walker, Robert Wernick, and A. B. C. Whipple. The Seafarers: The Armada. Amsterdam: Time-Life Books, 1979.
  2. Ringaard, Anne. „Archaeologists Reveal New Finds from Legendary Swedish Warship.” Retrieved 3 January 2019.
  3. “HMS Ark Royal (1587)” Retrieved 15 January 2019.
  4. Darsie, Heather. „The Armada is Coming.” Retrieved 10 February 2019.



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