Great Michael, the Great Michael, the Great Michael. Why is it that hardly anyone knows of this galleon? It was state of the art technology back in 1507 when plans were first laid and construction began. This was ordered by Scotland’s successful King James IV. This period of time is often overlooked by many casual history buffs. However, stumbling upon such snippets of information, concerning such a great galleon, is what makes the casual reading of such obscure history a delight.
The Great Michael was a super league ship of the time. She was revolutionary and caused an arms race because all European Monarchs were jealous of the ship. It was not a superpower that had built such a ship. It was Scotland. For a short time, King James IV was leading the way in Naval supremacy.
The up and coming Stewarts of Scotland were investing in the future. King James IV wanted to build the biggest and the best. The ship was a sight to behold when launched in 1511. She had twice the displacement of England’s The Mary Rose. The young and grand King Henry VIII’s pride and joy. In this time England and Scotland were firm and old enemies. England’s ship was launched at the same time of 1511. In many ways, it might have been an arms race. Another ship was built by Henry VIII of England in 1514. He did not want to be outdone by Scotland’s the Great Michael. The ship was known as Henry Grace à Dieu (The Great Harry)
It is strange how the Great Michael faded into obscurity. She would have been about longer than the Mary Rose who had over thirty-three years of service. The English ship fought in conflicts with France and Scotland. She may have faded into obscurity too, like The Great Michael, but for the catastrophic accident that made the galleon capsize during the Battle of the Solent in 1545. Those last few dreadful moment of the ship’s life immortalised the Mary Rose, because the, by now, old King Henry VIII was watching from the shore when this event happened. It was a moment of dreadful sensationalism that bought the gallon immortality in historical memory. Such a thing is right, but I can’t help feeling that this wonderful Scottish galleon does not get the recognition it rightly deserves. I think it is simply that her service and fate were not sensational enough and only a few historians and ship enthusiasts know of her.
The Great Michael was sent by King James IV to ally with the French Navy in 1513. The War of the League of Cambrai was in full swing. France was at war with the Papal States and other European powers began to join sides to honour alliances and treaties. Scotland joined with France, Venice and the Duchy of Ferrara.
England joined with the Papal States, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, the Duchy of Milan and the Swiss Mercenaries. Young King Henry VIII of England went to France and fought with the Holy Roman Empire while Scotland led an ill-fated invasion of England which was under regency control of Queen Catherine of Aragon.
The Great Michael had been hired by the French King Louis XII along with two other Scottish galleons. The Margaret and the James. The great galleons were very expensive to run and the loan to an old ally was a sure way of running the fine ships from another richer nation’s purse. The grand ship would never return to Scotland because King James IV was killed fighting at the Battle of Flodden. Also, the cream of Scotland’s nobility fell at the furious battle too.
Scotland’s financial situation had become desperate overnight. The late James IV left his kingdom in the hands of his baby son and Queen Mary Tudor (Elder sister of English King Henry VIII.) She had to be regent with help of the remaining Scottish nobility while the infant king grew up. The Great Michael was sold to the French Navy in the following year of 1514 for a pittance of what the galleon was worth.
She was renamed the Great Nave of Scotland and some say she was left in ports and hardly ever put to sea. There were rumours that The Great Michael (Great Nave of Scotland) took part in the Battle of the Solent thirty-one years after being sold to France. This is feasible, but there is no concrete proof that the ship was with the French fleet. She would still have been a formidable vessel thirty years later and I can’t see why such a galleon would not have been used in the French fleet. If she was, no one knows what became of her in later years. There are no records to date about the Great Michael's fate – Scotland’s wonderful galleon of the seas.