Originally conceived as a class of eight vessels, with the end of hostilities, work on all the ships was suspended and four units Monmouth, Polyphemus, Arrogant and Hermes were cancelled outright. The four remaining vessels remained uncompleted for the best part of a decade. The earlier light fleet carriers of the Colossus and Majestic classes were completed before work resumed on the larger ships. With the extended completion periods of the units, and the rapid advances in aircraft carrier design at the time of their building, it was almost inevitable that large differences should be seen between the various members of the class.
HMS Centaur, the first to be completed, was commissioned in 1954. The ship had an axial flight deck and was thus unsuitable for operating the jets then rapidly supplanting piston engine aircraft in the Fleet Air Arm. Centaur was commissioned in Belfast and after completing her sea trials, she then steamed into Portsmouth Dockyard and for the next six months in 1954 the ship underwent a substantial reconstruction to provide for an interim (angled at 4 degrees, and not sponsoned out) angled flight deck and low powered steam catapults. However, service in this new configuration did not last long and the ship was decommissioned in 1965, but used as a harbor accommodation ship for a further 6 years. Conversion to a "commando carrier" configuration was cancelled in 1966.
HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, the next two members of the class, completed spent their lives inextricably linked. They both took part in Operation Musketeer, during the Suez Crisis, and they were both later converted into commando carriers. In this role, instead of carrying fast jets, they carried helicopters and marines. They were worked hard in the 1960s, (and not well maintained), with each taking turns deploying 'east of Suez' to the Far East Fleet. The link was broken when Albion (needing an expensive refit) was decommissioned in 1973. Bulwark lingered on a few years longer until 1976. However, in early 1979, Bulwark was recommissioned in the anti-submarine role. It was only a short commission though as a mess deck fire in 1979, and an engine room fire in 1980 finally saw the old ship withdrawn from service. She was rapidly surveyed during the Falklands War for recommissioning, but determined to be in too poor a material condition. She was sold for scrap in late 1983.
The final ship of the class started as Elephant, but renamed as HMS Hermes, she had a longer service life than any of the others in British hands. Not completed until 1959, some 15 years after being started, Hermes incorporated a full angled flight deck and other changes compared to Centaur, Albion and Bulwark.
After fulfilling the role of a light attack carrier for a number of years, Hermes was converted to a commando carrier to replace Albion in the early 1970s. However, a return to operating fixed-wing aircraft beckoned at the end of the decade. Hermes was fitted with a ski-jump to enable the ship to operate the new Sea Harrier aircraft then coming into service. In this role, the ship saw considerable action in the Falklands War, acting as the flagship of the aircraft carrier task force. Hermes finally left Royal Navy service in 1984, and was sold to India. As INS Viraat, the ship continues in active service as of 2014.