Britannia and beyond: a history of royal yachts
In the opening episode of The Crown ’s newest season, the drama portrays Queen Elizabeth II’s consternation as she slowly says goodbye to her beloved yacht, the Britannia. Rhiannon Davies considers the history of the royal vessel and the traditions of monarchs at sea…
When guessing which royal home allowed the Queen to “truly relax”, the ivy-clad Balmoral or the handsome façade of Sandringham Palace might spring to mind. However, it was another – floating – residence that the Queen felt most comfortable in: her royal yacht, HMY Britannia.
This yacht features in the opening episode of the fifth season of The Crown. With the Britannia in need of a multi-million pound refurbishment, the Queen (played by Imelda Staunton) asks prime minister John Major (Johnny Lee Miller) if the government will bear the eye-watering costs. She puts forward a powerful plea, explaining: “From the design of the hull to the smallest piece of china, she is a floating, seagoing expression of me.”
When was the first royal yacht?
The tradition of a royal yacht stretches back to 1660, when Charles II became England’s king. To mark his return to the throne, his Dutch allies gave him an extravagant gift: a yacht called the Mary.
As well as being built for speed, she was also designed with opulence in mind. “To give it the more lustre”, the ship’s exterior was “richly gilt” and “some of the best painters of the country” helped decorate its interior.
Read more about the history behind each episode of The Crown season 5:
- The Crown S5 E1: ‘Queen Victoria Syndrome’ and a second honeymoon
- The Crown S5 E2: Prince Philip’s ‘keeper of secrets’ and Andrew Norton’s book on Princess Diana
- The Crown S5 E3: exiled royals and the al-Fayeds
- The Crown S5 E4: the Queen’s “annus horribilis” and Princess Margaret’s relationship with Peter Townsend
- The Crown S5 E5 real history: ‘Camillagate’ tapes and a “war council” for the monarchy’s survival
- The Crown S5 E6 real history: the Romanovs’ murder, and Philip’s “spiritual companionship”
- The Crown S5 E7 real history: the introduction of Martin Bashir, and a royal education
- The Crown S5 E8 real history: Diana’s Panorama interview causes fireworks
- The Crown S5 E9 real history: the divorce settlement between Charles and Diana
Rather than relaxing on her decks, Charles used the Mary as a racing vessel before donating her to the Royal Navy. Her career ended abruptly in 1675, however, when she hit a rock in the treacherous Skerries – a cluster of islands near Northern Ireland, where many ships have been pulled below the waves.
Although the ship met a tragic fate, she started a tradition among the monarchy – since the Mary, there have been 82 royal yachts. As well as providing space for monarchs to relax from the stresses of ruling, they also had a practical purpose – deployment on diplomatic missions. Their role was especially important before the arrival of aeroplanes, as monarchs or British delegates could only reach other nations by sea.
While these vessels became a time-honoured tradition, they also moved with the times. The Victoria and Albert – one of Queen Victoria’s ships – was the first royal yacht in Britain to be fitted with a steam-propelled engine, meaning it could cruise along at 11.5 knots.
When Queen Elizabeth’s father, George VI, came to the throne in 1936, a royal yacht that Queen Victoria had lobbied to build – also called the Victoria and Albert – was still in service. However, it was decommissioned three years later, with its bronze-and-black hull starting to crumble.
When was HMY Britannia commissioned?
In 1952 George laid plans for a new yacht to replace the Victoria and Albert. She was to be named HMY Britannia (although this name was kept secret until her launch), and could be transformed into a hospital ship if the country was again plunged into war: the laundry room could be converted into a ward, and the main veranda doubled as a helicopter landing pad.
Tragically, a mere two days after Scotland’s John Brown shipyard received the order, the king passed away. But the shipyard still pressed on with making his plans for HMY Britannia a reality. Now, though, the new monarch, Elizabeth, was at the helm. She and Prince Philip altered the original plans, which they feared were too opulent, considering Britain was still rebuilding itself after the horrors of the Second World War.
However, it still had some extravagant touches. The yacht had a bespoke garage, so Elizabeth’s Rolls-Royce Phantom V could be brought aboard. (Later, Elizabeth stopped bringing her Phantom, which needed to have its bumpers removed so it would fit into the tight space, and the garage was used to store beer instead.)
Elizabeth and Philip both had their own bedrooms, bathrooms and living spaces, which they designed to reflect their personal tastes – the Queen favoured florals, while Philip opted for dark timber. The couple also ensured a piece of maritime history made its way onboard: Philip had saved the teak binnacle (the housing for a compass) from one of Queen Victoria’s royal yachts, and it was incorporated into Britannia’s design.
When did royal yacht Britannia launch?
Taking a little over a year to build, the ship was launched in April 1953 – shortly before the Queen’s coronation. With champagne still being seen as too luxurious for launching ships in the wake of the war, Elizabeth smashed a bottle of wine into Britannia’s hull instead and proclaimed: “I wish success to her and all who sail in her”.
The Queen’s wish seems to have been granted. Over her 44 years of service, the Britannia made more than 700 journeys to countries in the Commonwealth and beyond, travelling around 1.1m miles. Many luminaries stepped aboard her deck, with political heavyweights from Winston Churchill and Boris Yeltsin to Nelson Mandela enjoying delicious banquets in the lavish State Dining Room.
Aside from diplomacy, the ship also became a royal honeymoon spot, with four newlywed couples choosing to take a romantic cruise on Britannia. Princess Margaret was the first to make use of the so-called ‘honeymoon suite’ when she and the Earl of Snowdon enjoyed a Caribbean cruise in 1960. Most famously, Prince Charles and Princess Diana sailed on the ship in 1981, when they toured the Mediterranean for their honeymoon – Charles brought a double bed onto the yacht during their trip, as all of the bedrooms had single beds.
It was also the site of many family summer holidays, with the Western Isles tour being a particular favourite. This was a relaxed jaunt around the western islands of Scotland, when the royals could enjoy barbeques and play games. Sometimes one of the ship’s staircases would even be turned into a waterslide, for the young royals to splash down.
However, by the 1990s the ship was starting to deteriorate, and it was decided that “the costs were too great” to refurbish her. 1994 saw the announcement that the Britannia would be decommissioned; three years later, the Queen walked off her deck for the last time, shedding a tear at the yacht’s fate. Today the ship is a visitor attraction, docked in the port of Leith.
Although plans were discussed for another yacht to replace her, the world in 1997 was totally different to the one of 1952: air travel now reigned supreme, and Britain had lost its empire. The country was being steered in a different direction – one where a royal yacht no longer seemed necessary.