If the Royal Navy was Britain’s greatest weapon in its rise to becoming the world’s first truly global superpower, then Portsmouth was surely its most potent armoury. Nestled on a wonderful natural harbour that enjoys the protection of the Solent and the Isle of Wight, it has been the beating heart of the nation’s navy since King Henry VII made the city a royal dock over 500 years ago.


Step off the train in the heart of Portsmouth, head for the city’s Historic Dockyard, and you’ll be confronted by evidence of this proud maritime history wherever you look. There’s HMS Warrior which, when she was launched in 1860, was the largest, fastest and most powerful warship in the world. There are the remains of Henry VIII’s Mary Rose, which famously sank out in the Solent a few miles from the port she called home. And then, of course, there’s HMS Victory.

Victory isn’t as imposing as the nearby Warrior, nor does she boast the state-of-the-art, fully interactive museum that encases the Mary Rose. But somehow that doesn’t matter, for she has a caché all of her own.

When Victory was built in the 1750s and 60s, Britain was one of a number of nations harbouring ambitions of becoming the world’s dominant naval power. By the time she was retired half a century later, few could doubt that Britain – not France or Spain – was well on its way to achieving that goal. So Victory’s story is also the story of Britain’s emergence as an imperial heavyweight. And it is her role at Trafalgar, the battle that secured this pre-eminence, that makes her the most celebrated of all Royal Navy warships.

A world war

Victory was built during what is sometimes described as the world’s first truly global conflagration, the Seven Years’ War. This conflict pitched Britain against France and Spain in a battle for influence over vast swathes of the globe – including parts of India and North America. And, thanks to a series of naval victories – most famously the scattering of the French fleet off Quiberon Bay in 1759 – Britain emerged victorious.

“The Seven Years’ War was the moment that Britain announced itself as a global power,” says Roger Knight, former deputy director of the National Maritime Museum. “It was also the moment when the Royal Navy’s superiority over its greatest rivals – the French and Spanish – became evident.

“The Spanish were a fading power, while the jewel in the French crown was its continental army. Britain, meanwhile, was constantly living under the threat of invasion and regarded the Royal Navy as the last line of defence. The navy was developing into a national obsession, and by the time of the Seven Years’ War, this was beginning to pay dividends.”

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That obsession manifested itself in a number of ways – not least in the way that the government marshalled financial resources to fund it.

Victory’s story is also the story of Britain’s emergence as an imperial heavyweight

“Running a navy was an enormously expensive undertaking,” says Knight. “Luckily, by the late 18th century, the government had become very efficient at collecting taxes – much of which it spent on the navy. Also, the City of London had become one of the world’s pre-eminent financial centres, able to lend money to the government at times of war. And, let’s face it, it was in the city’s interests to do so, for it was navy warships that protected Britain’s ever expanding trade network.”

By the end of the 18th century, Britain was producing more shipwrights to build more ships than any other nation on the planet. And when it found itself at war with France and Spain again – in a series of conflicts that culminated in a bid to scotch Napoleon Bonaparte’s imperial ambitions – that investment was to give it a critical advantage.

It was during these conflicts that Victory experienced her first taste of battle – a skirmish with the French at the first battle of Ushant, just off the coast of north-west France in 1778. “This was a glancing, inconclusive clash,” says Knight, “in which the French and British fleets passed each other and exchanged fire.”

The battle of Cape St Vincent – fought off the Portuguese coast in 1797 – was far more decisive. This saw a British fleet defeat a larger Spanish force, effectively knocking the Spanish out of the French Revolutionary War as a naval force. Victory, under Captain Robert Calder, performed well in the battle, as did a multi-talented commander going by the name of Horatio Nelson.

Dark and claustrophobic

A sunny spring day in dry dock is about as far removed from the fury of a sea battle as you can get. For all that, exploring the Victory’s three gun decks provides at least a hint of what life was like for the men aboard the vessel 200 years ago. Above all, it must have been incredibly cramped, the low ceiling, perilously steep steps and lack of light adding to the sense of claustrophobia as you descend into the bowels of the ship.

“Almost 900 men lived cheek by jowl aboard the ship for what could be weeks on end,” says Knight. “Their job would have been to operate the 100 guns aboard the vessel, changing watch every four hours – often eating and (on the lower decks) sleeping in hammocks alongside their guns.”

With the heaviest guns weighing more than three tonnes – and the task of raising the anchor a herculean one requiring the heft of dozens of sailors – this was a job for fit, resilient men. But it was also one that many aspired to. “Life aboard the Victory would have had a lot of advantages,” says Knight. “For a start, you got regular pay. You also got regular food [one hot meal a day of either boiled beef with suet pudding, or boiled pork with peas]. In an age of crippling food shortages, that was not to be sniffed at.”

If a berth aboard a warship proved a draw for those at the bottom of the Royal Navy’s food chain, it was even more so for the officer class. One of the primary reasons that British warships outperformed their Spanish and French counterparts was that the Royal Navy was far better at attracting talented leaders to its ranks. And it did so by fostering a fierce competition for places, intensified by the lure of prize money.

“There were always far more officers than positions aboard warships,” says Knight. “I’ve read numerous letters penned by officers bemoaning their lack of employment. This competition – combined with a meritocratic selection system that, for the most part, didn’t favour the privileged – ensured that the cream rose to the top.”

This can be seen in the emergence of a number of gifted admirals in the late 18th century – among them Lord Keith (“a brilliant planner charged with preventing a French invasion across the Channel”) and James Saumarez, who took the fight to Napoleon in the Baltic. Both men, says Knight, were critical to Britain’s victory over France. But neither, he adds, were in the same class as the man who would stand over the era like a colossus: Horatio Nelson.

“Nelson was a brilliant commander for all kinds of reasons,” says Knight. “He was loved by his men, he was a quick thinker and, above all, a natural-born risk-taker.”

By the turn of the 19th century, Nelson’s reputation as the most talented commander in the Royal Navy was well-established – primarily courtesy of his victory over the French at the battle of the Nile in 1798. But it would be aboard the Victory in 1805’s battle of Trafalgar (nearly three years after taking command of the ship) that he would earn his status as an icon of British history.

Nelson was loved by his men, he was a quick thinker and, above all, a natural-born risk-taker

“All of Nelson’s qualities came to the fore at Trafalgar,” says Knight. “He got wind that a massive French fleet under French admiral Villeneuve had slipped out of Cadiz. He also knew that the fleet was plagued with sickness and low morale. So, instead of biding his time and forming his fleet into an orderly line, he went straight on the attack and caught the enemy completely off guard.”

Heart of the action

What followed was the most famous naval engagement in British history – a ferocious four-hour melee that pitted Nelson’s 27 ships against 33 Spanish and French vessels. Victory was at the heart of the action – its gunners firing 3,200 shots, most of them in the first 40 minutes. “The noise, the smoke, the cries of pain must have been indescribable,” says Knight. “At one point, the Victory was locked in a duel with the French ship Redoutable. The French crew were about to board the Victory when they were wiped out by a single discharge from a 68lb carronade [cannon]. It must have been truly hellish.”

Two centuries later, visitors to the Victory can follow in Nelson’s footsteps before and during the battle. There’s the elegant and spacious Great Cabin where he revealed his battle plans to his captains, and the quarter deck where, while directing operations, he was shot by a French seaman in the rigging of La Redoutable (a plaque commemorates the spot where he was stood when the bullet struck). Finally, there’s the orlop deck down below, where surgeons battled to save his life. Their efforts were in vain; Nelson died three hours later, just as it became clear that his fleet had won a stunning victory.

“Before Trafalgar, a French invasion cast a long shadow over Britain. After the battle, it was completely off the menu,” says Knight. “That’s how big a victory it was – and that’s why it would have been celebrated not just here in Portsmouth but across Britain.”

These celebrations were tempered by news of the death of the country’s greatest admiral. “Nelson’s funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral was a major cultural event,” says Knight. “As for Victory, she would have to wait a bit longer to be celebrated.” After being retired in 1812, she carried out various reserve jobs for the navy in Portsmouth, before being brought into dry dock in 1922. And there she sits regally today, a permanent reminder of an era when Britain ruled the waves.

Dr Roger Knight is a former deputy director of the National Maritime Museum

The Georgian navy: five more places to explore


The Historic Dockyard (Chatham, Kent)

Where Victory was constructed

Victory was built at Chatham, and returned here in the 1790s for a major refit (after narrowly avoiding being sent into semi-retirement as a hospital ship). The dockyard is now home to three historical vessels: HMS Cavalier, HMS Gannet and HM Submarine Ocelot.

Visit thedockyard.co.uk


HMS Trincomalee (Hartlepool)

Where a historic warship resides

The oldest warship afloat anywhere in the world is now the centrepiece of the Historic Dockyard Museum in Hartlepool. She was built in Bombay just after the Napoleonic Wars and went on to quell riots in Haiti, stop a threatened invasion of Cuba, and serve on an anti-slavery patrol.

Visit hms-trincomalee.co.uk


Buckler’s Hard museum (New Forest, Hampshire)

Where a private shipyard prospered

Much of the Georgian navy was built not in naval dockyards but in private shipyards such as Buckler’s Hard just up the road from Portsmouth. Dozens of navy warships were crafted here in the 18th century under the tutelage of master shipbuilder Henry Adams.

Visit bucklershard.co.uk


HM Frigate Unicorn Dundee (Scotland)

Where iron makes an appearance

For a 200-year-old vessel, the Unicorn is in remarkably good shape – probably because she is housed in her very own museum. Eagle-eyed visitors will notice that the vessel boasts relatively large amounts of iron – evidence that the age of timber vessels were numbered.

Visit frigateunicorn.org


Somerset House (London)

Where the navy was supplied

Supplying food and munitions to warships around the globe was a feat of mind-boggling complexity, and it was at the navy’s London offices that the operation was masterminded. The navy’s victualling board’s crest is still on display in this grand building.

Visit somersethouse.org.uk


This article was first published in the June 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.


Spencer MizenProduction Editor, BBC History Magazine

Spencer is production editor of BBC History Magazine