Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard houses a wealth of treasures for naval fans – from the Victorian battleship HMS Warrior to the National Museum of the Royal Navy. One of its most treasured attractions holds the btitle of the world’s oldest naval ship still in commission as well as arguably being the most famous British warship: HMS Victory.
The Victory was ordered in 1758 as part of a plan by British Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder to create a new fleet of ships, of which the Victory would be the largest. Designed to carry 100 guns, the name was chosen with some apprehension – the previous Victory had been wrecked in the English Channel in 1744.
Around 6,000 trees were used to build the Victory, which was launched on 7 May 1765 from Chatham Royal Dockyard. The dock gates had to be hewed down as the ship, at 51 feet wide, was too big to fit through.
The ship was put in reserve, as Britain was not involved in any conflicts at the time. That changed when France became involved in the American War of Independence in 1778. The vessel was swiftly mobilised and, in March 1778, put into active duty as the flagship of Admiral Augustus Keppel for the First Battle of Ushant – a skirmish between British and French forces, just off the island of Ushant, close to Brittany. The clash ended indecisively.
The Second Battle of Ushant in 1781, in which the Victory also took part, was more successful: in that instance, the British fleet managed to capture 15 French ships and more than 1,000 soldiers who were part of a convoy sending supplies to the West Indies. The following year, the ship successfully escorted a supply convoy through a French and Spanish blockade during the Great Siege of Gibraltar.
The Anglo-Spanish War – part of the French Revolutionary Wars – would see the Victory’s next battle as the flagship of Admiral Sir John Jervis. At the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797, the British forces defeated the Spanish who. vastly outnumbered them.
On her return to Britain, the Victory was found to be in urgent need of repair, and so she was earmarked for conversion into a hospital ship for French and Spanish prisoners of war. The refit didn’t take place: soon after HMS Impregnable was lost in 1799, and the admiralty found itself short of a first-rate ship of the line. The Victory underwent an extensive restoration to make it fit for active service once more. By 1803, it was ready to face its greatest test.
None of its previous battles come close to the Victory’s most triumphant hour – the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar. On 19 October. 1805, French Admiral Pierre- Charles Villeneuve sailed his fleet from the Spanish port of Cadiz, bound for Naples. Two days later, close to Cape Trafalgar in southwest Spain, the British, commanded by Horatio Nelson aboard the Victory, met him in battle.
In a risky move, Nelson split his fleet into two, causing confusion amongst the enemy and winning a decisive victory. Nelson’s unusual tactics saw 22 French and Spanish ships captured or destroyed, while the British did not lose any.
Trafalgar would be Nelson and the Victory’s last major glimpse of battle – while leading the attack, Nelson was fatally shot through his left shoulder blade, the musket ball breaking his spine. He was carried below and heard the battle was won before taking his last breath.
After Trafalgar, the Victory was recommissioned in 1808 to lead the fleet in the Baltic but by the 1830s, it had been relegated to a stationary flagship for the Royal Navy. In 1922, the ship was placed in dry dock to be repaired and restored to how it would have looked during Nelson’s time.
Portsmouth was heavily bombed during World War II, with an air raid causing some damage to the ship, although much of the Victory that Nelson would have known has miraculously survived.
This article is taken from the August 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed