The Queen and the Royal Navy: A golden thread running through our shared histories

Topic: PeopleRoyal Family Storyline: Royal Family

On a grey, wet, windy December day in 2017, wrapped in a thick purple coat, Queen Elizabeth II stood in the hangar of Britain’s newest, largest warship.

Before her around 3,000 people – not just ship’s company, but ambassadors, shipwrights, military leaders, families, musicians, politicians, and global media.

“As the daughter, wife and mother of naval officers, I recognise the unique demands our nation asks of you and I will always value my special link with HMS Queen Elizabeth, her ship’s company and their families,” she told those present at the carrier’s commissioning ceremony.

Her words underlined the importance of the Royal Navy to her – a golden thread running through a long, eventful life and reign and a century unparalleled in the history of the Navy and Nation.

For as she declared at the naming of the same aircraft carrier in 2014: “Lord Mountbatten told my father on becoming King there is no more fitting preparation to be King than to have been trained in the Royal Navy.

“My own personal associations, especially as the proud sponsor of six other warships and submarines, remind me that reputation for excellence continues to this day.”

Her Majesty’s first encounters with the Royal Navy were familial. She was born into a naval family, her father, then Duke of York, served before and during the Great War, including at the Battle of Jutland in the battleship HMS Collingwood.

In the year after the Princess Elizabeth’s birth, the Duke and Duchess of York made an official visit to Australia embarked in HMS Renown.

She joined her parents aboard the old Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert at the Coronation Fleet review in 1937 – the first of many such gatherings of naval might she would attend over 75 years.

Two years later she was famously hosted by a young Prince Philip Mountbatten while the King and Queen visited Britannia Royal Naval College. They corresponded throughout the war and married in November 1947.

For a brief period, she was both Royal Princess and naval wife, living, when possible, in Malta while Prince Philip was serving with the Mediterranean Fleet as First Lieutenant of the destroyer HMS Chequers and then in command of the frigate HMS Magpie.

In time, the future King Charles III would follow in his father’s footsteps (1971-76), training as a naval helicopter pilot and later taking command of the minesweeper HMS Bronington, followed by his younger brother. Prince Andrew served in the Falklands as a helicopter pilot in 820 Squadron, flying Sea Kings from HMS Invincible, and later commanding the mine-hunter HMS Cottesmore.

Princess Anne, The Princess Royal, has been Chief Commandant for women in the RN since 1974, while Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, has been Commodore-in-Chief of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary since 2006.

Few people have launched more ships than The Queen – more than half a dozen warships and submarines alone, beginning aged just 18 with the mighty battleship (Britain’s last) HMS Vanguard.

The teenage princess was not fazed by the magnitude of either the ship or occasion. Vanguard, she declared, was a "truly magnificent addition to the Royal Navy", the embodiment of three years' work by the shipwrights and engineers of the Clyde. "They must surely have put something into her which is part of the staunchness of our race."

First Lord of the Admiralty Albert Victor Alexander — the political head of the Navy — was impressed by the young princess' bearing. She had, he noted, carried out her duty in a "clear and decisive way".

With the untimely death of her father in 1952, the role of Monarch brought a myriad naval duties.

When the Royal Navy – and warships from across the Commonwealth – mustered in the Solent for the Coronation Fleet Review in June 1952, The Queen expressed her great pleasure and looked forward “to the further visits which I hope to make to you in the future.”

In the seven decades since, no year has passed without Her Majesty’s attendance at or involvement with the Senior Service: launchings, commissionings, official openings, formal and informal visits to ships and units, Colours presentations, decorating men and women who had gone above and beyond the call of duty, and Beat Retreats performed impeccably by the Band of HM Royal Marines.

There have been four jubilee celebrations – with accompanying medals for eligible personnel.

Some have been marked by gatherings of warships from around the world; others smaller-scale affairs such as supporting a river pageant on the Thames.

Of the numerous vessels she has sponsored since launching HMS Vanguard, only two remain in service today: HMS Lancaster (‘The Queen’s Frigate’) and HMS Queen Elizabeth.

Both are currently deployed on active service: the frigate with NATO in the Mediterranean, the carrier crossing the Atlantic to host an international security forum.

Each ship provides regular updates on their activities and progress, the sponsor visiting when her busy schedule allowed (2014 for Lancaster, when The Queen famously joined crew on the forecastle for a unique ship’s photograph; May last year for HMS Queen Elizabeth).

There have been numerous opportunities to witness the Royal Navy operationally: a Royal tour of South Africa with HMS Vanguard in 1947; an official visit to Athens aboard HMS Surprise, Flagship of the Commander in Chief Mediterranean, in late 1950, escorted by HMS Magpie, with her husband in command.

Her first world tour as Sovereign, started in the SS Gothic, and completed in the new HMY Britannia, was escorted by a series of RN and Commonwealth ships.

There was no vessel of which she was fonder than the Royal Yacht, beloved by both the Royal Family and the men who served aboard for more than 40 years.

The Royal Navy was often called upon to provide an escort for Britannia, whether at the highest profile of State visits, such as the US Bicentennial Fleet Review in 1976, or to guard the Royal Family’s privacy during their summer holiday cruises in the Western Isles. Britannia also provided one of her strongest links with the Royal Marines through the frequent embarkation of the Royal Marine Band Service, though she was also Patron of the RM Association from 1952 until her death and made Prince Philip Captain General Royal Marines on the day of her Coronation.

Above all, aided by the burgeoning jet age, the vessel carried The Queen and her family to parts of the now Commonwealth undreamed of by any previous British monarch – each voyage, each encounter with the indigenous peoples and inhabitants of countries large and small, dignitaries and rulers, each visit recorded for posterity by naval photographers.

Most such visits were joyous occasions, but The Queen has been there for sailors and Royal Marines and their families in darker times. Every time they have gone into action – from Suez to Iraq and Afghanistan – they have done so with words of encouragement and support of their monarch ringing in their ears.

For The Queen never forgot the sacrifices demanded by Service life. Her two eldest sons followed their father into the Service: the future Charles III entered Dartmouth in 1971, his younger brother Andrew in 1979. Charles rose to command a minesweeper, HMS Bronington, and his brother flew in the Falklands in 1982 during a 22-year-career.

The Queen’s understanding and insights as the daughter, wife and mother of sailors were underscored when she addressed the Armed Forces in 2009: “Wherever you are deployed in the world, you should be assured that I and the whole nation are deeply thankful for the part you play in helping to maintain peace around the globe.”
And she has always grasped the importance of the Royal Navy to the peace and prosperity of the United Kingdom.

The single greatest connection between Her Majesty and the Royal Navy as a formal appointment was her assumption of the Office of Lord High Admiral in 1964, one of the nine Great Offices of State, which enabled the Royal Navy to exist under the royal prerogative. She held the office for nearly half a century, before bestowing it upon on the Duke of Edinburgh to mark his 90th birthday in 2011. The Office reverted to the Crown on his death last year.

It is a role which dates back to the 14th Century and Her Majesty grasped its significance from the outset.

"Every Sovereign since those days has recognised the great responsibility of the Royal Navy as the protector of our island home.

"The safety of all those who 'pass on the seas upon their lawful occasions' has continued to rest on the broad shoulders of the men and women of the Royal Navy."

The Queen and her Navy: A Timeline

1927 One-year-old Princess Elizabeth’s parents, The Duke and Duchess of York, make an official visit to Australia in HMS Renown.

1937 Coronation of George VI and the Coronation Fleet Review at Spithead

1939 A 13-year-old Princess Elizabeth 'notices' Prince Philip of Greece during a visit to BRNC Dartmouth

1944 Princess Elizabeth launches HMS Vanguard, Britain's last battleship

1947 The princess joins HMS Vanguard on a Royal Tour to South Africa

1952 HMY Britannia is laid down

1953 Coronation Review at Spithead; HMS Surprise stands in for the Royal Yacht; HMY Britannia is launched on the Clyde

1954 The Queen and Prince Philip embark on Britannia for the first time during the final stages of a Commonwealth tour

1959 The Queen/HMY Britannia tour Canada for the opening of the St Lawrence Seaway and also hosts US President Eisenhower

1960 The Queen launches HMS Dreadnought, Britain's first nuclear submarine

1964 The Queen is proclaimed Lord High Admiral as the Admiralty is incorporated in the new Ministry of Defence

1969 Fleet Review at Spithead to celebrate 20 years of NATO; The Queen presents The Queen's Colour to the Fleet

1971 The Queen launches destroyer HMS Sheffield at Barrow (the ship was subsequently lost in the Falklands); The Prince of Wales begins officer training at Dartmouth

1973 The Queen spends a day with the Navy: touring Portsmouth Naval Base, HMS Dryad, HMS Victory and finally HMS Bacchante

1976 The Prince of Wales leaves the Royal Navy after commanding minesweeper HMS Bronington

1977 Silver Jubilee at Spithead; aircraft carrier HMS Invincible is launched by the Queen in Barrow

1979 Prince Andrew joins the Navy and trains as a helicopter pilot

1982 The Queen and Prince Philip welcome Prince Andrew - and HMS Invincible - home from the Falklands

1986 The Queen presents a new Colour to Portsmouth Command

1990 The Queen, as Duke of Lancaster, launches Type 23 frigate HMS Lancaster

1994 HMY Britannia plays a central role in D-Day 50th anniversary commemorations, including a Fleet Review

1997 The Queen famously sheds a tear as HMY Britannia decommissions in Portsmouth

1998 The Queen names helicopter carrier HMS Ocean in Barrow

2002 HMS Excellent hosts the military's tribute to the Queen's Golden Jubilee

2003 The RN reveals that the first super-carrier will be named HMS Queen Elizabeth; a new Queen's Colour is presented to the Fleet in Plymouth

2005 The Queen reviews Royal Navy and allied warships attending the Trafalgar 2005 International Fleet Review at Spithead

2009 The Queen presents the first Elizabeth Cross to the families of military personnel killed in Service or as a result of a terrorist attack

2010 The Queen attends 25th anniversary celebrations of HMS Ark Royal

2011 The Queen bestows the title of Lord High Admiral upon the Duke of Edinburgh to mark his 90th birthday

2014 The Queen names aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth at Rosyth; later in the year, she poses with the crew of HMS Lancaster for a unique ship’s company photograph in Portsmouth

2017 The Queen attends the commissioning ceremony of HMS Queen Elizabeth in Portsmouth; she also celebrates HMS Sutherland’s 20th birthday in London

2018 The Queen is applauded by crew and guests as she leaves HMS Ocean’s decommissioning ceremony

2021 The Queen pays her final visit to the Royal Navy and Portsmouth, meeting crew of HMS Queen Elizabeth before the carrier sails on her maiden deployment


Images credits: National Museum of the Royal Navy