On 11th December 1997, Her Majesty The Queen was seen shedding a tear in public – something which rarely happens, as the Royal Family tend to suppress their emotions. The cause? The decomissioning of Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia, better known as the Royal Yacht Britannia.
Britannia came into service in 1953 after its launch from the John Brown and Co. shipyard in Clydebank. Over her 44-year career, the yacht was used by the Royal Family for private holidays, honeymoons and glittering state occasions; the vessel travelled over one million miles during its lifetime.
Manned by a crew of 20 officers and 220 yachtsmen, nicknamed ‘yotties’, the yacht was more than just a symbol of pride for the UK and the Commonwealth as a whole – it was a home for the Royals, a place to relax away from prying eyes and lenses of the paparazzi. Having a royal ship is a tradition which dates back to the reign of King Charles II; Britannia was the 83rd royal yacht since 1660 and followed in the footsteps of famous vessels, such as the Victoria and Albert.
On a personal note, Britannia was present for some important moments in the lives of the British Royals. Back in 1960, Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones used the yacht for their Caribbean honeymoon in a desire to have some real privacy as a married couple. The Princess Royal and her first husband, Captain Mark Phillips, also honeymooned aboard Britannia; however, they were followed by the press and their trip to Barbados and the Caribbean was disturbed by severe storms. Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales, had more luck avoiding the press during their 16-day Mediterranean honeymoon; likewise, Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, managed to evade the paparazzi during their honeymoon to the Azores.
The Royal Family also used the royal yacht for their annual Western Isles cruise, which saw them holiday around the coast of Scotland. Inside the impressive ship, many of the walls are lined with photographs of the Royals; there are many pictures of The Queen and Prince Philip onboard the yacht with their children and grandchildren. There are also images from Margaret and Antony’s wedding, and individual pictures of Princess Anne, Princess Alexandra and Princess Margaret. Most of the framed pictures are signed by those who feature in the images and are said to have been the pride and joy of those who served on Britannia.
Britannia was also the backdrop for several iconic royal images, including the famous picture of Diana, Princess of Wales, greeting her sons, Princes William and Harry, with outstreched arms. The boys had joined their parents, who were on an official tour of Canada, onboard the yacht and Diana, known for her maternal side, was delighted to see her sons. This informal reaction reflects the more relaxed mood of the royal yacht.
The royal yacht was also used by the family more recently; Mike and Zara Tindall had a party onboard Britannia the night before their wedding, which took place in Edinburgh.
In addition to providing a retreat for the Royals, Britannia was also used to represent the UK and the Commonwealth around the world. The royal yacht was used as a backdrop for state dinners and receptions; those lucky enough to be invited onboard include Sir Winston Churchill, Ronald and Nancy Reagan and Rajiv Gandhi. Although it was used for such events, The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh were determined that none of the rooms be too ostentatious. Her Majesty actually rejected the initial design for the yacht; the influence of the Queen and her consort is obvious throughout the royal quarters of the ship. For example, the State Dining Room – while beautiful – is in no way as extravagant as those found in other royal residences. The dining room can still be booked for corporate events.
Onboard, Her Majesty and Prince Philip had separate bedrooms. Both rooms are simple and yet reflect their inhabitant: The Queen’s room is delicate and includes floral patterns, while The Duke’s is much more masculine. The bedrooms traditionally had single beds; the only double bed on Britannia is in the ‘Honeymoon Suite’ and was brought onboard by The Prince of Wales for his honeymoon.
The Royal Family’s sitting room is also simple in design; the room has a baby grand piano (which has been played by Diana, Princess Margaret and The Queen’s cousin, Princess Alexandra) and various card tables, used for whist or bridge or even for the royal children’s jigsaws. It is said that the Sovereign wanted the room to reflect a ‘country home’ style, bringing a welcome change from the flashier residences of Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle. Given that these other residences are historic buildings and cannot be decorated according to the occupant’s preferences, The Queen probably enjoyed having her own space to decorate as she saw fit.
On the tour of Britannia, it is also possible to visit the crew’s living spaces, including the bar, cabins and even the laundry room. There is even a full hospital wing, equipped with operating surgery and an X-ray room; it had been initially hoped that Britannia could be converted into a hospital ship in wartime – the Navy boasted that the ship could be transformed from royal residence to hospital ship in just 24 hours. However, this plan never came to fruition. Visitors can also view the ship’s impressive engine room – some visitors didn’t even believe that the room was real, instead thinking it was an example engine room, due to its excellent condition.
However, she was to be the last in the line of royal yachts, as Prime Minister John Major announced in 1994 that there would be no further work carried out on Britannia due to the immense costs involved. It was not immediately announced as to whether the yacht would be replaced by a successor; however, the issue took on a critical role in the 1997 elections. The Conservative Party pledged to build a new Royal Yacht using public funds, while Labour disagreed with this due to the fragile state of the UK economy. When Tony Blair and the Labour Party took power in 1997, it was announced that there would be no replacement for Britannia, and the lineage of royal yachts came to an end.
Today, the Royal Yacht Britannia has been converted into a floating museum and can be visited at Ocean Terminal in Leith, Edinburgh. The vessel is well worth a visit for anyone who has an interest in nautical history or the Royal Family. Indeed, Britannia is a unique place to visit – while not comparable to any of the Palaces or Castles, it was still the Royal Family’s home for 44 years and was perhaps the place where they felt most comfortable, away from prying eyes and the media.