Charles II is posited as the first King to commission and use a specific Royal Yacht. Earlier Monarchs would use any available ship for their cross-channel and wider sea- travelling needs. As a 15 year old Prince of Wales, Charles sailed in the frigate Phoenix, handled the helm, and started a love for sailing and ships that lasted all his life. The Dutch provided ships including comfortable, luxurious yachts for him and his Court to return to England after Richard Cromwell was deposed, and that cemented his passion, commissioning his first Royal Yacht, The Royal Escape, (formerly the Surprise) launched in 1672. After that came many more yachts, designed and built or re-purposed for the Stuart Monarchs. They were used for cruising, for racing and for travel to Europe to collect and deliver Royal brides. James, Duke of York, was also a keen sailor and used to race yachts.
The book has many pictures, mostly from the Royal Collection, and from Greenwich, with some from private collections around the world. I found them fascinating, particularly views of Portsmouth in 1675 and of Weymouth during the Regency period. The reproduction quality of these pictures is astounding, as is the range of artists, from a self-portrait by a sailor, to the most famous painters of the time.
A few interesting anecdotes crop up due to the vast range of research undertaken by the author. In 1700 the Marquess of Camarthen was owed £9000 in pensions granted by Charles II, so the Government of William & Mary allowed him to build his own yacht, the Peregrine Galley, at public expense! Later this was used as a Royal Yacht.
There is a lot of information about the design of ships at the time, and the problems of project management and supply of wood, sailcloth, ballast and furnishings, with Samuel Pepys among those quoted as a source of information about how the Royal Dockyards operated. There’s a section on the Duke of Marlborough and his use of ships to travel between Britain and Europe during his campaigns, which I found interesting. As in modern times, war speeds up the development of technology, whether changes of the design of wooden sailing ships or modern destroyers.
The Hanoverian period started with the arrival of James VI & I’s Great Grandson George in the Peregrine Galley (still going strong after a refit under Queen Anne). The Hanoverian Kings didn’t seem to use Royal Yachts to travel abroad, but for cruising the coasts of England, Scotland and Ireland, for occupying time during their holidays at Weymouth, and for transferring more Royal Brides between European Kingdoms as peace brought alliances to keep things peaceful. There’s a lot of information about the feuding between the various Georges, and how they managed to keep their mistresses and wives apart, which replicates a lot of what Miss Atkinson taught me for ‘O’ level history, and still makes a great story, particularly given the trials of the House of Windsor right now. The politics of the time are also covered, meaning this really isn’t a history of yachts, but a history of the Nation.
There is an excellent chapter called ‘Building and Sailing’, which talks about ship design, with excellent diagrams and illustrations, and a surprising, but fascinating section on crews. Not just captains and officers, but able seamen and pressed men. There is a superb photo of a self-portrait of Gabriel Bray a sailor in the Pallas after serving in the Princess Augusta, a Royal Yacht, which I have reproduced here. The painting is owned by the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich and I shall look out for it when I go again.
After an interesting section on Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their adoption of trains and steam driven ships, the new technology of their day, to make their visits around the United Kingdom, and for their sons and grandsons to race at Cowes, there is a rather excellent section about the late Duke of Edinburgh, and his skill at racing in Dragon and Flying fifteen class yachts, as well as his love for the last Royal Yacht, Brittannia.
I really enjoyed this book. The amount of information is astounding, with the bibliography running to four pages of two columns, in very small print. The pictures are lovely, and it can either be read in sequence or dipped into to find specific information.
Five anchors from me.