The story behind The Crown: The Royal Yacht Britannia, from launch to decommissioning

The Royal Yacht Britannia, the Royal Family’s ocean-going palace, features throughout season 5 of The Crown, first at its launch and then as its value to the nation comes into question.

By Rhys Lewis Published: 8 November 2022 - 2.00pm
Anwar Hussein/Getty The Royal Yacht Britannia

The Royal Yacht Britannia features heavily in The Crown season 5, its launch heralding the birth of the glorious New Elizabethan Age before its weather-worn condition in the mid-1990s provides a metaphor for the creaking state of the Royal Family at the time.

The role and the cost of maintaining both the yacht and the monarchy were under scrutiny by press and public alike, and writer Peter Morgan has the Queen’s relationship with the vessel bookend The Crown’s fifth season: episode 1 finds the young Queen (Claire Foy) delivering a speech at the yacht’s launch, while in the finale, new Prime Minister Tony Blair announces his plans to decommission the Queen's beloved floating home (played by Imelda Staunton).

In the 44 years between these events, Britannia acted as both Royal palace and a travelling embassy, sailing 1,000,000 nautical miles on 968 state visits, escorting members of the Royal Family on tours, honeymoons and holidays, and playing host to leaders from right across the globe.

'A floating palace'

The Queen attends the launch of the Royal Yacht Britannia Keystone/Getty

The Royal Yacht Britannia was launched on 16 April, 1953, just two months before the Queen’s coronation. Her Majesty herself visited John Brown’s shipyard in Clydebank, Scotland to name the new Royal Yacht.

The ship's name had been a closely guarded secret, only being revealed when the Queen smashed a bottle of Empire wine - Champagne was considered too extravagant in post-war Britain - and announced to the expectant crowds "I name this ship Britannia… I wish success to her and all who sail in her".

The idea for the yacht had been conceived in the early 1950s, partly as a ‘floating palace’ on which the Royal Family could make overseas visits and also as an ocean-bound embassy on which foreign heads of state could be entertained in as much splendour as they might be at Buckingham Palace or Windsor.

It was also thought that a lengthy ocean cruise would benefit the health of the ailing King George VI, but just two days after John Brown’s received the order to build the ship, he died and his daughter, Princess Elizabeth, ascended the throne.

The new Queen had a major influence on the yacht’s designs. When she deemed the original plans for the interior of the ship too extravagant for a country suffering post-war austerity, architect Sir Hugh Casson devised a simpler – though no less elegant – décor which remained largely unchanged throughout the yacht’s long service.

But this was no modest ship. The 412-foot long yacht boasted a state dining room large enough for 100 guests, a state drawing room for more intimate receptions, a large sun lounge, a private sitting room and several bedrooms including separate rooms for the Queen and Prince Phillip, linked by an interconnecting door.

In a reflection of the nation’s ‘make do and mend’ attitude, many of the yacht’s fittings were recycled from previous royal vessels including fixtures from Queen Victoria’s royal yacht the Victoria and Albert, a wheelhouse wheel from George V’s racing yacht (also called Britannia) and a binnacle on the veranda deck dating back from King George III's own royal yacht.

Welcoming - and wowing - world leaders

US President and First Lady Ronald and Nancy Reagan with the Queen and Prince Philip on board Britannia Tim Graham/Getty

Britannia’s maiden voyage began almost a year later, carrying Prince Charles and Princess Anne from Portsmouth to Malta to meet their parents at the end of their Commonwealth tour. The Queen and Prince Philip embarked on Britannia for the first time from Tobruk, Libya, on May 1, 1954.

During Britannia’s 43 years at sea, she conveyed the Queen, other members of the Royal Family and Commonwealth dignitaries on almost 968 official voyages. She travelled 1,087,623 nautical miles, calling at more than 600 ports in 135 countries.

World leaders who dined aboard Britannia included Sir Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Ronald Reagan (pictured above with First Lady Nancy) and Bill Clinton.

The yacht’s crew were all members of the Royal Navy, hand-picked from volunteers to serve aboard Britannia for one year. After this time they could ask to join the Permanent Royal Yacht Service, and some Royal Yachtsmen served 20 years or more on the royal yacht.

Britannia was served by 19 officers and 217 Royal Yachtsmen. In order not to disturb the royals, no shouted orders were given and only hand signals were used. If members of the Royal Family were on board, the yacht included a troop of Royal Marines and was escorted by a Royal Navy warship.

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In the 1960s, the British government planned for the Royal Yacht to serve as the Queen’s refuge in the event of nuclear war, sailing around the remote sea lochs on the north-west coast of Scotland.

Britannia could also be converted into a hospital ship in times of war, but it was never used in this capacity.

The Queen allowed members of her family to honeymoon aboard Britannia. Charles and Diana, Princess Anne and Mark Phillips, and the Duke and Duchess of York followed in a tradition begun when Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon enjoyed a cruise around the Caribbean in 1960.

A sad, but not final, farewell

The Queen wipes away a tear at Britannia's decommissioning ceremony Tim Graham/Getty

Britannia cost just £2 million to build in 1953, but by 1997, Tony Blair’s Labour government claimed that it was costing £11 million a year to keep her afloat – a cost that could not be justified. It was announced that the vessel would be retired.

Supporters of Britannia argued that between 1991 and 1995 alone, the yacht’s overseas visits contributed more than £3 billion to the Treasury through foreign trade deals.

Britannia’s last foreign mission was to carry the last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, and the Prince of Wales away from the territory after it was handed over to China in July 1997.

The yacht was decommissioned in December 1997. The Queen and Princess Anne were both seen to shed a tear at the decommissioning ceremony in Portsmouth (above).

Zara Phillips and Mike Tindall leave their pre-wedding party on Britannia in 2011 Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

After decommissioning, Britannia returned to Scotland. Not to the Clyde but to the Edinburgh port of Leith, where she has become one of the city’s top tourist attractions, drawing 300,000 visitors a year.

The Royal Family had an opportunity to reacquaint themselves with the yacht at a drinks reception ahead of the wedding of the Queen’s granddaughter, Zara Phillips and former England rugby player, now I'm A Celebrity contestant, Mike Tindall in 2011 (above). Princess Anne, who had travelled on Britannia’s maiden voyage, was present along with Princes William and Harry.

In 2014, The Royal Yacht Britannia was named the UK's No.1 landmark by travel website TripAdvisor.