Rule Britannia: The history and pageantry of the Royal Yacht

18 November 2013 - 08:38am
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Her Majesty's Yacht Britannia is the former Royal Yacht of the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.

Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia is the former Royal Yacht of the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.

It began as the anonymous Ship Number 691 in 1953 at the John Brown Shipyards and turned into a floating place of pageantry and memories. The Royal Yacht Britannia is now retired and one of Scotland’s leading tourist attractions. A vastly different duty now, than its previous life as Her Majesty’s Yacht.

The Britannia was the floating residence for 44 years for the Royal family. Travelling throughout the United Kingdom and overseas, the yacht was one of the most famous ships in the world.

It was built in 1953 by Clyde shipbuilders, John Brown and Company. The construction of the new £2,098,000 vessel was needed to replace the 50-year-old Victoria and Albert III.

The Britannia was christened and launched by the Queen on 16 April 1953 and was commissioned on 11 January 1954. Britannia was the name chosen by Her Majesty. It was not revealed until Her Majesty smashed the bottle of Empire wine and declared, “I name this ship Britannia… I wish success to her and all who sail in her.”

The first Royal voyage took place in 1954. The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh boarded the yacht at Tobruk and sailed up the River Thames to London.

In 1959, the ship sailed to Chicago via the newly constructed St. Lawrence Seaway. The President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower joined Her Majesty aboard the cruise to Illinois. The trip was a historical milestone as she became the first reigning monarch to visit the city.

The Royal Yacht was used for many more years. It sailed to the Caribbean, Pacific Coast, Island Realms and parts of Europe that allowed the Britannia to dock.

The Yacht was also a fixture at Cowes Week every August. Cowes Week is the regatta that runs on the Solent, which is between Southern England and the Isle of Wight. It began in 1826. Towards the end of each August, the Royal Family would board the Britannia and begin what was known as the annual ‘Western Isles Tour,’ the cruise around the Western coast of the Scottish Isles.

It was a sad day for the Britannia and the Royal family on 23 June 1994 when PM John Major announced that there would be no refit for the yacht.  Three years later, after much debate, the government announced there would not be a replacement for the Britannia.

The last foreign trip for the yacht was in July 1997 when Prince Charles travelled to Hong Kong for the handover back to the People’s Republic of China. The last official trip was in August 1997 for an official visit to the island of Arran, in the Firth of Clyde, Scotland.

The final voyage of the Britannia began on 20 October 1997. The yacht departed Portsmouth for a farewell tour throughout the UK. The ship made stops at six major ports and as it passed, it’s ‘birthplace’ John Brown’s Shipyard. It bid a fond farewell through a blast of sirens – as though the ship was shedding a tear.


The Royal family said farewell to the Britannia on 11 December 1997. As the HM Royal Marine Band played, Her Majesty could be seen misty eyed. The clocks stopped aboard the ship at 15:01, the time when the Queen came ashore for the final time. In a speech given during the ceremony, Her Majesty declared, “It is with sadness that we must now say goodbye to Britannia. My family and I extend our heartfelt thanks to all these men for their unfailing loyalty, dedication and commitment.”

The Royal Apartments of the Britannia were designed as an inviting country home and not as a sailing palace as one might gather. The vessel functioned as a place of State functions as well as a home for the Royal Family. The apartments were furnished with some pieces from the Victoria and Albert and had a less formal feeling such as the Royal Palaces.

The HMY Britannia sitting room.

The HMY Britannia sitting room.

The State Drawing Room is the main reception room. The Royal Family utilised this room as a place of relaxation, to partake in games and enjoy the baby grand piano that was a favourite of Princess Diana and Princess Margaret.

The State Dining Room has seen a vast array of dignitaries and Heads of State including PM Winston Churchill, U.S. President’s Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton as well as a host of many others who attended receptions aboard the yacht.

Her Majesty's Cabin

Her Majesty’s Cabin

The Royal bedrooms are unique in that touring the Britannia; it is the only Royal residence in which you may view the Queen’s former bedroom. Her Majesty and Prince Philip had separate but adjoining bedrooms.

There is also a honeymoon suite aboard the ship. Four Royal honeymoons were on the Britannia. Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones in 1960, Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips in 1973, Prince Charles and Princess Diana in 1981 and The Duke and Duchess of York in 1986.

The Queens Sitting Room is where she would meet with her Press and Private Secretaries daily. The sitting room was also her onboard ‘office; where she would read from the infamous ‘red boxes’ and complete the business of the day.

The Sun Lounge was considered the Queen’s favourite room. It was an informal room for the Royal Family to enjoy breakfast and take afternoon tea. It had a relaxed atmosphere with storage of games, a record player and a stocked cabinet of drinks.

Prior to becoming a tourist destination, the Britannia was moored behind an Edinburgh shopping centre. It is now listed as a member of the National Historic Fleet.

The Britannia did once again play host to its former Royal residents. In 2011, the Queen’s granddaughter, Zara Phillips and fiance Mike Tindall held a cocktail reception to celebrate their impending nuptials.

By The Numbers:

The Britannia is 125 meters long.
The Yacht weighs 5,769 tons.
It was in commission for 43 years and 334 days.
The Britannia sailed on 696 overseas trips and 272 home visits.
The Yacht travelled a total of 1,087,623 nautical miles.

photo credit: Capt’ Gorgeous,  futureshape and dlanor smada via photopin cc


Spotted an Error?

  • Bella

    I think you need to change something here. “The Royal Yacht was used for many more yours.”

    • Karen Kilrow

      Thank you for picking that up. I have now amended it. Karen

  • Greeningdon

    On the 1959 trip to Chicago, HMY ‘Britannia’ officially opened the St Lawrence Seaway; Her Majesty The Queen of Canada and the President of the United States making that first ceremonial passage. On that same visit to Canada, Her Majesty found out she was expecting (Prince Andrew). The Prime Minister of Canada knew before the British PM of the pending Royal Baby.

  • Oskars

    Jauku dienu !!!

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