The material in this week’s post (to be continued in a fortnight – I’ll be at the Olympic Stadium in a week’s time!) was originally intended as the basis for an article in an academic journal. Two things changed my mind, and made me decide to publish it here instead: firstly, I didn’t really have the time to do the research on the other themes I wanted to cover to turn it into a full-scale article; secondly, I’ve become increasingly disillusioned with the very narrow, introverted world of academic publishing in naval history, particularly with the editorial policy of certain supposedly eminent journals and also the extortionate prices demanded both by the publishers of academic books and the profit-hungry cartels which control the dissemination of academic journals. The UK government’s recent commitment to make scientific research free of access is welcome, but I see no reason why that principle shouldn’t apply to historical research as well – so in future, I’ll be making some of my research freely available here and on my website.


The naming of warships has always been an essentially political act; witness King George V’s vetoing the name Cromwell for a battleship, the somewhat cynical reasons underpinning the choice of the names Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales for Britain’s new aircraft carriers, and in the United States, the ongoing spats over choosing the names of predominantly Republican presidents for new aircraft carriers and giving other warships the names of living politicians. (See last week’s post for more on this.) However, perhaps no period demonstrates this truth as clearly as British warship-naming in the half-century or so from 1649 onwards.

For many years, if not centuries, monarchs had taken personal responsibility for naming at least some of their ships, particularly the most prestigious ones. For example, Henry VIII dedicated the Henry Grace a Dieu on 13 June 1514, a lavish ceremony also attended by ‘the Queen, the Princess Mary, the Pope’s ambassadors, several bishops, and a large number of nobles’. In January 1610 James I attended the double launching of two East Indiamen  at Deptford, naming them Trade’s Increase and Peppercorn.  He was also present at Woolwich on 24 September 1610 for the failed first attempt to launch the great ship which became the Prince Royal (she was successfully launched in the night following, with Prince Henry performing the naming ceremony).  In late 1620 James viewed and named the Happy Entrance and Reformation at Deptford, although it isn’t clear whether he was present for the actual launchings.  Charles I was on hand for the failed launching of what became the Sovereign of the Seas on 25 September 1637, but confided the name to Sir Robert Mansell who performed the naming ceremony after they finally got her afloat on the night of 13/14 October.The tradition was naturally interrupted under the Commonwealth and Protectorate, when ships were named by the republican regimes and later by Oliver Cromwell himself,but returned at the Restoration. Indeed, one of Charles II’s first executive acts was to change those ship names that reflected the triumphs and personalities of the English Republic into rather more politically correct ones for a monarchy. Pepys witnessed the event, on 23 May 1660, and makes it clear that the process was conducted entirely by the king and his brother the Duke of York, who was about to enter into the office of Lord High Admiral for which he had been intended from childhood:

After dinner the King and Duke altered the name of some of the ships, viz. the Naseby into Charles; the Richard, James; the Speaker, Mary; the Dunbar (which was not in company with us), the Henry; Winsby, Happy Return; Wakefield, Richmond; Lamport, the Henrietta; Cheriton, the Speedwell; Bradford, the Success. 

The name changes are all easily explicable – five of them are for the royal siblings and the Richmond for their cousin, the head of the ‘Lennox Stuart’ line, while Speedwell and Success are natural emotions reflecting the family’s mood at the Restoration. On the other hand, Speedwell was also a traditional warship name – there had been two ships of the name in the Elizabethan navy. The displaced names were overtly political: Naseby, Dunbar, Winceby, Wakefield, Langport, Cheriton and Bradford were all Parliamentarian victories, and by replacing Naseby with the name he shared with his father, the king who had been defeated in that battle, Charles could not have made a more potent symbolic statement. Similarly, Richard had been named after Oliver Cromwell’s son and successor, so there was an interesting symmetry in Charles renaming her after his own heir. Two of the new names actually duplicated ones already on the navy list, a James launched in 1634 and a Success acquired in 1660. Whether nobody thought of, or dared to inform the royal brothers about, this inconvenient clash, or whether Charles and James already knew of it and decided simply to disregard it,  will probably never be known; but as a result, the existing ships had to be swiftly rechristened Old James and Old Success.

For the first fifteen years or so of Charles II’s reign, naming policy closely followed the precedent laid down in May 1660: a heavy emphasis on names that honoured members of the Stuart family, the dynasty as a whole, or key players in the Restoration, together with the revival of well-established warship names which particularly revived memories of the ‘glory days’ of Elizabethan England. Charles followed these principles when changing the remaining interregnum names: Marston Moor became York; Bridgwater, Anne; Torrington, Dreadnought; Tredagh (= Drogheda), Resolultion; Newbury, Revenge; Lyme, Montagu; Preston, Antelope; Maidstone, Mary Rose; Taunton, Crown; Nantwich, Bredah (where Charles had signed the declaration promising liberty of conscience which guaranteed his restoration).  Entirely new names included Royal Katherine, after his wife; Royal OakRupert, after his cousin; Cambridge and Edgar, after short-lived nephews; Monmouth, after his eldest illegitimate son. Other revivals of Elizabethan names to set alongside the likes of the newly rebranded Dreadnought and Revenge included Defiance and Warspite. 

There were some idiosyncratic quirks, too. Sweepstakes reflected the court’s love of gambling, while the Fubbs Yacht was named after his mistress, Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth (specifically, after the chubbiness of her naked form!). More significantly, the choice of St Michael in 1669 for a large Second Rate raises some fascinating questions. The name St Michael had never been used for an English warship before, and it would never be used again. (However, a similar name had been used for the greatest of all Scots warships, launched in 1511.) The launching ceremony was planned for Michaelmas Day, 29 September, which was one of the most important feast days in the royal liturgical calendar; in the event, though, unspecified ‘difficulties’ forced the postponement of the launch until the next morning. However, the timing of the launch also coincided with Anglo-French negotiations for a military and naval alliance against the Dutch entering a critical phase, with Charles talking in increasingly belligerent terms of obtaining revenge for the humiliation he had suffered at Chatham in 1667, and with the king expressing to his most intimate confidantes an apparently sincere determination to announce his conversion to Roman Catholicism. Thus there may have been several complex reasons underpinning Charles II’s decision at this particular time to name a great man-of-war after this particular saint, the only one (other than national patrons) that he honoured in this way: Michael, the avenging archangel, the protector of Israel and patron saint of warriors, the bearer of the flaming sword of vengeance and justice; the victorious commander of the armies of the righteous in the final battle against the forces of evil.

Finally, there was one glaring omission from the list of names chosen by the king. Intriguingly, Charles did not name a ship Henrietta Maria after his mother, although there had been a Second Rate of that name before (launched in 1633, she was renamed Paragon in 1650, thereby displaying a delicious irony not always associated with the Rump Parliament; the ship was lost in 1655). Perhaps this omission was a reflection of the famously strained relationship between mother and son.

(Next time, I’ll take a detailed look at the naming of the ‘thirty new ships’ and will make a few points about naming policy after Charles II’s reign.)

1 Ex info Frank Fox

2 For the naming policy of the period 1649-60, see M J Seymour’s article in The Mariner’s Mirror, 1990.



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