Back to post-Olympics reality! As promised, today’s post is the second part of my study of post-1660 warship names, originally intended for publication in an academic journal. I originally thought that this would be the concluding part, but I think the remaining material is too long for just one post, so I’ll postpone the conclusion until next week when I’ll actually be in north Wales on another research trip. However, I’ve also just realised that today, 13 August, marks the first anniversary of this Gentleman and Tarpaulins blog! I can’t really believe it’s been a year…just where did the time go? It would be remiss of me to let the occasion pass without thanking you, my readers, for your support over the past year, and for your stimulating and always greatly appreciated comments. As for future plans… Over the autumn and winter I’ll be building up to the publication of my latest books, Britannia’s Dragon: A Naval History of Wales and the fourth title in the Quinton series, The Lion of Midnight, so there’ll be plenty of posts tied in to them. I have a few ideas for the rest of the summer, notably an account of my sometimes surreal experiences as an officer in the RNR (CCF), but please let me know if there are any topics related to my writing or naval history generally that you’d like me to cover. Also, I’ve been wondering about having the occasional guest blogger; would people welcome this or not? I’d love to have your feedback!

Anyway, on with the matter in hand…


In 1677 Parliament voted for the funds for a huge new construction programme of thirty ships, intended to eliminate the French navy’s perceived superiority in numbers, and the ships began to be named and launched from the spring of 1678 onwards. The first three names were essentially personal to Charles. Lenox was named after Charles, Duke of Richmond and Lennox, his illegitimate son by the Duchess of Portsmouth and thus by extension probably honours the mother as well, as the names Richmond and Portsmouth were already taken. The idiosyncratic spelling seems to have been Charles’s own, as both the ducal patent and all historical precedents spell the name ‘nn’. (A project has been launched to build a replica of Lenox at Deptford, inspired by the outstanding book on the ship by my good friend Richard Endsor.) The second, Restoration, was launched on 28 May 1678, the day before the eighteenth anniversary of the event her name commemorated. The third was named Hampton Court; arguably an unusual choice as Charles spent little time there, although he and Catherine of Braganza had honeymooned there in 1662. The Captain (July 1678) was presumably named in honour of the Duke of Monmouth, who had been appointed captain-general of the English army in April.

Before the next batch of ships was launched, the ‘Popish Plot’ had erupted. It is possible that Charles responded to this by selecting names that pandered more to Protestant and patriotic sentiment: hence Anne in November 1678, to honour a Protestant and legitimate member of the king’s family, Windsor Castle, after one of the monarchy’s most obvious symbols, and three names that recalled the Elizabethan navy, Eagle, Vanguard and Elizabeth itself. The Hope, launched on 3 March 1679, also recalled the triumph against the Spanish Armada (a galleon of that name had fought in the action), but the timing of the launch suggests that the name might have had a double meaning, possibly to reflect the optimism surrounding the meeting of the first new parliament for eighteen years (it opened on the 6th); this was short-lived, as relations between Charles and this parliament rapidly deteriorated. This might also provide an explanation for the suggestion that the Hope was originally intended to be named Sandwich. The new name, reflecting a very brief moment of optimism in national politics and Charles II’s own thinking, could have been assigned to the ship at short notice, with the original name of Sandwich then being reassigned to one of the hulls that would be launched a few weeks later.

No fewer than seven ships were named in May 1679, the month when Charles’s difficult relationship with the ‘first exclusion parliament’ culminated in its prorogation. One, the Sandwich, recalled an architect of the Restoration who had been killed at the same time of year, seven years before. Grafton was named after another of the king’s illegitimate sons; she was followed in June by Northumberland, named after his brother. Duchess might have been named for the Duchess of York, Mary of Modena, so her naming might have been a subtle gesture of defiance against the exclusionists; an alternative candidate would be the Duchess of Portsmouth, which would have been equally provocative. (Of course, it is equally possible that the name simply recognised the generic title.) Kent and Essex seem to be purely geographical names, honouring counties which made particularly substantial contributions to the Royal Navy, and they also revived the names of warships lost earlier in the reign. On the other hand, the name Essex might have had a double meaning which could have been a gesture towards Charles’s opponents – Arthur, Earl of Essex, was a key figure in the newly remodelled Privy Council that was meant to bring about national reconciliation (and his brother was First Lord of the Admiralty at the time), while the navy’s previous Essex had been named after Parliament’s captain-general in the Civil War.

The other ships launched in the summer of 1679 were the Berwick (May) and Stirling Castle (July). These seemingly odd choices, given Charles II’s well-known dislike of Scotland and its environs, might have been a response to the almost exactly contemporary covenanter rebellion that culminated in the battle of Bothwell Brig, i.e. emphasising the strength of the fortresses that faced potential rebels and thus by implication the strength of royal control of Scotland; the name Stirling Castle in particular could be an assertion of royal rule after the defeat of that rebellion, by choosing the name of one of the most obvious symbols of that rule in Scotland.

The two names given in September 1679, Expedition and Bredah, were fairly neutral, although the latter can only be a reference back to the Declaration of Breda in 1660 – a fairly odd name to choose at that point given the suspicion of Charles for failing to implement the terms he had agreed in that document, but with a new parliament due to meet in October (although it was later postponed), one that was again likely to be heavily influenced by urban dissenter opinion, it might have been his way of suggesting that he would now be more inclusive towards dissent, as he had originally promised at Breda.  The Burford, launched in November 1679, reverted to type in the sense that it was named after one of his illegitimate sons – but interestingly, it was not named after the eldest of the brood still not to have a ship named after him, the Duke of Southampton (who actually never received this honour, perhaps suggesting that Charles was never wholly confident of the paternity that he had acknowledged in 1670), but after a mere earl, his son by Nell Gwyn, ‘the Protestant whore’, so perhaps once more this was actually a subtle nod toward Protestant sensibilities. Pendennis was launched on 25 December 1679, shortly after Shaftesbury and the whigs began a campaign of petitioning to demand that the exclusion parliament should be allowed to sit. This name might have been a gesture of defiance by Charles toward his critics – Pendennis Castle was the last garrison in England to hold out for Charles I during the civil war, so the name might reflect a determination to persist against overwhelming odds and regardless of the consequences. When added to Windsor Castle, Stirling Castle and Berwick, there certainly seems to be some sort of running theme of deliberately linking ship names to the great fortresses of the kingdoms, i.e. the strongholds that existed to suppress discontent.

In the spring of 1680 Charles seemed to return to purely geographical names, christening two ships the Exeter and Suffolk. It is difficult to see a political rationale behind these names, but there is less difficulty with the other 1680 launch; in October, the month when parliament was finally due to convene, he named the Albemarle, recollecting another great figure of the restoration. Following the dissolution of the third exclusion parliament in March 1681, Charles could again select ship names that did not pander to or respond to the broader political situation, and which reflected his own aspirations. Thus he named the Ossory after one of his recently deceased close friends, the Duke probably in honour of his brother James, whose place in the succession had now been secured, and the Britannia and Neptune, reflecting the broader concern to assert his sovereignty over the seas that had been apparent since his restoration.

Of course, all of this begs a question – had Charles mapped out a rough, or even a pretty precise, idea of what he was going to call at least some of the thirty ships when the programme commenced, or did he make it up as he went along? Clearly some of the names were responses to events that couldn’t possibly have been envisaged in 1677-8 (Ossory, Coronation) but it’s possible that he decided on others in batches (e.g. a couple of palaces, some fortresses, Sandwich and Albemarle, his children, etc). The problem, of course, is that we are very unlikely ever to turn up any source material to enable us to come up with definitive answers, because the naming process essentially took place in Charles’s head. The lack of evidence in Pepys’s papers suggests that he, and later James II & VII, did not consult Pepys, perhaps the one man whom they might have been expected to consult on such matters.

(To be concluded)


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