Saints and Soldiers: The Naming of Stuart Warships, c.1660-c.1714, Part 3.

Time for the third and final part of my discussion of warship naming under the later Stuarts. This topic has generated some interesting discussion, so I hope to return to it one day, particularly as more and more interesting connections keep coming out of the woodwork. For example, and despite the fact that the information is available in Warlow’s book on Royal Navy shore establishments, I’d never really registered the fact that some of the most illustrious Stuart warship names, like Royal Charles, Royal James and Royal Prince, were revived for some of the bases established in liberated France and Germany at the end of World War II, and that the historically aware ships’ names committee of the day even added Royal Rupert. At the National Archives last Friday, I also had a look at the papers relating to the establishment in 1945 of HMS Pepys as the shore base for the Far East Fleet at Manus in the Philippines, plus some evidence suggesting that George V didn’t only reject Oliver Cromwell as a battleship name in 1911 but also vetoed Hero for some reason. Moreover, my statement in last week’s post that the navy never had a second ship called St Michael was very nearly wrong; it seems that the ‘fleet submarines’ contemplated in 1925 were to have been given saints’ names, and St Michael would have been the third of these. (The first two would have been St George and St Andrew, also revivals of great 17th century warship names, although there was also a strong campaign to use the name St Christopher too.)

But back to the seventeenth century and some real ships with real names! First, just to clarify one of the points in last week’s post – Pepys’s letter to the Navy Board on 14 April 1679 makes it clear that Charles II had given the name Sandwich to the Third Rate building at Deptford by mistake, as he had ‘from the first design of building the thirty ships determined upon conferring it upon one of the Second Rates out of the regard he is pleased out of his great goodness he bears to the memory of the late noble lord of that name’, so he ordered the Third to be renamed Hope and the Second building at Harwich to be named Sandwich. So – simultaneous proof that Charles II did have a rough plan for the names of at least some of the thirty ships from the very beginning, and that his memory sometimes failed him!


King James II and VII named few ships during his brief reign, but those that he did select are deeply revealing of the king’s thinking and of the personality flaws that cost him his throne. The last of the ‘thirty new ships’, launched on 23 May 1685, was naturally named Coronation after the event that took place exactly thirty days earlier. Three Fourth Rates were launched in 1687; these were named Deptford, Sedgemoor and St Albans. The Sedgemoor harked back to the naming policy of the Commonwealth and Protectorate, when many ships were named after parliamentary victories of the civil war; but both then and in 1687, naming ships after battles in which Englishmen killed Englishmen was hardly a gesture of tolerance and reconciliation. Instead, the name Sedgemoor shows James exulting in his military triumph, and by doing so undoubtedly sending out a subliminal message to other potential rebels. (On the other hand, James did not change the name of the Monmouth; this contrasts with the situation in 1715, when the name of the new Fourth Rate Ormonde was swiftly changed to Dragon following the second Duke of Ormonde’s defection to the Jacobites.) The seemingly bland name St Albans, nominally honouring the town in Hertfordshire, is more likely to have been a reference to England’s first Christian martyr, and might have presaged a succession of other ‘saintly’ ship names if James’s Catholic rule had continued (thus corresponding more closely to naming policy in France and especially in Spain); limited confirmation of this might be the renaming of the Charles as the St George in October 1687, when the old Second Rate of that name was discarded.

The ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688-9, which saw the overthrow of James and the installation of his daughter Mary and son-in-law William as joint monarchs, was not accompanied by an immediate mass renaming of the fleet as had taken place in 1660. The legal and emotional ambiguities of James’s alleged ‘abdication’ of his thrones, with many of even the new regime’s supporters having doubts about its legitimacy, led to caution and an awareness of sensibilities; even the Royal James retained its name until 3 March 1691, when it was renamed Victory. Moreover, in 1660 the incoming regime took the view that all public acts of its predecessor were not only illegal, but were entirely null and void, as shown by the insistence on counting that year as the twelfth of the reign of King Charles II. There was no equivalent attempt to cancel an entire period of history after 1688; no-one denied that the reigns of Charles and James had happened[i]. The only other significant renamings of William’s reign and the early part of Anne’s took place when ships were rebuilt, and an opportunity was taken to acknowledge the new political realities. Thus in 1692 the Royal Prince became the Royal William, in 1693 the Royal Charles was renamed Queen for Mary II (there was already a Mary and a Mary Galley, so presumably Royal Mary would have caused too much confusion), in 1701 the Duke became the Prince George and in 1703 the St Andrew became the Royal Anne. Finally, the Albemarle was renamed Union on 29 December 1709 to commemorate the new Anglo-Scottish polity. However, the largest single batch of renamings of major warships before the Hanoverian succession occurred on 18 December 1706, when no fewer than three Second Rates were renamed to reflect the triumphs of the Duke of Marlborough: the St Michael became the Marlborough, the Royal Katherine became the Ramillies, while the Windsor Castle, which had already changed its name in short order from Princess Anne and previously from Duchess, became the Blenheim. These changes were undoubtedly part of the shower of rewards heaped upon Marlborough’s head when he returned to Britain on 26 November 1706 after the triumphant Ramillies campaign; his brother George, effective head of the Admiralty under Prince George of Denmark, was in a position to facilitate what must surely rank as the most notable naval tribute ever paid to a soldier[ii].

The great majority of new builds of the post-1689 era were seemingly given neutral geographical names, such as Devonshire, Dorsetshire, Cumberland and Torbay, all names that were repeated time and time again down the years. However, a few of these had a double meaning, for some, like Shrewsbury and Pembroke, also represented the titles of great political figures of the late Stuart regime, while Torbay, of course, was where William had landed on 5 November 1688. A small number of great ships were given names that harked back to the more overtly partisan and triumphalist policies of earlier eras: these included Association, named after the popular movement of 1696 that took oaths of loyalty in response to an assassination attempt on William III, Barfleur after Admiral Russell’s great victory over the French in 1692, and Boyne after William’s victory in Ireland in 1690. The question of who actually decided on the names of ships after the Glorious Revolution is also much less clear. The first warships launched in William’s reign were a group of five fifth rates, launched between December 1689 and March 1691, but it is apparent that the king could not have been personally responsible for naming most of these as he was campaigning in Ireland for much of that time. However, there is evidence to suggest that the Admiralty, too, did not name the larger ships (although it does seem to have named smaller ones), in which case it seems highly likely that at least some of the names were decided upon by William’s wife, and equal co-monarch, Queen Mary II.

(Finally, big ‘thank you’s’ to Rif Winfield, whose tremendous magnum opus on British warships in the age of sail provided much of the information on dates, etc, and to Richard Endsor, Frank Fox and Peter Le Fevre, who contributed much invaluable information and many stimulating ideas during our email exchanges about the subject matter in the three blogs on this topic.)

[i] However, it is interesting to speculate on whether the name Sedgemoor would have been retained; but that ship was lost on 2 January 1689, before the new regime was established. As it was, many names that were essentially personal to Charles and James were retained: these included the Coronation and the yachts named after Charles’s mistresses, such as the Fubbs and Cleveland.

[ii] The Duke of Wellington has had more ships named after himself and his victories (including the present HMS Iron Duke), but certainly not three on the same day.

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