The naming of warships has always been highly political, and in Britain, with the exception of one interval of eleven years, it has always been royal. For many centuries, monarchs have taken personal responsibility for naming at least some of their ships, particularly the most prestigious ones…Both in their names and their elaborate decoration, King Henry V’s great ships, the likes of the Holighost and the Grace Dieu, reflected both his profound religiosity and his political ambitions. Henry VIII personally dedicated the Henry Grace a Dieu on 13 June 1514, and famously named the Mary Rose after his favourite sister. He also named the Virgin Mary in 1515, dressed in a sailor’s coat and carrying a large nautical whistle; a mass to bless the new ship was celebrated by the Bishop of Durham, an age-old practice that ceased when Henry broke with Rome. Warship launches then became exclusively secular affairs, a situation which persisted until an Anglican ceremony was belatedly introduced in 1875. Elizabeth I attended launches, such as those of the Due Repulse in 1596, but it is less clear whether she actually bestowed the names herself.
So wrote Historian Me in Kings of the Sea, but that last sentence has niggled at me ever since I wrote it.
Of course, I should have known better. The idea that Queen Elizabeth I, of all people, would have willingly delegated one of her royal prerogatives to some lesser man or other is patently ludicrous – which is a good enough excuse to quote the Blackadder version of the Virgin Queen, ‘I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a concrete elephant’. Having said that, a serious academic historian will now step forward and say ‘Ah, but where’s your proof, drawn from absolutely unimpeachable primary sources in obscure repositories, written in an unbelievably turgid manner and published in an august peer-reviewed journal with a circulation of 23 and charging £50 a time to download a PDF of each page?’ At this point, Historian Me would retreat, bloodied and defeated, because again as I wrote in Kings of the Sea, referring to King Charles II, ‘The question of how and why a particular name was chosen at a particular time is unlikely ever to be answered satisfactorily, essentially because the naming process seems to have taken place entirely in the king’s head.’ Now, I’ve never studied primary sources from the reign of Elizabeth in anything like the same quantity as I have for the Restoration period; maybe there’s some obscure letter out there in a neglected archive in which Elizabeth writes to Leicester, Burghley or Walsingham, ‘Hey guys, I named a galleon Revenge today! Cool name or what? LOL!’ However, working on the assumption that there’s probably no such source brings one to the best evidence of all, the names of the ships themselves, and this was how my ‘lightbulb moment’ occurred.
In the new Stannard novel, which I’m writing at the moment, I’ve got a couple of scenes set aboard the Rainbow, flagship of Lord Henry Seymour, commanding the Narrow Seas Fleet during the Spanish Armada campaign in 1588. The reasons for having scenes set there are currently subject to the strict Ninja-enforced author’s code of omerta (aka ‘I might bin them during the edits’), but this got me thinking about exactly why some of the English ships of the time had the names they did. After all, Rainbow isn’t a terribly warlike name. But then I thought about the famous ‘Rainbow Portrait’ of Queen Elizabeth and wondered about a possible connection, so I did a bit of digging. In fact, the rainbow was a symbol of considerable political or religious significance, depending on which historian you read – of course, it might well have been both, but historians are innately incapable of accepting that another historian might have an equally valid point of view and body of evidence to set against their own perfect and unchallengeable theory. The rainbow can be seen as a symbol for the queen as a bringer of peace, or of God’s promise to the world and Elizabeth’s role as His representative. (For any historians reading this and who are getting twitchy, here’s a kosher footnote to keep you happy – *) Either way, it was a symbol that was clearly important to the queen, as both the portrait and the ship’s name suggest.
If my hypothesis about Rainbow, namely that the queen chose the name herself, is correct, then it’s possible that other iconic warship names which made their first appearance in Elizabeth’s reign – Dreadnought, Warspite, Victory, Triumph, Revenge, Repulse, Merhonour and the rest – represented qualities which the queen particularly valued, or which reflected her sentiments at a particular moment. (A closer analysis of the correlation between the date of a ship’s launch and contemporary events than I have time to do in a weekly blog might bear some interesting fruit.) Again, proof that this was so is far too elusive for a peer-reviewed article, but there’s more circumstantial evidence which can be brought forward. Another of Elizabeth’s great ships, albeit a rebuild of one originally launched in her father’s reign, was the Antelope. Why use the name of a beast which wasn’t native to the British Isles and wasn’t especially ferocious, unlike the obvious Lion and Tiger? Because, I’d suggest, the antelope appeared on the coats-of-arms of the Lancastrian kings, especially of the famous hero-king Henry V. Navies know this sort of thing instinctively, even if historians don’t. On 14 May 2018, it was announced that the seventh Astute-class nuclear submarine would be named HMS Agincourt. Its ship’s badge? Yes, the antelope.
My final piece of completely circumstantial evidence, though, is the name of the large man-of-war launched in 1563, the White Bear. Surely just ‘Bear’ would have been sufficient to convey the essential ‘more ferocious than an antelope’ quality, along similar lines to the names Lion and Tiger? But in 1563, Queen Elizabeth was probably the closest she ever came to marrying anybody. The object of her affections? Robert Dudley, soon to be Earl of Leicester. His family crest? The white bear which now adorns the coat of arms of Warwickshire. Unless Elizabeth delegated the naming of the ship to Dudley, which as I suggested above is surely unlikely, then the name can only have been bestowed as a tribute to the man who might then have been within touching distance of becoming her husband.
So, then: Queen Elizabeth I named warships herself, thus giving the Royal Navy some of its most famous and abiding ship names. FACT, as a head of a different state from a different era might put it.
(* R Graziani, ‘The “Rainbow Portrait” of Queen Elizabeth I and its Religious Symbolism’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 35 (1972), 247-59.)
William (Bill) Lindsay says
Nice piece David. Lots of other articles could spring from it. Least of all how brands of cars are named without breaching copyright. Or pharmaceutical products. Or websites. “Sorry, you can’t have that name it’s already taken”. With so many rules and regulations nowadays, can you use ‘Lightbulb Moment’? Don’t get me started!
Which brings me on to the naming of ships. When researching a specific ship, it’s difficult to be sure one has tracked down the correct one. There can be so many of the same name active at the same time. Certainly in the Merchant Navy. Often I’ve come across a painting of a named ship and not been sure I’ve found the right one. But that’s the whole point of research I guess, proving that it is; even if it’s circumstantial.
J D Davies says
Thanks Bill. Yes, one sometimes wonders what logic – if any – goes into the process!