Why HMY Britannia’s retirement deeply affected Queen Elizabeth II

In looking back at the history of Royal Yacht Britannia, one can trace the emotional journey of Queen Elizabeth II. Her affection for the vessel stemmed from deep-rooted sentiment, making HMY Britannia’s retirement remarkably personal

June 23, 1994, was a dark day for Queen Elizabeth II.

While public perception of Her Majesty’s lifestyle revolved around lavish wealth and exclusive travel, of which money was no object, that generalised consensus remained far from the truth.

The radiated image of affluence remained largely funded by the public purse.

Buckingham Palace belonged to the state, and as providence of the main Royal residence rested with Governmental spending, so too did the Queen’s beloved HMY Britannia.

And on that Thursday, the fate of HMY Britannia became apparent.

The Conservative government, led by Prime Minister John Major, announced that the refit – so desperately required to keep Britannia on the waves for the upcoming millennium – would not be going ahead.

This ship’s days were numbered. The Royal Yacht Britannia was now on borrowed time, with each new engagement working towards that final gut-wrenching journey.

Queen Elizabeth II and her immediate family onboard HMY Britannia. Credit: Royal Collection Trust

HMY Britannia: A family connection

Her Majesty’s relationship with HMY Britannia was almost as distinguished and lengthy as her association with the crown. Having been ever-present during good times and difficult stretches, Britannia had quickly surpassed mere 'servant' status; it had installed itself as a member of the family.

HMY Britannia was described by the Queen as a place where she could “truly relax”. The understated design of Royal apartments, and appointment of personal photographs and items from preceding Royal Yachts, allowed a ‘country house atmosphere’ in which to unwind – away from prying cameras and exhausting public schedules.

The Royal Yacht was also a direct connection to her father. It had become apparent that the requirement for a new royal vessel was necessary under the reign of King George VI, and he wanted the ship to be more than only a luxury. The ship was to be two-in-one.

It was the King’s request for HMY Britannia to serve as a hospital ship during times of war, even if such an occasion never occurred. There was also hope that the vessel would help assist the King with his ailing health, and provide a viable escape route for the Royal family should oppressors breach the defence lines of Great Britain and claim Albion soil for a new tyranny.

Glasgow’s John Brown & Co shipyard in Clydebank received the order for the new vessel on February 4, 1952, only 48 hours before King George VI passed away – setting into motion the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.

Scepticism and anxiety echoed through the Scottish shipyard, with the most human of conditions – worry – amplifying any notion that the ship’s tender would either be moved or cancelled completely.

However, the Queen had no intentions of uprooting or mothballing her father’s order. Amid the emotional turmoil of taking the throne, Britannia instead provided a welcome distraction.

The Queen influenced the ship's interior design. Credit: Shutterstock

A personalised opportunity

Arguably, the Queen’s first Royal opportunity was playing an important role in the ship’s design, and she relished the chance to mould HMY Britannia with intimate preference.

Unlike the royal residences which Her Majesty had symbolically inherited (with a rich heritage she could not realistically update), Queen Elizabeth II could tailor the ship’s interior to reflect her personal tastes. The occurrence for such customisation would rarely come again.

Following her father’s passing, the responsibility of overseeing Britannia’s construction and commissioning fell to the Queen herself. Alongside Prince Phillip (Duke of Edinburgh), she was closely involved in designing the ship’s mantra, overturning the original lavish design for a blueprint that reflected post-war Britain.

The Queen and the Duke picked the colours for each wall, the contrast of the woodwork and the aesthetics of the metalwork. Of all the residences bestowed or owned by Queen Elizabeth II, the Royal Yacht reflected Her Majesty’s preferences for what her dream home would look like.

The ship was easily the dearest of places for the Queen. Having watched the Yacht’s construction, the vessel had been tailored as a home upon the seas and introduced to the world as something the Queen was rightly proud of – her very own residence.

The Queen’s bedroom shared a connecting door with Prince Philip’s, and both rooms featured a buzzer system that summoned a steward when required. Each bedroom also had an en suite bathroom, fitted with a thermometer to ensure the Royal bath water remained at the correct temperature.

The bedrooms were certainly modest by Royal standards, with Her Majesty’s bedroom based around a ‘floral charm’ – including a silk panel that was specially commissioned for the vessel. Prince Phillip’s was finished in dark timber, offering a masculine look that echoed his naval connections.

Launched by Her Majesty on April 16, 1953, HMY Britannia sailed her maiden voyage from Portsmouth to Malta in April 1954, carrying Prince Charles and Princess Anne to Grand Harbour. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh met the Prince and Princess upon arrival, marking the end of the Royal couple’s Commonwealth tour.

It wasn’t until May 1, 1954, that the Queen and her husband first embarked on HMY Britannia. Sailing from Tobruk, she found the new ship to be more than just an ocean-going symbol of British prowess. It was a new safe haven for her family.

Prince Phillip boards HMY Britannia using a jackstay. Credit: Picryl

A ship of two parts

Besides offering a haven on the seas, HMY Britannia served as a working ambassador for Great Britain – making more than 700 visits to ports in the British Commonwealth and travelling more than one million miles across the globe.

King George VI had always envisioned HMY Britannia as a multi-purpose vessel, but rather than aiding as a hospital ship during fresh worldly conflict, the ship instead played a largely diplomatic role throughout peacetime.

Serving as a base for state visits and trade missions, the ship also hosted state dinners for the likes of prime ministers Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, alongside presidents Reagan, Clinton, Mandela, and Yeltsin. An invitation to dine aboard HMY Britannia was rarely refused.

Even though the Queen adored Britannia as a place to escape the rigours of daily commitments, she was still faced with affairs of state when aboard.

The Queen engaged with Royal duties after disembarking from HMY Britannia. Credit: Picryl

Her Majesty would spend significant portions of her day in the private sitting room working on official communications; documents sent within red briefcases to wherever the Royal Yacht was berthed. Prince Phillip also had his own sitting room, styled to his liking, where he would conduct official business.

Two further bedrooms could be found on the Shelter deck, including one known within the family as the unofficial ‘honeymoon suite’ – housing the only double bed on the ship.

The room hosted four newly-married Royal couples – Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong Jones in 1960; Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips in 1973; Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981; and the Duke of York and Sarah Ferguson in 1986.

Further along from the Royal bedrooms, the Verandah deck served as a dual-function leisure area for the family, and also as a reception area for official visits. From the Verandah deck, the Queen could access her favourite room – the sun lounge. It was here that Her Majesty could truly unwind after Royal duties.

Relaxation was at the forefront of onboard operations. The ship’s crew (21 officers and 220 yachtsmen) were instructed to carry out their duties without making excess noise. The crew would therefore communicate with sign language and wear trainers to minimise disruption of movement.

This format of 'unobtrusive excellence' allowed the Queen to recline and decompress; something she was seldom afforded when on land.

HMY Britannia in King George Dock, Hull, July 1977. Credit: Picryl

The Queen’s loyal companion

Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, HMY Britannia was a constant companion for Queen Elizabeth II during historic overseas visits. President Eisenhower was hosted on board during a landmark visit to Chicago in 1959, and the Queen used the Royal Yacht for her first official visit to the UAE.

A renowned car enthusiast, Her Majesty cherished being able to travel with her bespoke Rolls-Royce and beloved ceremonial Land Rover; nestled safely in the yacht’s garage. The cars usually travelled to Scotland with the family for summer holidays on the west coast of Scotland.

Experts on the Royals proclaim that Her Majesty’s happiest times involved travelling to Balmoral, admittedly her favourite hideaway when not aboard Britannia, while taking in the splendour of Scotland’s rugged coastline from the Yacht’s deck.

However, despite overwhelming success as an ambassador for Britain, it was becoming evermore difficult to justify the ship’s running costs. During a bleak financial time in the run-up to a general election, John Major’s conservative government announced the decision to decommission HMY Britannia.

Naturally, although the Queen fully understood, she was ultimately heartbroken.

The Royal Yacht anchored abroad. Credit: Royal Yacht Britannia

Too expensive to continue

In 1986, the ship was dispatched on a rescue mission to save refugees from the Yemen civil war; something that would have undoubtedly pleased King George VI.

What would have provided disappointment, however, was that the Britannia was deemed unsuitable for action during the Falklands war some years prior.

While the yacht’s secondary purpose as a ‘hospital ship’ helped to justify its cost to the public purse, that ideology was scuppered when war was declared against Argentina.

Despite the ship’s dual-purpose claim, Britannia was not sent to the Falklands on the basis that the fuel used to power the engines did not match with the rest of the naval fleet.

The Royal Yacht also boasted huge symbolic value, making it a prime target for Argentinian efforts to sink British vessels. The fuel situation was no lie, but it also felt like a handy escape clause. This controversy undermined the ship’s costly justification. The taxpayer was not going to fund a ship that held no public use.

That sentiment rang true when running costs were published for the public to see. Yearly amounts topped an eye-watering £11 million, on top of around £17 million every decade to update and enhance the ageing ship for contemporary use.

By the 1990s, Britannia was already suffering. After more than 40 years of service, the elements had taken a toll on her.

On the basis of finance, the decision to decommission HMY Britannia had also been on the cards for some time, and by 1994, the public purse was no longer available for the Royal yacht’s upkeep.

During this stretch, a replacement ship was announced, although everyone knew that it was unlikely to happen. With the general elections of 1997 fast approaching, Britannia’s expensive existence once again hit the headlines. Dragging the ship into a game of political point-scoring apparently infuriated Her Majesty.

In a bid to regain public favour, the Conservatives performed a U-turn on replacing the Royal yacht and claimed they would not spend public money on something so frivolous. However, when Tony Blair’s Labour government won a landslide election, Britannia’s fate was sealed.

“The yacht last underwent a major refit in 1987. A further refit at an estimated cost of some £17 million would be necessary in 1996–97 but would only prolong her life for a further five years. In view of her age, even after the refit she would be difficult to maintain and expensive to run. It has therefore been decided to decommission 'Britannia' in 1997. The government will now consider the question of whether to replace 'Britannia'.”
— Viscount Cranborne, House of Lords Hansard: Written Answers June 23, 1994
The Queen wipes away a tear during the decommissioning ceremony. Credit: Royal Collection Trust

Saying goodbye

The decommissioning of Britannia took place in Portsmouth, on December 11, 1997, having completed a final foreign mission to bring the last governor of Hong Kong and the Prince of Wales back from the handover to the People’s Republic of China on July 1.

Normally undemonstrative in public, both the Queen and Prince Phillip reportedly shed a tear as the ship’s Royal life came to an end. Leaving the ship for the final time, followed by the lament of a bagpipe-led rendition of Highland Cathedral, Her Majesty’s loss was set to be the public’s gain – with museum status all but secured.

The ceremony was attended by nearly every senior Royal family member, creating the biggest outpouring of Royal emotion witnessed in some time.

Queen Elizabeth was right to feel emotional. Besides the fatherly connection and loyally steadfast presence through thick and thin, the Queen was losing her crafted home of almost 50 years.

The ship had kept her family safe, performed ambassadorial duties with merit, and symbolised the British mantra in the name of the British people.

Bidding farewell to her beloved Britannia, the Queen said: "Looking back over 44 years we can all reflect with pride and gratitude upon this great ship which has served the country, the Royal Navy and my family with such distinction."

Although Buckingham Palace awaited her, those close to Her Majesty felt as though the Queen had effectively lost her once proud home.

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About Calum Brown

Calum holds a deep interest in all things heritage and remains one of Britain’s most enthusiastic historians.

As a seasoned journalist, he has spent considerable time abroad and relishes all forms of transport. Shipping is in the blood, with a family connection to Stena Line embedded in his DNA. He also refuses to admit that 21st Century music exists.

Calum has developed a skill for bringing history alive, and always insists on making heritage accessible for everyone.