Secrets of the Royal Yacht Britannia
For more than 40 years, the Royal Yacht Britannia ferried the Queen, Prince Philip and their children around the world. Now a popular tourist attraction in Edinburgh, it's likely the most accessible royal palace of them all.
The Crown at sea
Royal yachts are nothing new. In fact, there have been more than 80 such vessels since the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. Commissioned for royal service, these yachts served as a form of transportation before air travel became commonplace, as well as royal residences, providing a suitable space for glittering state visits, official receptions and relaxing royal family holidays.
The latest—and very likely last—of these royal yachts, the Royal Yacht Britannia, was launched from the John Brown & Company shipyard in Scotland in 1953. The ship’s maiden voyage took her from Portsmouth to Malta, with Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip, first sailing in 1954 from Tobruk, Libya.
“For Great Britain, she was a majestic symbol of the Commonwealth and a proud ambassador generating billions of pounds in trade deals,” states Casey Rust, Marketing Director of The Royal Yacht Britannia & Fingal Hotel. “For the royal family and 220 dedicated crew of royal yachtsmen, she was home.”
Britannia was the Queen’s floating palace
Nearly every British monarch built a castle or palace during the course of his or her reign—with Queen Elizabeth II the most notable exception. As royal residences go, it was solely on the Royal Yacht Britannia that the Queen and Prince Philip had a say in the final design, personally selecting its furniture, fabrics and paintings.
The State Drawing Room boasts a Welmar baby grand piano, played at various times by Sir Noël Coward, Princess Diana and Princess Margaret—and bolted to the deck to prevent it from sliding away in choppy seas.
There’s no place like home
“Britannia is the one place where I can truly relax,” the late Queen once said, and it’s no wonder, given the fact that she was directly involved in its development, unlike, say, Buckingham Palace. With its comfy, kitschy toile loveseat, the Sun Lounge was a favourite spot of the Queen’s for breakfast and afternoon tea (though we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out the secret drinks cart stealthily embedded into its wood panelled walls). Perhaps Princess Margaret also had a soft spot for the Sun Lounge?
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As one might have expected from our famously thrifty late sovereign, the Queen’s bedroom is quite unassuming, with a solitary twin bed. (There’s a connecting doorway to Prince Philip’s bedroom next door.) Instead of splashing on new linens, the Queen even opted to re-use bedding bought for Queen Victoria on the previous royal yacht, the Victoria and Albert. Keep in mind, World War Two rationing didn’t end in the United Kingdom until 1954, and the economizing is evident throughout the ship’s private quarters, with not a chandelier in sight.
The only double bed on the ship was purchased especially for Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s honeymoon. While certainly an upgrade from the narrow twin beds every other member of the royal family slept on, it still would’ve been tight for the newlyweds, who were both both 5-feet, 10-inches tall.
In fact, the floating palace was the preferred honeymoon destination for no fewer than three of Her Majesty’s children. Princess Anne and her first husband cruised through the West Indies in 1973, while Prince Charles and Princess Diana toured the Mediterranean after tying the knot in 1981. Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson had but five days to whip out to the Azores and back in 1986.
The royal yacht has hosted other private shindigs as well, most recently the pre-wedding cocktail party for Princess Anne’s daughter, Zara Phillips, the night before her July 20, 2011 nuptials. Incidentally, Princess Anne was the last royal to roll up the carpet (sadly not red) in the the State Dining Room, which revealed a dance floor that was put to good use for her 21st birthday in August 1971.
The elegant Sitting Room showcases the Queen’s penchant for pastels and neutral colours. On royal tours, it’s where she’d meet with her secretaries and staff—numbering as many as 45 on royal tours.
Prince Philip had his own separate office onboard, complete with a model of HMS Magpie, his first command, encased in glass. A navy man himself, it comes as no surprise that the Duke of Edinburgh would often nip into the bridge just to make sure everything was ship-shape.
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While in royal service, it took a crew of 220 Royal Yachtsmen (or “Yotties” as they are affectionately known) to keep Britannia running. These Yotties lived onboard as well, and the ship’s design included messes where they’d relax and socialize after hours. But even when they were on duty, they could still wet their whistle: the Royal Navy’s daily rum ration was issued to all yachtsmen at 4 p.m.—up until 1970, that is. The time-honoured tradition was abolished when the vessel’s operating systems became so technologically advanced, steady hands—and sober minds—were required at all times.
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All good things…
After a long and successful career spanning 44 years and travelling more than a million miles around the globe, John Major’s Government announced in 1994, there would be no refit for HMY Britannia as the costs would be too great. (The question of a new royal yacht became a political issue until the government confirmed in 1997 there would be no replacement.)
Cities from around the United Kingdom bid to become Britannia’s new home, with Edinburgh eventually sealing the deal, promising to keep her in the manner to which she was accustomed. And so they have. Britannia is now owned by an independent charity, The Royal Yacht Britannia Trust, and all proceeds are invested in the long term maintenance of the ship for future generations to enjoy.
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Service fit for a Queen
The Royal Yacht Britannia isn’t merely a tourist attraction, however; it’s also an exclusive hospitality venue. The State Dining Room can be rented out for dinners at which guests are treated to the same VIP service that kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers would have received. The dining table seats 30, and all plates, cups and cutlery are carefully measured out for dinner service. You’ll notice there’s no head of the table, as the Queen always preferred to sit among her guests.
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Sleep like a royal
While you can’t stay overnight on the Royal Yacht Britannia, you can rest your head at its sister ship. Formerly a Northern Lighthouse Board ship, Fingal is now a floating luxury hotel, mere steps away from Britannia. Anchored in Edinburgh’s fashionable waterfront, Princess Anne is said to have spent the night more than once. It’s also rumoured the Queen herself ate in The Lighthouse Restaurant and Bar with her lady-in-waiting and a security officer—along with other diners who were none the wiser!
Next, check out our ultimate guide to royal residences.