The “Westminster Abbey of the Royal Navy“ - HMS "Victory" and her launch in 1765

7 May 1765, HMS “Victory” was launched at Chatham Dockyard on the River Medway

"Westminster Abbey, or victory!" (Horatio Nelson),_The_Battle_of_Trafalgar_%281822%29.jpg
HMS "Victory" during her finest hour at the Battle of Trafalgar

A new age of naval warfare had begun in the second decade of the 16th, when Henry VIII launched the first purpose-built warships since antiquity, the great carracks “Mary Rose” and “Henry Grace a Dieu“. The revolutionary invention that made the construction of an 800 ton vessel carrying up to 90 guns in three decks possible was the gun port, basically a hole to push a cannon barrel through. The key feature of these holes was that they could be made watertight and this simple enough idea allowed shipbuilders to cut these holes close to the waterline. Down there below, even heavy artillery pieces could be placed, balanced on both sides of the ship, without risking the overall stability of the construction. It was the birth of the famous broadside and consequently, naval tactics changed from all-out-melees with the intention of boarding and capturing enemy vessels to ships sailing in straight lines into battle and exchanging artillery broadsides. A hundred years after the launch of “Mary Rose”, a new name for these battleships began to assert itself. They became known as sail or ships-of-the-line and since a battle line could only be as fast as its slowest member, the focus in ship design was put on their sturdiness, often by using 3’ oaken timbers for their hulls, rather than speed or elegance, as well as the power of the guns they carried. By 1750, the backbone of European navies was the “Seventy Four”, a warship armed nominally with 74 guns placed in two decks, half the number of ordnance Wellington had at his disposal at Waterloo in one vessel alone, one of the about 300 in service of the European naval powers at the time. Called a “third rate” by the Royal Navy, with the huge three-deckers being first and second rates and small two-deckers armed with 50 guns or large single-deck frigates rated as “fourth”, a “Seventy Four” ship-of-the-line could fire a single broadside weighing 500 pounds, measured 180 feet in length and had a beam of 50 feet, displaced roughly 3,000 tons and was crewed by 700 men and usually a few women, along with marines and officers. First rate ships-of-the-line were rare and neither the Spanish, French nor the British Royal Navy had more than 20 in service at any time, simply because their construction and maintenance costs outweighed their usefulness compared with a “Seventy-Four” by far and it’s not without irony than one of them is the last survivor of the hundreds that once ruled the waves during the Age of Fighting Sail, admittedly the flagship of the winning side of the most decisive and consequential battle of the era, Lord Nelson’s “Victory”.

Two eras meet: HMS “Victory” and HMS “Dreadnought”. Both were the peaks of warship design of their day, here in a painting by Henry J Morgan in 1907.

When HMS “Victory” raced and beat the 2nd rate HMS “Temeraire” for the pole position in the weather column at Trafalgar, broke the French line and fired her 104 triple-shotted guns from her three battery decks into “Bucentaure” and “Redoutable”, more than 3,000 pounds of steel in a single broadside, the old warhorse had already clocked up 40 years of service. Ordered during the Seven Years’ War in 1759, the shipbuilders at Chatham Dockyard could take their time in finishing the first rate under the broader political context of the 1760s. The war at sea was basically over in 1759 with Hawke’s decisive victory at Quiberon Bay and peace was concluded four years later. Thus, the fledgling three-decker’s timbers had far more time to age and season than those of most of her contemporaries before she was finally launched, a detail that might well be a reason for her longevity. Her construction costs amounted to £63,176 and 3 shillings in 1765, a relative value of £7.53 million in today’s money, a misleading figure since the economic power of 60,000 pounds sterling had the economic power of about £830 million translated into modern purchasing power, still 1/4 of the cost of one of the Royal Navy’s brand new “Queen Elizabeth”-class aircraft carriers. The 1760s’ prestigious three-decked money pit, however, was placed in reserve immediately after her launch to bop up and down in the Medway for the next 13 years until the American War of Independence and HMS “Victory “sailed forth to fight the French, first in rather insignificant actions, at the First and Second Battle of Ushant in 1778 and ’81 and the Battle of Cape Spartel in in 1782. But then, during the next of the 18th century’s global wars, the “Victory” saw her finest hours, first against the Spanish as Sir John Jervis’ flagship at the Battle of St Vincent in 1797 and, of course, at Trafalgar in 1805.

“Restoring HMS Victory” by William Wyllie, 1925

“Victory’s” fate was sealed by a hairsbreadth by Sir Thomas Hardy in 1831, of all the people, then First Sea Lord, back in 1805 at Trafalgar her captain, the man in whose arms Nelson famously died in the orlop of the old lady after the battle. Sir Thomas came home after he signed the orders for breaking up the ship, his wife Louisa broke out in tears when she heard the news, didn’t even say “Kiss me, Hardy” but sent him straight back to office to rescind the order. He did. “Victory” had already returned in 1812 from her last voyage and lead a miserable existence as depot ship in Portsmouth and finally survived the 19th century as a floating Naval School for Telegraphy. The centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1905 revived interest in her existence, she had already been badly damaged by an ironclad carried off course and was rotting at her moorings anyway. Her condition was described as being "..nothing short of an insult" in 1911 but it was not before 1922 that repairs and restoration began in earnest, a process that had not really ceased since then to this day. Restoring her to the condition she was in before the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 was completed at the battle’s bicentennial, though, and since 2012, HMS “Victory” serves as flagship of the First Sea Lord, making her the world oldest still commissioned ship and the Royal Navy’s personnel not on active assignment is listed as part of her crew, the “Westminster Abbey of the Royal Navy“.

And more about HMS “Victory” on:

and on her official website: