The close relationship between the royals and the navy

Prince Philip in 1947 Prince Philip at the Royal Naval Officers School, 1947

The "Royal" part of the Royal Navy's name isn't just a question of ceremony. The 20th Century has seen a very close relationship between the Royal Family and the navy, writes Giles Edwards.

At the dawn of the 20th Century Britain was a navalist nation - the Royal Navy was at the centre of national life, ensuring the nation's safety and wealth and gobbling up a huge share of public spending. But the navy was also very important culturally.

"Images of the jolly sailor 'Jack Tar' were a bit like David Beckham today," says Admiral Lord West, a former head of the Royal Navy. "Companies knew if they put it on anything from a postcard to a packet of cigarettes they would see a sales boost."

Story of the Royal Navy

The 15-part series Britain at Sea is presented by Admiral Lord West. It is broadcast daily every weekday at 13:45 BST, on BBC Radio 4

Sailor uniforms were everywhere, too. Middle class families would dress their sons to look like sailors - and royal princes.

At the heart of this cultural navalism was the navy's relationship with the monarchy. Queen Victoria took a close interest in her navy. Two grandsons, including the future George V, were sent off to serve at sea, and this royal seal of approval was valuable in promoting the Navy as a suitable employer for the sons of middle and upper class families.

Rituals such as fleet reviews and warship launches, with members of the royal family present, put the navy and the nation on the public stage, and were "spectacles of power and pride", according to Prof Jan Ruger of Birkbeck College, who has extensively studied this period. These rituals, as well as royal tours on Royal Navy ships became "potent public theatre where tradition, power and claims to the sea were demonstrated to both domestic and foreign audiences".

George V, Edward VII and Edward VIII Three generations of royals aboard: (l-r) George V, Edward VII and the Prince of Wales

George V served in the navy for almost 15 years, travelling around the world, and his naval career only came to an end when first his uncle and then his elder brother died, putting him directly in line for the throne.

But his own time in the navy persuaded him to send his own younger son to sea, and the future George VI served onboard HMS Collingwood at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

There was only one jarring moment. In 1920 the Admiralty issued orders to reduce the width of an admiral's gold lace stripes. But they failed to consult King George V, who not only refused to wear the new stripes, but insisted that no other members of the Royal Family should either. To this day, members of the Royal Family wearing an admiral's uniform wear slightly wider gold braid.

That minor incident aside, the relationship remains strong. The current Duke of Edinburgh served in the Royal Navy during and for several years after World War Two. Not yet a member of the British Royal Family in 1941, he was mentioned in dispatches for his role operating searchlights at the Battle of Cape Matapan, and saw plenty of action elsewhere in the Mediterranean. At one point his ship was attacked by a German bomber, and the duke improvised by setting light to a crate of floating rubbish. The bomber was convinced it had sunk the ship, but "it was a very unpleasant sensation", says the duke.

Prince Andrew, 1996 Prince Andrew by his ship, HMS Cottesmore, 1996

In Tokyo Bay in the days before the surrender, his ship was sent to ferry released prisoners of war out to aircraft carriers. "I went down to the mess decks to see what was going on and they were sitting, being given a cup of tea," he remembers, "and both sides had tears pouring down their faces. It was an absolutely amazing sensation."

In the post-war years Earl Mountbatten, uncle of the Duke of Edinburgh and cousin of the Queen, not only headed the Royal Navy, but provided an important link between the Queen and her navy, offering advice and putting together a history of some of the ceremonial aspects of the relationship.

And then, towards the end of the century two more royal princes joined the Royal Navy - Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, and Prince Andrew, the Duke of York.

Battle of Jutland George VI saw service during the WW1 battle of Jutland

The Duke of York, who flew helicopters during the Falklands War, was second in line to the throne at the time, but his helicopter was still used as a decoy to prevent exocet missiles from hitting ships. He has now revealed that he came close to being shot down by chaff from one of the Royal Navy's destroyers.

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The royal tattoo
Red and blue dragon tattoo, purportedly the design on King George V's arm
  • In 1881, while serving with the Royal Navy in Japan, the future George V did what many sailors have done before and since, and had a tattoo.
  • Although it was never seen in public, this picture claims to show the red and blue dragon inked on the future king's arm.
  • The picture was drawn by the US tattooist JT Clark (1871-1918). According to his granddaughter, the original tattooist - who may have been a British man named George Burchett - shared the design with Clark when they were both plying their trade in South Africa.
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"There was a slight bearing change and it must have gone into the clouds in front of us," he says. "About 300 or 400 yards I suppose. That's about as close as I wish to come to being shot down, thank you very much."

And his experiences clearly changed him. "War is a very interesting leveller of people, " he says. "It makes no difference what background you are. The only important aspect of operations is your ability to be able to operate the aircraft and it's irrelevant who you are, and so even to this day I will say that it knocked some pretty sharp edges off me and a lot of my colleagues."

Since 1910 Britain's head of state has been either a former naval officer, or married to a former naval officer, with all the affection and attachment for the Royal Navy that brings. And with the next in line to the throne also having served in the Royal Navy, that tradition looks set to continue for some time to come.

The 15-part series Britain at Sea is presented by Admiral Lord West. It is broadcast daily every weekday at 13:45 BST, on BBC Radio 4

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