Profile - England’s "Sailor Kings"
Recently, news reports told of the activities of Britain’s Prince Harry and Prince William in Afghanistan, the one commanding a troop of cavalry and the other making a good will visit to the front. Military service by members of the Royal Family is not unusual. But historically, it’s been primarily in the Royal Navy, rather than, as in the princes’ case, the British Army. This is perhaps a rather natural development given that the defense of the realm has historically been primarily a maritime matter.
Naval service by England’s Royals began with King Alfred the Great (r. 871–899), who built the first English fleet and defeated the Danes with it. Other monarchs have also had ties to the sea. For example, Edward III (r. 1327-1377) commanded in the Battle of Sluys (June 24, 1340), Henry VIII (r. 1509–1547) pretty much established the Royal Navy as a permanent institution, and James II (r. 1685-1688) was one of England’s most successful admirals, who, while still Duke of York and heir presumptive, commanded the Royal Navy in the Second (1665–1667) and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars (1672–1674), during which he won the Battle of Lowestoft (June 13, 1665) and also captured New York for the Crown.
Skipping ahead about a century, the next notable royal in naval service was Prince William Henry, third son of King George III. In 1778 the 13-year old was appointed a midshipman in the Royal Navy and served on active duty during the American Revolution, fighting in the Battle of Cape St. Vincent (January 16, 1780) and becoming in the process the first member of the Royal Family to visit the colonies. The young officer proved willing to undertake any task, was popular with his shipmates, and rose steadily. He was promoted to captain in 1785. while stationed in the West Indies under Horatio Nelson in 1786, the latter wrote of him, “In his professional line, he is superior to two-thirds, I am sure, of the [Navy] list; and in attention to orders, and respect to his superior officer, I hardly know his equal." In 1788 the Prince was given command of the 32-gun frigate Andromeda, and later the 74-gun ship-of-the-line Valiant. In 1789 he was promoted to rear admiral and made Duke of Clarence. The following year he left active service. He attempted to return to active duty during the French Wars, political machinations kept him inactive, though in 1811 he was appointed Admiral of the Fleet. Although largely an honorary post, he used the position to further the interests of the Royal Navy; the first steam powered ship in British service was H.M.S. Lightning, which was acquired in 1824, ostensibly as a yacht for his use, but actually as a test bed. On the death of his brother, George IV, in 1830 the Duke ascended to the throne as William IV (r. 1830-1837).
While neither William’s successor, his niece, Victoria (r. 1837-1901), nor her successor, her son Edward VII (1901-1910) had any naval experience, Edward’s sons both served in the Royal Navy, the heir apparent, Prince Albert Victor (1864-1892) and Prince George (1865-1936), both served. They attended the Naval College at Dartmouth as naval cadets aboard H.M.S. Britannia in 1877. In 1879 they served in H.M.S. Bacchante, which undertook a world cruise, visiting the United States, the Caribbean, South America, South Africa, Australia, Fiji, China, Japan, and India, before returning to Britain by way of Egypt and the Mediterranean. While in Japan, each acquired a tattoo; Prince George’s was a blue and red dragon on his left forearm, the first of several the seagoing prince would acquire. During the voyage they usually bunked separate from the other cadets, but otherwise performed all normal duties, including setting and furling sail. In January of 1880 they both were promoted to midshipmen. Shortly after the ship returned to Britain, in mid-1882, Prince Albert Victor, as the heir, left the naval service to attend a university, and later served in the Army. But Prince George remained in the Royal Navy for another decade.
The Prince’s naval career was varied. He served in a corvette on the Canadian Station for a time. In 1884, having been promoted sub-lieutenant, he attended the Naval College at Greenwich. Later that decade, he served in a succession of battleships and was promoted to lieutenant,. In 1889 he was given command of Torpedo Boat 79 and the following year the gunboat Thrush. Prince George had several close calls in his career. Once he was commanding a whaleboat that was accidentally struck by a torpedo, which failed to detonate, and on another occasion he rescued a foundering torpedo boat in a gale. But in 1893 his brother died, and he became heir. As a result, his naval career was curtailed. Although he occasionally went to sea, commanding cruisers on maneuvers several times, his primary service thereafter was laregely ceremonial, while his promotions were accelerated; he reached rear admiral in 1901, vice-admiral two years later. In 1910 he ascended the throne as George V (1910-1936).