History of the Queen’s beloved Royal Yacht Britannia as seen in The Crown, why it led to rare public tears from Her Majesty and how it ended centuries of tradition

The new season of The Crown shows the Queen fighting for her Royal Yacht, but the real story is even better than fiction.

The Royal Yacht Britannia held a very important space in Queen Elizabeth II's heart
(Image credit: Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)

In the opening episode of The Crown season 5, Queen Elizabeth II (played by Imelda Staunton) is shown fighting for the survival of her beloved yacht, the Royal Yacht Britannia. Officially known as HMY Britannia (Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia), the ship did indeed hold deep sentimental value to the late Queen, as captured in the fictionalized drama of The Crown. Here, we investigate why it meant so much and what happened to it.

As captured in The Crown season 5, the Queen truly did love the Royal Yacht used by the family between 1953 and 1997. In fact, she once said that "Britannia is the one place where I can truly relax."

Here, we take a deeper look at the yacht. Find out the sad origins behind it, the amazing rooms onboard and the moving way the ship still pays tribute to the Queen today.

The Royal Yacht Britannia

(Image credit: Terry Fincher/Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images)

When was the Royal Yacht Britannia built?

In 1952, the Queen’s father, George VI, made plans for a new yacht to replace the Victoria and Albert.

The Victoria and Albert was a royal yacht which had been in commission since the reign of Queen Victoria.

George’s new ship was to be named HMY Britannia – His Majesty’s Yacht Britannia - and would be able to transform into a hospital ship if the country was again plunged into war.

World War II was still looming large in the mind of many Britons, so George’s ship would be able to convert in times of need. For example, the laundry room could be converted into a ward, and the main veranda would double as a helicopter landing pad.

The Britannia was commissioned by George VI but became Her Majesty the Queen's floating palace

(Image credit: Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)

In tragic timing, just two days after Scotland’s John Brown shipyard received the commission for the ship, George passed away.

After George’s untimely passing, aged just 56, Elizabeth became Queen. The shipyard decided to proceed with the commission, making the royal yacht for the new Queen.

Proving she had a natural talent for making shrewd leadership decisions, once the Queen was at the helm of the ship’s plans, she and Prince Philip altered them, concerned they were still too opulent for a post-war economy.

Still, the yacht wasn’t without its touches of glamour and luxury.

The finished product – what did HMY Britannia look like?

At five stories tall and with more than 240 staff, the Britannia was known as the queen's "floating palace."

The Royal Yacht Britannia State Dining Room

(Image credit: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

There was a large State Dining Room, which could seat 56 guests, and a charming State Drawing Room, which served as a place for the family to relax and receive guests.

Rooms onboard also included a teak-lined sun lounge, reported to be the Queen's favorite room, where she always took her breakfast and afternoon tea.

Among its many elegant touches, the yacht had a bespoke garage, made to fit the Queen’s Rolls-Royce Phantom V.

The Queen and Prince Philip also had separate bedrooms, bathrooms and living spaces, designed to reflect their individual styles.

The Queen's favorite room was said to be the Sun Room

(Image credit: Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

One of the rooms aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia

(Image credit: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Queen’s were reportedly heavy on florals, while Philip opted for dark timber.

In a nod to their heritage, a piece of maritime history was incorporated into the build.

Philip had saved the teak binnacle – or part of a compass - from one of Queen Victoria’s royal yachts which was fit into the design.

The role the Britannia played during the Queen’s reign

Built in just under a year, the Britannia launched in April 1953 – months before the Queen’s coronation.

In another shrewd move, the Queen decided against the traditional smashing of a champagne bottle against the stern of the ship to christen it, instead opting for wine.

Champagne, in a struggling post-war economy, was still seen as decadent.

While in commission, the Britannia served the Queen well, having made over 700 journeys to countries in the Commonwealth and beyond.

Reports estimate the ship travelled around 1.1 million miles.

Many iconic figures throughout history were also invited aboard, including Nelson Mandela, former  President of Russia Boris Yeltsin, and Winston Churchill – the Queen’s first of 15 Prime Ministers during her historic role with Parliament.  

Which royals honeymooned on the Britannia?

Charles and Diana took their honeymoon tour on the Britannia

(Image credit: Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)

Aside from diplomatic purposes, the ship also became the hottest of honeymoon spots, with four different newlywed royal couples choosing to celebrate their nuptials aboard the Britannia.

Princess Margaret was the first to make use of the so-called “honeymoon suite” when she and the Earl of Snowdon enjoyed a Caribbean cruise in 1960.

Prince Charles and Princess Diana also sailed on the ship in 1981, when they toured the Mediterranean for their honeymoon, with Charles rather roguishly bringing a double bed onto the yacht during their trip, as all of the bedrooms had single beds.

Princess Margaret honeymooned on the yacht twice

(Image credit: Anwar Hussein/Getty Images)

Princess Margaret took the ship for her honeymoon a second time, when she later married Antony Armstrong-Jones.

Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson also honeymooned aboard the yacht.

The end of an era – how the Royal Britannia ended nearly 400 years of tradition

The Britannia cost about £11 million to run each year, Reuters reported and, in 1997, the British Parliament – led by the left-wing Labour Party – decided to decommission it.

The ship was decommissioned in 1997

(Image credit: Ken Goff/Getty Images)

It was an emotional affair for the family

(Image credit: Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)

When the ship was decommissioned, it wasn’t just a personal blow to Her Majesty because of the emotional roots anchored in its history.

The decommissioning of Britannia meant that Queen Elizabeth II was the first monarch to be without a royal yacht in nearly 400 years.

No monarch had been without one since royal yachts were introduced by Charles II in 1660.

The ship is now open as a tourist attraction in Scotland, not far from Edinburgh.

In a moving tribute to the late Queen who found such happiness aboard, the clocks on the Royal Yacht Britannia are never changed. They are permanently stopped at 3:01 p.m., the time when the Queen stepped off the ship for the very last time.

Jack Slater
Freelance writer

Jack Slater is not the Last Action Hero, but that's what comes up first when you Google him. Preferring a much more sedentary life, Jack gets his thrills by covering news, entertainment, celebrity, film and culture for woman&home, and other digital publications.

Having written for various print and online publications—ranging from national syndicates to niche magazines—Jack has written about nearly everything there is to write about, covering LGBTQ+ news, celebrity features, TV and film scoops, reviewing the latest theatre shows lighting up London’s West End and the most pressing of SEO based stories.