The true story of the Royal Yacht Britannia from The Crown Season 5

What really happened to the floating palace?

Royal Yacht Britannia
(Image credit: Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images/Future)

Season 5 of The Crown calls the Royal Yacht Britannia the Queen’s favourite home as viewers watch the family try to save the floating palace. But what really happened to the royal yacht and what did the royal family truly think of it?

  • After watching The Queen and her family fight to save their Royal Yacht, Britannia, the Crown's fifth season has viewers wondering what happened to the real Royal Yacht
  • Using commentary from biographers, we break down how much of The Crown's storyline is based on fact and which parts are completely made up
  • In other royal news (opens in new tab), The Crown fans spot awkward blunder in season 5 - did you notice it? (opens in new tab)

The blurring of fact and fiction in Netflix's The Crown has viewers once again asking if its portrayal of royal life is true to fact, slightly exaggerated or completely made up. This time the speculation surrounds the story of the royal yacht, the Britannia.

Season five uses the yacht as a heavy-handed metaphor, with questions about the costly repairs needed to keep the ageing Britannia up to par are presented alongside questions about whether the ageing queen, who is then 65-years-old, is too old for her role.

Clearly the narrative here is used to enhance the storytelling, but there is a lot of truth behind the quarrels over the royal family's beloved yacht. 

The Queen and prince Philip on The Royal Yacht

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

There is a real Royal Yacht Britannia, and, just like in the show, the young queen announced its name and christened it with a bottle of Empire wine. In it's 44 years of service, the Britannia was used for state visits and receptions, hosting Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton as well as Boris Yeltsin and Nelson Mandela, and was also used for royal family holidays and honeymoons. 

When civil war broke out in South Yemen in 1986, the yacht was even rerouted to help evacuate civilians.

In The Crown, the yacht is presented as the queen’s favourite “home,” a fact that real-life biographers agree with. In his book Queen of Our Times, Robert Hardman (opens in new tab) explains, “There were few places where the Queen would be happier.”

The ship, though served by a huge crew of 220, was a haven for the royal family to relax and escape the scrutinising eye of the public. According to The Washington Post, Hugh Casson, who designed the interior, once said, “the overall idea was to give the impression of a country house at sea.”

The Queen in front of the Royal Yacht

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

The Crown episode centres around whether the Queen lobbied the then Prime Minister, John Major, for the government to pay for the boats extensive repairs while the country was facing a tough recession. She says in the show, “Here I am, coming to you, prime minister, on bended knee, for the sign-off, but I’m hoping that will be a formality.”

The real-life John Major called the show’s portrayal of his conversations with the Queen “a barrel-load of nonsense.” But Robert Lacey, a historical consultant on The Crown, defended the depiction. 

Speaking to The Washington Post, he argued that the subject of the yacht would have undeniably come up between the Queen and the PM, who met once a week to discuss matters of state. He said, “She certainly spoke about it to the prime minister. Obviously, the royal family would have lobbied for it. The queen did want another royal yacht.”

Robert Hardman, the royal biographer, also gave his opinion on the matter, saying that the Queen would 'no doubt' have been interested in repairs or even a replacement for the yacht, but that she would not have “leaned on her prime ministers for money.” A letter written in 1994 by the queen’s deputy private secretary that was sent to the cabinet office, and was uncovered in 2018, backs up Hardman's opinion. 

royal yacht

(Image credit: Anwar Hussein/Getty Images)

So what happened to the Britannia? John Major’s government decided against paying for the 44-year-old ship's repairs and, after a final voyage abroad to Hong Kong and a farewell tour of Britain, a decommissioning ceremony took place in Portsmouth on December the 11th, 1997. 

The ship’s clocks stopped, the Royal Marines band played and, according to Robert Lacey, “the only time the queen was seen to cry was when the royal yacht was decommissioned.”

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