HMS Victory, or the one that is docked at Portsmouth today, is the seventh ship in the British service to carry that fortuitous name. No sailor would argue with the good sense of giving a ship a moniker that identifies her as a winner right out of dry dock. That’ll bring you luck, sure.
As is typical of her class, Victory was an enormous floating world that could hold a crew of over 800 men and an almost unfathomable variety of guns. When she fought the Battle of Trafalgar she carried two 68 pounders (remember, that is the size of the ball the gun could discharge), twenty-eight 42 pounders, twenty-eight 24 pounders, twenty-eight 16 pounders and sixteen 6 pounders. She displaced 2,160 tons.
Victory, a first rate line-of-battle ship (or “ship of the line”) was designed by Sir Thomas Slade and built at Chatham Dockyard. She was launched in 1765. At that time, however, she was still incomplete and she was not properly commissioned until 1778 when France declared her intention to lend her fighting strength, including ships and sailors, to the American Revolution. Victory entered her first engagement that July as the flagship for the Channel Fleet, fighting in the Battle of Ushant.
She returned to Ushant in 1780 where she earned fame by capturing a French convoy off the coast. Admiral Howe chose her as his flagship in 1782 when he led a flotilla to relieve the siege of Gibraltar. The next year saw the end of British/French aggressions and Victory returned to Portsmouth, where she sat “in ordinary” (with her spars and masts taken down and only a skeleton crew to maintain her) for eight years.
By 1793 she was back in service, this time as the flagship of Admiral Sir John Jervis at the head of the Mediterranean Fleet during the Napoleonic Wars. On February 14, 1795, Jervis intercepted a large Spanish convoy and engaged them at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent. He took two Spanish flagships and three smaller Spanish ships during the battle with the loss of only 9 British lives. The efforts of an as yet relatively unknown Captain by the name of Horatio Nelson had a great deal to do with Jervis’ resounding success.
Though Victory was put up as a prison hospital ship in 1800, she was soon missed and rebuilt. In 1803 Captain Thomas Hardy took command of her and she returned to the Mediterranean where she became the flagship of now Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson’s fleet. She cruised the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean on the hunt for French Vice-Admiral Pierre Villeneuve’s fleet which had the potential to invade England. The animosity between the two brilliant Admirals came to a head off Cadiz at the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805.
The outcome of the battle was, of course, a decisive win for the British and the end of any real naval threat to England from the French. Nelson was shot by a French sniper while commanding on the deck of Victory. Taken below, he expired once he was told that 15 French and Spanish ships had been captured and that the British would surely win the day. Packed in a barrel of rum, Nelson’s body returned home aboard Victory. She achieved Sheerness on December 22nd, having lost 57 of her crew (including Nelson) with 102 wounded.Victory, though she has never been decommissioned, almost instantly became something like a floating shrine to the great British hero that Nelson had already become. She was eventually docked at Portsmouth, where she sits today as part of the Portsmouth Maritime Museum which also includes the Tudor warship Mary Rose. Here she can teach generations about a time when Britain ruled the waves. A fitting retirement for one of the greatest ships in British history.
Pictures: Painting of HMS Victory in Battle by Chris N. Wood; photo of Victory today via bbc.co.uk