It all started with a poem, written by James Thomson and first performed on 1st August 1740. Thomson’s poem had a chorus that went like this:
"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."
Five years later the poem became a song, first performed in London and an instant hit, eventually far eclipsing the poem in its fame.
It was at a time when Britain was still some way from global sea dominance -- but over time, as the Royal Navy acquired that power and reputation, the words changed again. The version passed onto us by the Victorians and widely sung today – most notably at the Last Night of the Proms – is this one:
“Rule, Britannia! Britannia rules the waves.”
The notion of Britannia ruling the waves was probably the central tenet of the British Empire over the two hundred or so years from the 1740s to the 1940s and explains much of the song’s endurance. It was also the reason why the loss of the Hundred Pound Cup (to be known as the America’s Cup) to the yacht America in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, was so painful.
It wasn’t until some 150 years after Thomson’s poem that Britannia took on a more solid form. It was in the shape of a yacht built for and owned by Albert Edward, Prince of Wales; a racing cutter called Britannia that was built to a design by George Lennox Watson, who went on to design four America’s Cup challengers.
The yacht was launched on 20th April 1893 and had a terrific first season. The Prince of Wales’s yacht won 24 races from 43 and was clearly the dominant yacht of the time. Yet it was Valkyrie II that headed to New York for the Cup match in the autumn of that year.
Dunraven and Valkyrie lost 3 – 0 to Vigilant in the US, and we can only wonder what might have happened should the Prince of Wales have felt a Cup challenge was appropriate for the heir to the throne. In 1894, Britannia cleaned up with seven wins from seven races in a series in the south of France, and then proceeded to beat Vigilant by seven minutes in a race at the Mount’s Bay regatta in Cornwall.
Britannia’s legend was quickly built, she was a consistent winner amongst the Big Class, until it started to fade with rule changes and political turmoil in the early part of the nineteenth century.
It was King George V – Albert Edward’s son – who brought both Britannia and the Big Class back to life however, after he had Britannia refitted to race once again. It coincided with Sir Thomas Lipton’s fourth tilt at the America’s Cup in 1920 and was the beginning of a boom period in sailing these fantastic boats, as the English circuit grew in strength.
It was also a period in which the British came closest to winning the Cup. Lipton narrowly lost in 1920 after taking the first two races from Resolute. In 1934 Sir Thomas Sopwith also established a 2-0 lead before capitulating to Harold Vanderbilt’s Rainbow. It was this series that provoked the headline, “Britannia rules the waves and America waives the rules.”
Despite getting a bit long in the tooth by now, Britannia was still racing, converted to the new J Class rule that was used for the America’s Cup from 1930. She was never competitive as a J, but nevertheless managed a lifetime record of 231 race wins, with 129 further podiums.
Britannia’s end was perhaps the most controversial part of her career. King George V had decreed that his boat should not outlive him. After his death on the 20th January 1936, she was stripped of spars and fittings, and then on the 10th July that year, towed out to the deep water south of St Catherine’s Deep near the southern tip of the Isle of Wight. There she was sunk by HMS Winchester. A sad end for such a distinguished racing yacht.