As Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen got her first impression of what christening a new ship involved on September 27 1938. At the age of 12, she and her sister, Princess Margaret, accompanied their mother to the John Brown Shipyard in Clydebank. From the rostrum she watched as the biggest ship in the world at the time – Cunard’s mighty Queen Elizabeth – was launched. As the towering ship slipped stern-first down an inclined slipway and splashed into the sea for the first time, the cheers of hundreds of thousands of people lining the banks of the River Clyde undoubtedly impressed the young Princess.
From there, she made her own maritime history. Queen Elizabeth II christened 21 ships during her lifetime, more than anyone else in the nation’s history. She officiated for five Cunard ocean liners, two of P&O Cruises’ ships, and a mini-armada of Royal Navy craft, not to mention her own Royal Yacht.
On November 30 1944, Princess Elizabeth launched her first ship – HMS Vanguard – Britain’s biggest and fastest battleship; three years later, for her last public engagement before her wedding to Lieutenant Mountbatten, she returned to Clydebank to launch Cunard’s Caronia. As Queen, the ships she launched include some of the most celebrated in recent maritime history.
The Queen’s Fleet
Built specifically for transatlantic crossings and leisurely warm-weather cruising, Cunard’s Caronia, would be affectionately nicknamed the “Green Goddess” due to her distinctive livery of four shades of green, similar to Liverpool's trams. At the launch on October 30 1947 in Clydebank, the Princess and her future husband, Lieutenant Mountbatten, were greeted by a crowd of 30,000 spectators in “wild fashion” according to a local newspaper.
The Princess’s association would remain throughout the luxurious vessel's career; her portrait – depicting the Prince and Princess in a pastoral setting on their honeymoon at Broadlands – occupied pride of place in the main lounge. Sadly, the fate of Caronia was an ignominious one. Under tow to ship-breakers in Taiwan; she foundered off the coast of Guam.
Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia was launched by Queen Elizabeth from the John Brown & Company Shipyard on April 16 1953. Over more than 44 years the Royal Yacht travelled over a million nautical miles and became one of the most famous vessels in the world. Britannia provided the perfect Royal residence for glittering state visits, official receptions, Royal honeymoons, and relaxing family holidays. Following a decommissioning ceremony in 1997 where Queen Elizabeth was visibly upset, Britannia became a visitor attraction and exclusive venue in Leith, the port of Edinburgh.
Queen Elizabeth 2, 1967
Cunard’s second Queen Elizabeth was also built at John Brown’s Shipyard in Clydebank, and launched by the Queen on September 20 1967. She cut the ribbon using the same gold scissors that her mother had used to launch Queen Elizabeth back in 1938. This released the bottle of Empire wine that smashed onto the side of the mighty liner. She then pressed the button that electrically released the launching trigger, but the ship didn’t move.
The Queen looked baffled; the smile faded from Prince Philip’s face. Workers high up on the ship’s deck shouted “Give us a shove” and shipyard director George Parker joined in the spirit of the request: bowler-hatted, he sprang to the bows and pushed. He jubilantly waved his bowler when, by coincidence, she began to slide smoothly into the Clyde, approximately two minutes after the Queen had named her.
The name itself aroused some controversy. Her Majesty had said: “I name this ship Queen Elizabeth the Second. May God Bless her…May God Bless her and all who sail in her.” And so began a maritime conundrum. Did the name refer to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the Second, or was the name meant to imply the second Queen Elizabeth liner? A Cunard spokesman said, “The ship is named as the second liner of that name. The Queen Elizabeth will be out of service next October; the Queen Elizabeth 2 will be in service shortly afterwards. It’s as simple as that”.
In fact, no one found it simple. In 1969, Assistant Purser, Harry Smith received a letter addressed to ‘The QE II’. He promptly marked it “try Buckingham Palace” and returned the letter to the Post Office. The ship was given the Arabic “2” rather than the Roman “II” and became known globally as QE2.
In July 1990, The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh took the Royal Review of QE2 and assembled Royal Navy ships at Spithead from the aft deck of the Royal Yacht Britannia. The Queen and Duke were later transferred to the Cunarder by Royal Barge for a celebratory lunch. That day, The Queen became the first reigning monarch to sail on a commercial liner with passengers aboard.
On June 2 2008, she returned to QE2 for a final time to bid farewell to this illustrious ship. Between 1969 and 2008, the QE2 sailed 5.8 million miles and carried 2.5 million passengers in style and luxury. The storied ship is now a floating hotel in Port Rashid, Dubai.
On April 6 1995, Queen Elizabeth christened Oriana, the first cruise ship especially designed for the British cruise market. This was the first time a reigning monarch had officiated at the naming ceremony of a P&O Cruises ship. Just before the ceremony began, the Band of HM Royal Marines and the Choir of Westminster Abbey performed “Fair Oriana, Beauty’s Queen”. In August 2019, Oriana was sold to a newly formed Chinese cruise line and renamed, incongruously, Piano Land.
Queen Mary 2, 2004
Thirty seven years after launching QE2, Her Majesty travelled to Southampton on January 8 2004 to name Queen Mary 2 – the largest, longest, tallest and widest ocean liner ever built. That ceremony is still regarded as the most spectacular ever staged and featured performances by the Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines (Portsmouth), the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and soprano Lesley Garrett.
A heart-stopping moment was provided when Heather Small performed a specially extended version of her anthem ”Proud”. As the orchestra, choir and soloist came to a rousing crescendo, the entire stage backdrop disappeared to reveal the Cunarder’s towering forecastle and colossal superstructure. There was an audible gasp from the assembled throng.
Queen Elizabeth, 2010
A new Queen Elizabeth joined the Cunard fleet on October 11 2010. A full 72 years after attending her first Cunard event, the Queen travelled to Southampton to name Cunard’s third Elizabeth and thus claim the accolade that she was the only person to have attended the launches of all three Cunard “Elizabeths”.
The Queen told those in the Royal Party about the time when she and her sister accompanied their mother on a return trip to the first Queen Elizabeth on October 8 1946, as the ship’s reconversion after her war service neared completion. Back then, the Royal Party was escorted to the Bridge, where both Princesses were given a stopwatch to time the Cunarder’s speed over a measured mile. On her third trial, the liner achieved exactly 30 knots. While on board the new Queen Elizabeth, she disclosed that – back in those days of rationing – this was when she saw white bread for the first time.
Looking radiant in a petal peach coat, the then 88-year-old monarch took her place on the dais constructed in front of P&O Cruises’s Britannia, whose hull was painted with a 308ft-long Union Flag. The patriotic christening ceremony on March 10 2015 at Southampton’s Ocean Terminal was one of the last public occasions when Prince Philip accompanied Her Majesty. His sense of humour remained trenchant. Watching his wife sign an empty picture mount – in which a glossy portrait of the Monarch was later placed, the Prince remarked pithily: “It’s not a very good likeness, is it?”