What happened to the royal yacht – as seen on The Crown – and how much did it cost the public?

what happened to the royal family’s yacht
The Crown: What happened to the royal yacht?Tim Graham - Getty Images

If you've been heavily invested in watching season five of The Crown – of course you have, why else would you be here!? – then you've probably (read: definitely) got a Google search history full of questions like: Did Princess Diana actually record secret tapes for Andrew Morton's book? What is Queen Victoria Syndrome? And, what happened to the Royal Family's yacht?

Yep, episode one of the new season opens with a flashback to the 1954 commissioning of the royal yacht, aka HMY Britannia. Later in the episode, the Queen and Prince Philip, played by Imelda Staunton and Jonathan Pryce, enjoy a holiday in Scotland on the royal yacht and we see discussions about how much it'll cost to carry out necessary refurbishments on the boat.

Spoiler alert, it's a lot (but, more on that later)! With The Crown's first episode leaving so much left unanswered about the royal yacht – and knowledge that the show is a fictionalised retelling of true events, not straight up facts – we pulled out the history books so you don't have to...

Did the Royal Family actually have their own yacht?

Indeed they did, although it wasn't ~quite~ the same as the flashy yachts you'll have seen on Below Deck. HMY Britannia was commissioned on 11 January 1954, making it the 83rd such vessel since King Charles II.

what happened to the royal family’s yacht
Tim Graham - Getty Images

As well as serving as a mode of transport for the royals on both national and international visits and vacations, the boat was designed to be converted into a hospital ship in time of war – although this capability was never used. In the event of nuclear war, HMY Britannia was the intended place for the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh to take refuge.

How much did the royal yacht cost the public?

Unsurprisingly, the royal yacht didn't come cheap, and in episode one of The Crown we get a glimpse at the eye-watering sum when Prince Philip ruminates over the cost of renovating the boat, which would come in at a total of £17million – with taxpayers footing much of the bill. Yikes!

What happened to the royal yacht?

With the cost of renovating the five-decade old yacht reaching nearly £20million, the Conservative government decided in 1994 that HMY Britannia would go into retirement before the end of the decade.

"The yacht last underwent a major refit in 1987. A further refit at an estimated cost of some £17 million would be necessary in 1996–97 but would only prolong her life for a further five years," said Viscount Cranborne, House of Lords Hansard. "In view of her age, even after the refit she would be difficult to maintain and expensive to run. It has therefore been decided to decommission 'Britannia' in 1997."

In his speech, Cranborne added that the government would consider whether to replace HMY Britannia. Once it had been decommissioned, the Conservatives committed to replacing the royal yacht if reelected.

But, it was the Labour party – who had promised not to use public funds for a vessel within at least the first two years of government – who won the election in May 1997. After its election victory, Labour considered multiple options for a future royal yacht, but concluded in October of that year that Britannia would not be replaced.

what happened to the royal family’s yacht
Tim Graham - Getty Images

"We made clear that we would not spend public money on a royal yacht and I am keeping that promise," said George Robertson, Labour's Defence Secretary at the time. "We in the Ministry of Defence have to justify every penny of the taxpayers' money that we spend and in this case I could not do so."

Where is the royal yacht now?

During a decommissioning ceremony for HMY Britannia on 11 December 1997, the Queen reportedly shed a tear – which, being such a rare sight, made headlines.

Since its retirement, HMY Britannia has been permanently berthed at Ocean Terminal, Leith in Edinburgh, Scotland. It is a popular visitor attraction with over 300,000 visits each year.

Season five of The Crown is available to stream on Netflix from 9 November.

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