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HMS Royal Sovereign 1892

HMS Royal Sovereign, 1892
HMS Royal Sovereign, 1892

Following the collapse of the French naval challenge in the 1860s after the construction of HMS Warrior and a new fleet of British ironclads, there was little public concern over the strength of the Royal Navy for another twenty years. With no obvious enemy and no clear naval policy, naval estimates remained low.

A brief naval scare occurred in 1884 when the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, W.T. Stead, published a series of articles entitled 'The Truth about the Navy.' Based on conversations with Captain 'Jacky' Fisher Stead, highlighted the weaknesses of the navy and alleged France had a similar number of first-class battleships. Although some of Stead's claims were exaggerated, the government was forced to act and voted £5.4 million for new ships and coaling stations. These ships were the last ironclads built for the Royal Navy, at the end of a period when there was much confusion over the best ship design.

Rumours of a possible Franco-Russian alliance in the late 1880s heightened public apprehension and a report on the 1888 naval manoeuvres revealed shortcomings in many aspects of the navy. Reluctantly Lord Salisbury, the Prime Minister, authorised the formal adoption of the two-power standard, whereby Britain possessed the same strength in major fighting ships as the next two naval powers. Under the 1889 Naval Defence Act, a huge sum of £21 million was earmarked for the construction of ten battleships, forty-two cruisers and other vessels over the next five years.

The seven Royal Sovereign first-class battleships, which became the template for capital ships until the revolutionary HMS Dreadnought in 1906, embodied this new policy. The brainchild of famous warship designer Sir William White, the Royal Sovereigns set new standards for firepower, armour and speed. The main armament of four 343mm guns was housed in two barbettes, rather than turrets, at either end of the ship. The choice of barbettes permitted a high freeboard for seaworthiness, one of the outstanding features of the design. An enhanced secondary armament of ten 152mm quick firing guns was adopted, mounted along the sides of the ship. The increasing power of such weapons made them more important in battle than larger guns with a slower rate of fire.

The main armour belt extended over two-thirds the length of the ship and was longer and deeper than in previous battleships, while the lighter armour above the belt was based on tests conducted on the old ironclad Resistance. Despite the larger hull, speed was increased to a maximum of 17½ knots making them the fastest capital ships afloat.

When the 14,150-ton Royal Sovereign was completed in 1892, she was the largest warship in the world. In delivering ships of unparalleled fighting efficiency, White dispelled the notion that guns and torpedoes were more effective in defence than attack and confirmed the pivotal role of the battleship.

During her career Royal Sovereign served in the Channel Squadron and the Mediterranean Fleet. Since a large number of the class were built, the Royal Sovereigns operated in uniform squadrons greatly increasing their effectiveness. This had not been possible with capital ships since the age of sail, because of the variety of types during the ironclad era. Placed in reserve in 1907, Royal Sovereign was paid off into the Material Reserve in 1909. She was sold for scrap on the eve of the First World War.

Further reading:

  • D.K. Brown, The History of the Royal Corps of Naval Constructors 1883 - 1983(London: 1983). R.A. Burt, British Battleships, 1889 - 1904 (London, 1988). A.D. Lambert, "The Shield of Empire, 1815-1895" and D. K. Brown, "Wood, Sails, and Cannonballs to Steel, Steam, and Shells, 1815-1895" in J.R. Hill (Ed.). The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy (Oxford, 1995).
HMS Royal Sovereign statistics (1892)
Period in service: 1892 - 1913
Displacement: 14,150 tons
Length: 115.6m / 380ft
Beam: 22.86m / 75ft
Complement: 690
Speed: 17.5 kts
Armament: 4 x 13.5 inch guns 10 x 6 inch guns 16 x 6 pounder quick firing guns 12 x 3 pounder quick firing guns 7 x 18 inch torpedo tubes

4-18 inch belt, 17 inch barbettes

Sister ships: Emperor of India, Ramillies, Repulse, Resolution, Revenge, Royal Oak
Half-sister: Hood

Notes: The barbette was an armoured cylinder, which protected the ammunition hoists and the turning mechanism. The breeches of the guns ran back under cover to be loaded using hydraulic machinery.