"England Expects" flag message on HMS Victory
When William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066, he relied on a large fleet of ships. But ironically William and the Norman kings who came after him had little interest in sea faring. Their interest in ships was limited to ferry operations back and forth across the Channel. England at this time was part of a wider continental empire, and a navy was not really required. It was Richard I who first realised the importance of naval forces. Richard felt that a permanent depot was required on England's south coast from where supplies could be ferried to the continent. He selected a barren bit of land on the Solent, within easy access of royal manors in Hampshire and Wiltshire, with Porchester Castle offering protection close by. In this way the naval dockyard and town of Portsmouth was established. During the reign of Richard's brother King John, the connection between England and Normandy was finally severed when the French king invaded Normandy. Instead of existing as part of a wider European Empire, England was now an isolated island kingdom. In this situation development of Portsmouth and the navy began to take place. (A good description of this early development of Portsmouth can be found in King John by W.L. Warren.)
The Portsmouth Historic Dockyard has a wide range of exhibits dedicated to Royal Navy history. The earliest ship on display is the Mary Rose. This ship was the most powerful vessel in Henry VIII's navy. In 1545 Mary Rose capsized and sank in Portsmouth harbour, while Henry watched from the shore. Mary Rose was eventually salvaged in 1982, and a large surviving section is now maintained in a carefully controlled environment at Portsmouth. There are also many displays showing all kinds of exhibits from the ship, ranging from cooking utensils to backgammon sets to guns.
Coming towards the present, Portsmouth Dockyard is home to HMS Victory, Nelson's flagship during the battle of Trafalgar in 1805. HMS Victory has become a national symbol, and Nelson's message to the fleet before the battle: "England expects that every man will do his duty" has entered the national vocabulary. This message is flown from the masts of Victory at Portsmouth. Ironically the crew of Victory was actually a very mixed group, even including a few Frenchmen. The changing identity of England is fittingly illustrated by a ship we often think of as symbolising national certainties of the past. The biography of Nelson himself also has a few surprises for people who think in terms of national heroes. Visitors can walk around the ship, or take advantage of guided tours
The stern of HMS Implacable- a row of terraced houses (as seen at the National Maritime Museum)
Ships seem particularly evocative of their time in history. They are a small national community reflecting the country left behind. HMS Victory and other warships of her era have a stern section modelled on Georgian terraced housing. But visit HMS Warrior at Portsmouth and things have changed dramatically. This is a ship reflecting Britain during the Industrial Revolution. Warrior was built in 1860 and this first iron clad ship shows the changes that industrialisation had brought to life. Below decks the stoke holds are a factory floor. This is a more business-like place.
Perhaps the identity of a time and place is more strongly concentrated in a small national community which lives much of its time in distant waters. As Captain Jack Aubrey says in Master and Commander: " Though we be on the far side of the world, this ship is our home. This ship is England."
Finally bringing the story up to date, there is an exhibition on the modern Royal Navy, which includes a new gallery called InterAction which demonstrates technology used by today's navy. Harbour tours allow visitors to view modern navy ships at anchor.
Opening Times: Please use contact details below.
There is some car parking on site.
Address: Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, Visitor Centre, Victory Gate, HM Naval Base, Portsmouth PO1 3LT
Directions: Take the M275 into Portsmouth. Follow the brown tourist signs from there. Click here for an interactive road and satellite map centred on Portsmouth Dockyard.
Access: Wheelchairs can be hired, and adapted toilet facilities are available. A Special Access Route has been laid out around the Heritage area. Specific exhibits such as HMS Victory and HMS Warrior have their own arrangements where people with mobility difficulties can view part of the ships, and view video presentations. The Royal Naval Museum has a ramp to all five galleries and a tactile display available by appointment.
telephone: 023 9283 9766
information line: 023 9286 1512
fax: 023 9283 8228