Royal Travelogue 3: The Royal Yacht Britannia’s Last Harbour

“The yacht was now permanently beside a quay in Leith, outside Edinburgh. Tourist attraction. Such a pity, really. She loved that ship. She’d fly out to the Caribbean, meet some governors, tour the hospital wards, look at the new sewers, and then they could all retire to Britannia for a few days, having justified the expense of sailing her out by holding some official dinners on board. How lovely, she looked, white and buff and blue, rising out of the haze on a hot afternoon. And when she became too old, too expensive to run, well the Government absolutely refused to build another yacht.” – From the novel, Mrs Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn

IMG_2329The Queen’s former yacht, Britannia, decommissioned in 1997, is not only a tourist attraction today but was voted a top tourist attraction in the United Kingdom by Trip Advisor, receiving 300,000 visitors per year. The Britannia’s last harbour cannot be described as majestic. The ship is docked behind the Ocean Terminal shopping mall in Leith, accessible via escalator to the second floor and a walk through the mall food court. The view from the bridge is of a cruise ship docked in the harbour and the shuttle buses on the pier to transport the passengers into Edinburgh.

Royal Family on the YachtThere are complimentary audio tours, an onboard tea room and an exit through a gift shop selling Britannia t-shirts. Families from around the world arrive by the double decker bus load from the Royal Mile, allowing their children to take their turn at the helm. Parties of cruise ship passengers make their way around the pier, clutching the enormous umbrellas from their staterooms, emblazoned with name of their cruise line. When wind and rain make the journey into Edinburgh  uninviting, they visit the Britannia.

The Queen's drawing room aboard Britannia

The Queen’s drawing room aboard Britannia

Inside Britannia’s royal apartments, the modern world is forgotten. The Queen launched the ship in 1953 and the interiors reflect the aesthetic of the early decades of her reign. In the state drawing room, where the Queen entertained foreign dignitaries in port and gathered with her family at sea, there is a set of furniture that was a gift from the Swedish royal family in 1956. The Queen personally selected the chintz sofa and armchair covers. Off duty, the royal family gathered here to play cards and board games and Princess Margaret, Princess Alexandra and Princess Diana all took their turn at the piano. The state dining room seated thirty two people with extra tables available from the previous royal yacht, Victoria and Albert III, for especially large banquets.

The Queen's bedroom

The Queen’s bedroom

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh occupied simple private cabins on the Britannia, two adjoining bedrooms on the starboard side with twin beds. The Queen preferred floral decoration while Prince Philip favoured dark timber furniture and requested pillows that did not have lace borders. The bedrooms across the hall were originally occupied by Prince Charles and Princess Anne as children but when Charles and Diana spent their honeymoon onboard the Britannia, his former bedroom was transformed into a honeymoon suite, complete with the yacht’s only double bed.

Gift from the people of Pitcairn Island in 1971 signed by all adult islanders

Gift from the people of Pitcairn Island in 1971 signed by all adult islanders

The focus of the exhibition is the role Britannia played in the past but there are hints of how the absence of a royal yacht affects the Queen’s royal engagements in the present. The gifts from the Commonwealth nations that now adorn the walls of the dining room reveal how a royal yacht helped the Queen engaged with a worldwide maritime family of nations. The sixteen Commonwealth realms where the Queen is Head of State all have maritime traditions. The yacht allowed the Queen to visit her Pacific and Caribbean realms more frequently, stopping at several islands in a single tour.

Narwhal tusk presented to the Queen by Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in Frobisher Bay, 1970

Narwhal tusk presented to the Queen by Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in Frobisher Bay, 1970

When the Queen decommissioned the Britannia, she observed, “Looking back over forty-four years we can all reflect with pride and gratitude upon this great ship which has served the country, the Royal Navy and my family with such distinction. Britannia has provided magnificent support to us throughout this time, playing such an important role in the history of the second half of the century.” There is still a case to be made for the importance of a royal yacht to a global Commonwealth.

 

Next: The Palace of HolyroodHouse in Edinburgh

Royal Travelogue 2: “400 Years of Legal Piracy” Hamlet’s Castle Kronborg and Denmark’s Sound Dues

Kronborg Castle in Helsingør, Denmark

Kronborg Castle in Helsingør, Denmark

“But what is your affair in Elsinore?
We’ll teach you to drink deep ere you depart.” – Hamlet, Act 1,Scene 2

When Shakespeare wrote Hamlet around 1600, Kronborg Castle in Helsingør (Elsinore), Denmark was the most famous royal residence in Northern Europe. King Frederick II rebuilt Erik of Pomerania’s grim medieval castle of Krogen as a stately Renaissance Palace with an enormous ballroom for lavish court entertainments. When the King proposed a toast, the cannons fired and the trumpets sounded. 

The ballroom at Kronborg

The ballroom at Kronborg

Frederick’s daughter Anna honeymooned at the Castle with her new husband, King James VI of Scotland (the future James I of England) in 1589-1590. The royal couple had already been married by proxy at Kronborg and married in person at the Old Bishop’s Palace in Oslo but they decided to have a third wedding in the Kronborg  ballroom followed by more celebrations. They stayed in what is now known as “the Scottish suite” before traveling to Copenhagen for the wedding of Anna’s sister Elizabeth to the Duke of Brunswick then sailing to Leith, Scotland. Anna’s brother, King Christian IV, continued the building program at Kronborg, making additions to the chapel including a closed royal box so that he could nap unobserved during church services.

The Kronborg Cannons, overlooking "the Sound" between Denmark and Sweden

The Kronborg Cannons, overlooking “the Sound” between Denmark and Sweden

How did Frederick VI and Christian IV finance their building program and royal festivities? From 1423 to 1857, the monarchs of Denmark charged “sound dues” to any vessel passing through the sound between Denmark and Sweden to enter or leave the Baltic Sea. These tolls were the chief revenue source for generations of Danish Kings, allowing them to maintain the most sumptuous court in Northern Europe. 

In 1423, Erik of Pomerania (King Erik VII of Denmark) summoned merchants from the German Hanseatic League and informed them that every ship sailing past Helsingør would henceforth have to lower its flag, strike its topsails and drop anchor so that the captain could go ashore to pay a gold coin to pass in or out of the Baltic. Erik’s control over Scandinavia gave him the power to impose these lucrative shipping controls. His great-aunt and predecessor, Margrethe I, united Sweden, Norway and Denmark in the Kalmar Union, which lasted until 1523. Erik built the original castle on the site of Kronborg to ensure that no passing ship attempted to evade the sound dues. If a ship attempted to pass Helsingør without paying, the castle cannons would fire a shot across the bow, and the cost of the ammunition would be added to the captain’s dues when he finally came ashore,

Statue of Erik of Pomerania in Helsingør

Statue of Erik of Pomerania in Helsingør

Attitudes toward the sound dues varied among Europe’s merchants and sea captains. A 1585-1586 German atlas praised the Kings of Denmark for keeping pirates out of the Baltic stating, “Denmark, which owns no gold mines, does however possess something no less valuable in the Sound, whose waters flow with gold, for all ships must pay toll in gold to the King, who in return, by preventing the ungodly assaults of pirates, reserves the use of the sea for the benefit of merchants. (Quoted in David Hohnen, Hamlet’s Castle & Shakespeare’s Elsinore, p. 10) ” The heads of captured and executed pirates were displayed on the Kronborg battlements.

Kronborg Castle Courtyard

Kronborg Castle Courtyard

Other observers quietly grumbled that the King of Denmark was little better than a pirate himself for insisting that passing ships pay a percentage of the value of their cargo in sound dues. Since the King also had the first right to purchase any goods passing through the Sound, Captains were motivated to state a high value for their cargo to prevent the King from purchasing their goods at a loss. One historian described the system as “400 years of legal piracy. (Hohnen, p. 11).”

The era of sound dues finally came to an end in 1857 when an American merchant vessel refused to the pay the toll. The American government declared that Sound Dues dated from “a remote and barbarous age, even before the discovery of America” and that “they apply exclusively to the nations of Europe (Quoted in Hohnen, p. 109).” The United States’s refusal to pay the Sound Dues, however, encouraged European nations to do the same. Denmark received a final payment from all maritime nations that traded in the Baltic Sea but the monarchy permanently lost its most lucrative source of income. The era of lavish entertainments at the Danish court had come to an end.

Next: Leith, Scotland: The Last Harbour of the Royal Yacht Britannia

Royal Travelogue 1: Castles of Copenhagen

The Changing of the Guard outside the Amalienborg Palace, Copenhagen

The Changing of the Guard outside the Amalienborg Palace, Copenhagen

Denmark is Europe’s oldest monarchy and the seaside capital, Copenhagen is steeped in royal history. Here are Copenhagen’s three most famous past and present royal residences:

1) Amalienborg was once home to four of Copenhagen’s noble families but after the Christiansborg Palace burned down in 1794, the royal family moved in. Today, Amalienborg is Queen Margrethe II’s official winter residence and a museum devoted to Denmark’s Kings and Queens of the House of Glucksborg from Christian IX and his consort Queen Louise, who became known as the in-laws of Europe because of the illustrious marriages of their children in the 19th century, to the present day. 

Amalienborg Palace

Amalienborg Palace

The museum reveals the daily lives of Denmark’s recent Kings and Queens, reconstructing their rooms such as Queen Louise’s drawing room and her son Frederick VIII’s study with personal objects. There are photographs from the family gatherings hosted by Christian IX and Queen Louise that brought the Russian, British, Greek, Danish and Norwegian royal families together in the late nineteenth century. Portraits, costumes and royal jewels are also on display. Photography is not permitted without a special permit but richly illustrated exhibition guides are sold in the gift shop, which also stocks royal history books that are difficult to find elsewhere.

The Christiansborg Palace

The Christiansborg Palace

2) The current Christiansborg palace was built between 1907 and 1928 after Thorvald Jørgensen’s design won an architecture contest held to determined the future of the site. Today, Christiansborg is the seat of the Danish parliament and contains the Prime Minister’s Office and Supreme Court in addition to royal reception rooms, the palace chapel and stables. Christiansborg is the only building in the world that houses all three branches of a nation’s government. The royal reception rooms and stables are open to the public and there are guided tours of parliament. The balcony of the castle tower provides a scenic overview of Copenhagen. Since 1924, the ruins of previous palaces that once stood on this site have also been open to the public. The ruins date back to 1167, when Bishop Absalon of Roskilde built his residence on the site. Equestrian statues of Christian IX and his predecessor Frederick VII stand outside Christiansborg.

Rosenborg

Rosenborg

3) Rosenborg Castle was originally a royal summer residence, built in 1606 as part of Christian IV’s extensive building program for the city. Rosenborg remained a royal residence until 1710. After the reign of Frederick IV, Rosenborg only housed royalty in times of crisis such as the 1801 Battle of Copenhagen when Horatio Nelson destroyed much of the Danish and Norwegian fleets. Today, Rosenborg houses Denmark’s Crown Jewels, which date from the eighteenth century, and other regalia. The museum collections are devoted to Denmark’s monarchy between the 16th and 19th centuries. The castle has been open to the public since 1838.

Next: Following in the footsteps of Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the Kronborg in HelsingørDenmark.

 

Historian on the High Seas

Sailing into St. Maarten in December, 2012

Sailing into St. Maarten in December 2012

On August 5, I fly to Copenhagen, Denmark. After a few days touring Danish castles, I board a cruise ship bound for the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Spain and Portugal where I will be a royal history guest lecturer for the month of August. This will be my third cruise ship lecture series. In 2012, I sailed from Barcelona to Miami with stops in the Canary Islands and St. Maarten/St. Martin. During the summer of 2013, I lectured on a Baltic Sea cruise, visiting Amsterdam, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Tallinn and Saint Petersburg.

The usual blog features, including royal book reviews and royal history articles will be on hiatus until I return to Canada on September 4. Instead, there will be pictures and posts from my travels.  There are plenty of royal stops planned for my itinerary including Hamlet’s Castle Kronborg in Helsingør, Denmark, the Royal Yacht Britannia in Scotland, Caernarfon Castle in Wales, Cornet Castle in Guernsey, the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany in Nantes, Louis XIV’s house in St. Jean de Luz and the Castle of São Jorge in Lisbon. 

For more about my past experiences as a cruise ship lecturer, see my article “Down to the Sea with a History PhD” on page 6 of the Summer 2013 Queen’s University Alumni Review Magazine