Royal Boats owned by Charles II

The 29th of May marks the birth of Charles II, one of my favourite historical figures. To celebrate this, and what is known as Oak Apple Day, I thought it rather fitting to look into some of the boats owned by the King. These two boats, the Royal Escape, used as a yacht and a royal barge. Both boats have interesting stories and quite personal connections for the Merry Monarch. Before talking about these boats, it is best to first of all explain what Oak Apple Day is and how it was celebrated.

Oak Apple Day was made a national holiday following the Restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660. It was named Oak Apple to remember the oak tree Charles hid in during his 6 weeks trying to escape England following the Royalist defeat at the Battle of Worcester. The 29th of May was chosen for this because it was the Charles’ birthday and the day he made his triumphal entry into London in 1660. This national holiday was celebrated until the Victorian period, when it was abolished by Parliament in 1859.[1] It is still commemorated in small pockets of the country, most notably at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, who use the time to celebrate Charles II as their founder.[2] It is usually marked with a visit by a member of the royal family, but unfortunately like so many other things at the moment, it will be marked in some other way this year.



The Royal Hospital, Chelsea: view of the Pensioners cheering and waving their hats and sticks, at a King Charles’s Day Parade. Wood engraving. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

For Charles, his escape from the Battle of Worcester must have been an experience full of fear, uncertainty and exhilaration. At the time he would have had no idea whether he would make it to France safely or ever see England again if he got there. It is no wonder that he made Oak Apple Day a national holiday. The boat that was instrumental in his escape was called the Surprise. It was owned by a man called Tatersal who lived on the south coast near Brighton. Ironically, the ship had been intercepted by a Royalist squadron in the years before the Battle of Worcester, but Charles had intervened and let Tatersal go.[3] Little did they know then the part they’d later play in each other’s lives. When Charles escaped on the Surprise, Tatersal was the only crew member who knew Charles and his plans to escape to France, the rest of the crew instead believed he was a fellow merchant wanting to go further along the coast to escape debts.


Willem van de Velde the Younger, The Royal Escape Close-Hauled in a Breeze, Late 17th Century, National Maritime Museum Greenwich/WikiCommons

Following the Restoration, the Surprise was purchased for Charles, renamed the Royal Escape, and turned into a royal yacht as a tourist attraction to show visiting dignitaries.[4] Owning a royal yacht sounds like a modern thing for British royalty but actually, Charles was the first monarch to own one.[5] Tatersal was greatly rewarded, despite his cheekiness in asking for more payment once he realised who Charles really was. He was given a pension and a captaincy in the Navy, as well as being given a role in the procession following Charles’ return from Holland.[6] This new lifestyle in the Navy didn’t last long for Tatersal as he went back to owning smaller ships and in his final years he became a landlord at the Old Ship Hotel before dying aged 60 in 1674.[7] His body was buried in St Nicholas’ Church in Brighton with a rather grand tombstone, with the inscription saying how he had “preserved the Church, Crown and the Nation”.[8] The Royal Surprise was rebuilt as a transport ship in 1714 and 1736 before being sold on in 1750, but it’s name was reused for subsequent ships.[9]

As a bit of a research rabbit hole when trying to find out more about the Surprise/Royal Escape, I found another interesting story of Charles II’s royal barge. This barge as another of Charles’ boats to have a fascinating life upon the waves, albeit on the River Thames as well as the ocean at Portsmouth. It is now housed at the National Museum of the Royal Navy at Portsmouth, which is a fitting home considering its main role to ferry Charles around the fleet of the Navy on inspections.[10] The woman sculptured at the stern (back) of the boat was Louise de Kerouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth, a mistress of Charles, thus cementing the boat’s connections with Portsmouth itself even more.[11] After Charles’ death in 1685, that was not the end of the life for the royal barge. Whilst it probably lay dormant for many decades, it was brought back to life for the funeral of Horatio Nelson, the most famous of British seaman.


Royal Barge of Charles II, Flickr: Andrea Vail

Charles’ royal barge was used to carry Nelson’s coffin to the Admiralty Building amongst a flotilla of other boats along the Thames after the body had laid in state at Greenwich for 3 days.[12] The choice of a royal barge in Nelson’s state funeral showed the high esteem the Admiral was held in. During this first part of the funeral along the Thames, was a solemn affair but the Navy played a large part too, providing an escort and giving gun salutes.[13] Trafalgar veterans were also used during the funeral, mainly to take the coffin off the royal barge when it arrived at the Admiralty. This, alongside the 20,000-30,000 people who were in attendance along the funeral route to St Pauls the following day, created a patriotic image that helped cement Nelson as an immortal figure in the naval legacy of Britain.[14] As the royal barge used during this procession had originally been used by Charles II to inspect the navy, it was fitting to use it for the funeral of the hero of Trafalgar.


The funeral procession on the River Thames of Lord Nelson seen from Bankside. Coloured etching by John Thomas Smith, 1806. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

On the 390th anniversary of the birth of Charles II and Oak Apple Day, I hope this blog post has highlighted some of the boats used by the monarch that have incredible, if somewhat forgotten, stories behind them. Charles himself did love ships himself and wanted to improve the navy but unfortunately there was never enough money to do these improvements. However, during his reign the Act of Establishing Articles and Orders for the Regulating and Better Government of His Majesty’s Navies, Ships of War and Forces by Sea was passed, the first set of articles that made the navy a professional fighting force.[15] Perhaps Charles himself would have been proud that one of his barges was used in a funeral for the man who had helped make the British Navy become a legend of sorts following the Battle of Trafalgar.

[1] Beardsley, M. R., Charles II and His Escape into Exile (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2019), p. 148.

[2] Beardsley, M. R., Charles II and His Escape into Exile, p. 149.

[3] Beardsley, M. R., Charles II and His Escape into Exile, p. 116.

[4] Beardsley, M. R., Charles II and His Escape into Exile, p. 116.

[5] Royal Yacht Britannia,  https://www.royalyachtbritannia.co.uk/about/history/

[6] Beardsley, M. R., Charles II and His Escape into Exile, p. 116.

[7] Beardsley, M. R., Charles II and His Escape into Exile, p. 116.

[8] Beardsley, M. R., Charles II and His Escape into Exile, p. 116.

[9] Colledge, J. J. and Warlow, B., Ships of the Royal Navy: The Complete Record of All Fighting Ships of the Royal Navy from the 15th Century to the Present (Havertown, PA: Casemate, 2010), p. 347;  Winfield, R., British Warships in the Age of Sail 1714-1792: Design, Construction, Careers and Fates (Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing, 2007), p. 367.

[10] The National Royal Navy Museum, Curator’s Choice: The Royal Barge https://www.nmrn.org.uk/news-events/nmrn-blog/curators-choice-royal-barge

[11] The National Royal Navy Museum, Curator’s Choice: The Royal Barge https://www.nmrn.org.uk/news-events/nmrn-blog/curators-choice-royal-barge

[12] The National Royal Navy Museum, Curator’s Choice: The Royal Barge https://www.nmrn.org.uk/news-events/nmrn-blog/curators-choice-royal-barge; Heard, S., ‘Sir Isaac Heard: the man who helped the nation mourn Nelson’, Royal Museums Greenwich Blog, 12 June 2019, https://www.rmg.co.uk/discover/behind-the-scenes/blog/sir-isaac-heard-man-who-helped-nation-mourn-nelson

[13] Heard, S., ‘Sir Isaac Heard: the man who helped the nation mourn Nelson’, Royal Museums Greenwich Blog, 12 June 2019, https://www.rmg.co.uk/discover/behind-the-scenes/blog/sir-isaac-heard-man-who-helped-nation-mourn-nelson; Konstam, A., Horatio Nelson (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2011), p. 56.

[14] Konstam, A., Horatio Nelson, p. 57; Jenks, T., ‘Contesting the Hero: The Funeral of Admiral Lord Nelson’, Journal of British Studies, 39.4 (2000), pp. 423 and 437.

[15] Davies, J. D., ‘The Navy, Parliament and Political Crisis in the reign of Charles II’, The Historical Journal, 36.2 (1992), p. 272.

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