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Charlotte Is Visiting HMS Leviathan

For a girl of eighteen, it was a dull sort of holiday. Her attendants were old or elderly; she was unable to ride, which was her chief delight, because she was suffering from a painful swollen knee, and she was deprived of her phaeton and ponies which she enjoyed driving at Windsor. But as time went on she began to fall under the gentle spell of Weymouth, finding pleasure in sailing, which was something new to her. Her health improved, and she went away hoping to return the following year.

It was during this visit, in the year of Waterloo, that her first biographer, Robert Huish, describes the seafaring princess, in an account which was probably picked up from eye-witness.

‘Her Royal Highness,’ writes Huish, ‘was one day at sea in her yacht, when the Leviathan of 74 guns, being under sail, brought to and fired a salute to the royal standard flying from the yacht. * The Leviathan was a magnificent man-of-war, which had shared in the capture of two Spanish ships at Cadiz, and had fought at Trafalgar. As the vessels approached each other, Leviathan’s commander, Captain Nixon, ordered his barge to be launched, and hurried abroad the yacht to pay his respects to the Princess. She was accompanied by two ladies-in-waiting and the Bishop of Salisbury, who for ten years had been supervising her education. After greeting the Captain, Princess Charlotte, said Huish, ‘expressed herself highly pleased with the appearance of the man-of-war, and intimated a wish to go abroad.’ The Bishop demurred, ‘fearful that her Father might express his displeasure at her going upon the open sea, which was then in a rough state, in an open boat’. But the Princess was determined, and the Bishop knew her well enough to give in, no doubt breathing a silent prayer as the sailors gripped their oars. The waves broke over the bows of the barge, splashing the faces of the party, but Charlotte, laughing, assured her agonized preceptor that she was only doing what Queen Elizabeth had done. ‘She had no fear of going in an open boat to board a man-of-war, so why should I?’

As the barge drew alongside the tall battleship, the order was given for all her yards to be manned, and a chair of state was let down to hoist the Princess on board. But this did not suit Her Royal Highness, who wished to make her way up the ship’s side by rope ladder, as a sailor would; and, asking Captain Nixon to follow and take care of her skirts, she proceeded to climb up with an agility and fearlessness which entranced the ship’s company.

The ship’s officers were now presented to the Princess, who greeted each with a hearty, mannish handshake, unexpected from this blonde feminine creature. She then proceeded to look about her. Standing, as was her way, with feet apart and hands clasped behind her back, she exclaimed at the spaciousness and strength of the great oaken vessel, and gazed, fascinated, at the high masts with their complicated rigging. ‘No wonder,’ she said, ‘that these ships are called the wooden walls of England.’ She asked to be allowed to see every part of the ship, not just the state rooms, but the men’s quarters and the gallery, and further down still in the heart of the vessel, the cockpit, and powder magazine, and the holds.

‘Now,’ she said, as she climbed back on the deck, ‘I have a good idea of what life on a man-of-war is like,’ and she told the Captain that this was one of the most interesting experiences of her life. She then presented him with a purse of money to be used for the benefit of his crew, ‘as a sign of my respect.’ And with that she proceeded to climb down the ship’s side as she had climbed up, to the accompaniment of loud and hearty British cheers.

* In July 1833, William IV, outraged by the salutes accorded by ships in the Solent to the Duchess of Kent and her daughter, the future Queen Victoria, decreed that in future the Royal Standard would only be saluted when the King or Queen was aboard.

[an extract from ‘Prinny’s Daughter: A Biography of Princess Charlotte of Wales’ by Thea Holme]

Picture: Attack on convoy of eighteen French merchant ships at Laigrelia, 1812 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Leviathan_(1790)#/media/File:Attack_on_convoy_of_eighteen_French_merchant_ships_at_Laigrelia.jpg