HMS Royal Sovereign (1891)

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For other ships of the same name, see HMS Royal Sovereign.
HMS Royal Sovereign c.1897
Career (United Kingdom)
Name: HMS Royal Sovereign
Builder: Portsmouth Dockyard
Laid down: 30 September 1889
Launched: 26 February 1891
Commissioned: 31 May 1892
Decommissioned: September 1909
Fate: Sold for scrapping 7 October 1913
General characteristics [1]
Class and type: Royal Sovereign-class battleship
Displacement: 14,190 tons
15,580 tons full load
Length: 410 ft 5 in (125.10 m) o/a
Beam: 75 ft (23 m)
Draught: 27 ft 6 in (8.38 m)
Propulsion: Twin coal-fired Humphreys & Tennant 3-cylinder triple-expansion steam engines
2 screws
9,000 ihp (6,700 kW)
Speed: 15.7 knots (29.1 km/h; 18.1 mph)
Range: Carried 350 tons coal (780 tons max)
190 tons fuel oil
Complement: 712
Armament: 4 × BL 13.5-inch (342.9 mm) guns (2×2)

10 × QF 6-inch (152.4 mm) guns (10×1)
10 × 6-pounder (57 mm) guns (10×1)
12 × 3-pounder (47 mm) guns (12×1)

6 × 18-inch (450 mm) torpedo tubes (4 above water, 2 underwater)
  • Main belt: 14–18 in (356–457 mm)
  • Upper belt: 3–4 in (76–102 mm)
  • Forward Bulkheads: 16 in (406 mm)
  • After bulkhead: 14 in (356 mm)
  • Barbettes: 11–17 in (279–432 mm)
  • Casemates: 6 in (152 mm)
  • Conning tower: 14 in (356 mm)
  • Deck: 2.5–3 in (64–76 mm)

HMS Royal Sovereign was a Royal Sovereign-class battleship of the Royal Navy, the lead ship of the class, and the largest warship in the world at the time of her construction. The ships were designed by Sir William White and amongst other warships built to convergent designs around the same time contributed to a standard template for battleship construction until HMS Dreadnought rendered them obsolete in 1906. In their day, the Royal Sovereigns embodied revolutionary improvements in firepower, armour, and speed.

Technical characteristics[edit]

Schematic of Royal Sovereign-class ships
Forward 13.5-inch (343-mm) guns of Royal Sovereign in open barbettes, 1896.

Royal Sovereign was laid down on 30 September 1889 and completed in 1892. Built at Portsmouth Dockyard she was 410 feet long and had a maximum cruising speed of 17 knots. She cost £913,986 to build. Her armaments included four 67-ton 13.5-inch guns and several smaller calibre guns.

She was the name ship of a class of battleships built in response to the Naval Defence Act of 1889 which allocated £21.5 million to construct 18 torpedo gunboats, 42 cruisers, and 10 battleships. Traditionally Britain had been content to maintain a larger fleet than her rivals so as to have "maritime supremacy". Recent thinking in naval strategy had come to the conclusion that this was insufficient, and that total "command of the sea" was required. The 1888 and 1889 Naval exercises had demonstrated the great difficulty of implementing Britain's traditional policy of blockading any enemy within its own ports, because of the problems keeping steamships indefinitely at sea at long distances from home ports. There was also continuing concern of war with allied France and Russia and although Britain had more ships of every class than these nations combined, this was not considered sufficient to guarantee such an enemy could be contained.[2]

A special meeting of the Board of Admiralty was convened in 1888 to determine the necessary characteristics for the next generation of battleship. The results were taken to a wider meeting in November. Previous ideas of the importance of torpedo or rams as weapons were no longer considered important: It was appreciated that modern gun designs meant that engagements were likely to occur well outside the range at which these weapons could be used, so the ships were designed as gun platforms. It was necessary to armour the ships as well as possible against return gunfire, but also important to create ships with good seagoing qualities for operations in all weathers at high speeds, and to have regard for long endurance of coal supplies.[3]

Breech loading guns of 13.5 in (343 mm) calibre were already in use and had proved their ability, so were adopted for the ship. Some ships had previously been built using turrets, but the difficulty of this was that the great weight of the turret meant it had to be placed as low as possible on the ship, leading to designs with low freeboard which frequently were wave washed in heavy seas. It was decided to adopt a "barbette approach", whereby the guns were mounted on an open turntable with small armoured shields. Heavy 17 inch armour extended downwards through the ship to protect the ammunition supply. This system allowed a freeboard of 18 feet (5.5 m), as compared to 11 ft (3.4 m) for the turret equivalent. Four guns were arranged in two pairs on barbettes separated towards either end of the ship, each having an arc of fire of 260 degrees. A secondary battery of ten 6-inch Quick Firing guns was placed in between the two barbettes, designed to provide potent, quick firing support for the main battery.[4]

An alternative design approach sometimes adopted was to concentrate the guns into one central position, which could then be more heavily armoured. This was dismissed, because of the associated risks that a single good shot might disable much of the armament in one stroke, and the difficulty of effectively operating many guns from a small space. Recent developments of medium calibre quick firing guns also meant that wholly unarmoured sections of a ship, as in those designs which had a central citadel but unarmoured ends, might suffer excessive damage to the unarmoured sections from intensive fire. The main 18 inch compound steel and iron side armour extended two-thirds the length of the ship in the central portion from three feet above the waterline to 5.5 feet below. Above this, thinner 5 inch armour was used, with coal bunkers designed to lie alongside the hull for added protection and watertight subdivisions. Six inch armour was used for the steel casemates housing the smaller guns in the central battery. An underwater armoured deck extended the whole length of the ship intended to protect the underwater sections from plunging fire. Approximately 32% of the ships weight was devoted to armour.[3]

The Royal Sovereign-class battleships were designed by Sir William White and were the most potent battleships in the world until HMS Dreadnought rendered them obsolete in 1906. In their day the Royal Sovereigns embodied revolutionary improvements in firepower, armour, and speed. However, they tended to develop a heavy roll in some conditions, and after HMS Resolution rolled badly in heavy seas in 1893 the entire class was nicknamed the "Rolling Ressies", a name which stuck even though the problem was quickly corrected by the fitting of bilge keels.[5] Despite their greatly increased weight, they were the fastest capital ships in the world in their time.

When the 14,150-ton Royal Sovereign was completed, she was the largest warship in the world. She proved that guns and torpedoes were more effective in attack than defence and was a vital stepping stone to the famous dreadnoughts which superseded her.

Operational history[edit]

View from above (c. 1899)

Royal Sovereign was christened by Queen Victoria, attended by her sons the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Edinburgh, and the Duke of Connaught, on 26 February 1891.[6] She completed trials in May 1892 and was commissioned on 31 May 1892, relieving HMS Camperdown as Flagship, Channel Squadron. From then until 13 August 1892, she served as Flagship, "Red Fleet," in annual manoeuvres off the coast of Ireland. She reprised her role as Flagship, Red Fleet, from 27 July 1892 to 6 August 1892 in annual manoeuvres in the Irish Sea and the Western Approaches.[6]

In June 1895 Royal Sovereign was part of a British naval squadron that attended the opening of the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal in Germany.[6]

During the third week of July 1896, Royal Sovereign took part in annual manoeuvres in the Irish Sea and off the southwest coast of England as part of 'Fleet A."[7]

On 7 June 1897, Royal Sovereign paid off and her crew transferred to battleship HMS Mars, which relieved her in the Channel Squadron. The next day, she recommissioned to relieve the battleship HMS Trafalgar in the Mediterranean Sea. Before departing for the Mediterranean, she took part in the Fleet Review for the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria at Spithead on 26 June 1897, and from 7 July 1897 to 11 July 1897 took part in annual manoeuvres off the coast of Ireland. She finally departed England for the Mediterranean in September 1897.[7]

Upon arrival, Royal Sovereign joined the Mediterranean Fleet. On 13 May 1899, she recommissioned for further duty with that fleet, and on 20 January 1900 Captain Charles Henry Adair was appointed in command.

Memorial in Victoria Park, Portsmouth to those killed in the 1901 explosion aboard Royal Sovereign.

On 9 November 1901, off Greece, one of her 6-inch (152-mm) guns exploded, killing one officer and five Royal Marines and injuring one officer (Sir Robert Keith Arbuthnot, 4th Bt) and 19 seamen.[7][8]

After being relieved in the Mediterranean by battleship HMS London, Royal Sovereign departed Gibraltar on 9 July 1902, arriving at Portsmouth, England, on 14 July 1902. On 30 August 1902, she commissioned as Port Guard Ship there for service in the Home Squadron. From 5 August 1903 to 9 August 1903, she participated in manoeuvres off the coast of Portugal. From 1903 to 1904, she underwent an extensive refit at Portsmouth.[7]

On 9 February 1907, Royal Sovereign commissioned as a Special Service Vessel in Reserve. As such, she was incorporated into the 4th Division of the Home Fleet with other such vessels in April 1909.[7]

In September 1909, Royal Sovereign paid off at Devonport into Material Reserve. She was sold for scrap on 7 October 1913.[7]


  1. ^ Chesneau, Koleśnik & Campbell 1979, p. 32.
  2. ^ Padfield pp. 113–116
  3. ^ a b Padfield pp. 116–117
  4. ^ Padfield p. 117
  5. ^ Burt, p. 66
  6. ^ a b c Burt, p. 80
  7. ^ a b c d e f Burt, p. 81
  8. ^ "Gun accident on board the Royal Sovereign" The Times (London). Monday, 11 November 1901. (36609), p. 9.


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