Royal Yachts Under Sail, by Brian Lavery

David Boyle

An illustrated history of royal yachts which began in the reign of Charles II.
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Royal yachts – like the word yacht in English – haven’t been with us forever. They both began during the English Civil War, and it was only when Charles II took to the sea himself – and loved it – that the whole business of royal yachts began.

The first one was actually the Surprise, originally a collier with a crew of five, which was the ship chosen to convey Charles into exile from Shoreham-by-Sea. After the Restoration, Charles bought the yacht and renamed her Royal Escape – and she spent mucsh of the rest of her life moored next to Whitehall Palace.

How do I know all this? Because I have been reading an extraordinary book by Brian Lavery, the naval historian. The second half of the title – Under Sail – implies correctly, first that this is an illustrated book – by a former senior curator at the National Maritime Museum – but also that it will tell you more about the days when they really were yachts, not the steam-driven successors of the Victoria and Albert (1842).

So this isn’t just an illustrated book, it is also a fabulous read, because Lavery wears his considerable learning so lightly, describing not just how they were built but who served in them.

Charles had many yachts, English versions of Dutch originals, called after his mistresses, like Mary, Catherine, Anne and Henrietta.

And Gloucester, which was lost – together with at least half of her passengers and crew of 300 – 45km east of Great Yarmouth in May 1682.

Lavery tells the story with great skill, about how the future James II escaped the wreck.

This was found in 2007 by three Norfolk divers, and you can see what they found in an exhibition at Norwich Castle Museum until 10 September.

David Boyle is a historian and writer, and the author of Munich 1938: Prelude to War.