In May of 2008, undersea explorers from the Tampa, Fla.-based maritime salvage company Odyssey Marine Exploration pulled a four-ton cannon from the ocean floor west of Britain’s Channel Islands. The massive 42-pounder was just one of 100 guns that 260 years earlier had comprised the devastating muscle of a massive, three-deck ship of the line. The barnacle-encrusted cannons, along with the remnants of the lost vessel’s 174-foot-long hull are all that remains of a once mighty Royal Navy flagship. Sadly, the ship was lost with all 1,000 hands in a vicious storm sometime during the night of Oct. 4, 1744. Her name was HMS Victory. Although that particular appellation will forever be linked to Horatio Nelson’s legendary fighting ship that fought at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, a surprising number of other vessels in the Royal Navy (and in other navies as well) have sailed under the banner Victory. Let’s meet some of them.
The first Victory was an Elizabethan warship acquired by the Royal Navy in 1569. Originally dubbed Great Christopher, the 42-gun vessel was rechristened and would go on to serve for another four decades. Her most famous skipper, Sir John Hawkins, captained Victory during the famous 1588 battle against the Spanish Armada. She was scrapped in 1608.
Victory No. 2
In 1627, the Royal Navy’s second Victory put to sea. The 870-ton, 42-gun fighting vessel would see action in 10 major engagements during the three Anglo Dutch Wars of the 17th Century. In 1665, she was sent into reserve, but would later be refurbished to carry 82 guns. HMS Victory would be reinstated and serve another 25 years as second-rate ship of the line. She was removed from service in 1691.
The England’s third Victory first put to sea in 1675 under the name HMS Royal James. When the previous Victory was broken up in 1691, the Admiralty transferred the name to the 100-gun, first-rate warship. The 1,400-ton vessel would go on to fight in the Nine Years War against France and take part in the Battle of Barfleur off Cherbourg in 1692. In 1695, HMS Victory underwent a massive rebuild at Chatham dockyards and soldiered on for another 26 years until being destroyed by a fire in 1721.
Lost at Sea
Materials recovered from the 1675 Victory would form the backbone of the next vessel to bear the name, which was laid down in 1726. Nineteen years later, the fourth HMS Victory would enter the service. Another 100-gun first rate vessel, the ship, which at the time was among the most powerful in the Royal Navy, would only sail for seven years. While returning to England at the head of a 25-ship squadron following a successful joint Anglo-Dutch Atlantic patrol, HMS Victory was caught in ferocious storm off the Channel Islands. it was long believed that sometime during the night of Oct. 4, 1744, Victory struck some rocks off Alderney. More than 1,000 men drowned in the disaster, including the legendary Admiral John Belchen, a 74-year old pensioned admiral who came out of retirement to command the flagship. The wreck was located in 2008 about 80 km west of where she was presumed lost. It’s rumoured that the Victory was carrying millions in gold coins taken from six French merchantmen captured weeks earlier off the coast of Portugal.
Lost to History
Not much is known about the fifth HMS Victory, an eight-gun schooner that was commissioned in 1764. The small vessel was lost in a fire in 1768 after a brief service life in the waters off Canada.
The most famous Victory of all was the 104-gun ship of the line first commissioned in 1778. After fighting in the battles of Ushant, Cape Spartel, and Cape St. Vincent, the celebrated flagship under the command of Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson smashed a larger combined French and Spanish fleet at Trafalgar. The Victory would continue to sail until 1812 when she was withdrawn from front line service. She remained in Portsmouth serving as a floating storehouse and later a school for signalmen until 1922 when she was restored and kept as a sort of living artifact of the age of sail. Later, she was converted to a museum ship. Despite being a tourist attraction, HMS Victory is still part of the Royal Navy and is the oldest commissioned warship in history.
Britain’s long time enemy France also had a warship named Victory. La Victoire was a 74-gun third-rate ship of the line built at the Lorient shipyard and launched in 1770. A veteran of the battles of Martinique (1780) and Chesapeake Bay (1781), La Victoire served with the French navy until 1791 when she was broken up.
America’s Victory failed to achieve the notoriety of its British namesakes. The 160-ton paddle-wheel steamer was launched by the Union navy onto the Ohio River at Cincinnati in 1863. Armed with a single 24-pound howitzer and sheathed in tin-plating, the 157-foot long Victory went into action mere hours after hitting the water. Part of a flotilla of river boats, ship set off up stream to cut off a Confederate cavalry detachment on a raiding mission north into Indiana. Later, the Victory was transferred to the Mississippi River, where she spent the remainder of the war patrolling and running dispatches. She was struck from the navy’s lists in June of 1865.