The Crown’s long-awaited fifth season opens with a surprise flashback to Queen Elizabeth, played by Claire Foy, christening the Royal Yacht Britannia to cheers of jubilation in 1954, the year after she was coronated at the age of 27. The season premiere, “Queen Victoria Syndrome,” then jumps forward almost four decades to introduce the franchise’s latest iteration of the aging monarch, played by Imelda Staunton, shortly after she was called “irrelevant, old, expensive, and out-of-touch” by her once-adoring constituents in 1991. How far the crown has fallen in favorability.
Facing her advancing years, her nation’s yearning for modernity, and a global recession—not to mention a slew of forthcoming scandals involving her family members—this new chapter will not be a cheery one for our queen, the season premiere portends. And her first heartbreak abruptly arrives in the form of the Royal Yacht Britannia, which—with its operational price tag of about $18 million a year, and its need for expensive improvements—seems simply too lavish and impractical an expense for the public to keep footing.
Nevertheless, the queen makes a plea in an audience with Prime Minister John Major (Jonny Lee Miller) for additional financing. “All of my palaces were inherited,” the queen explains, in one of the least relatable sentences the character has ever uttered. “They all bear the stamp of my predecessors. Only Britannia I’ve truly been able to make my own….From the design of the hull to the smallest piece of china, she is a floating, seagoing expression of me.”
The actual 412-foot royal yacht—built to replace its predecessor, the Victoria and Albert—was a real-life delight for Queen Elizabeth and the backdrop for many happy family memories. The construction of the vessel came at a tricky time for the royals, shortly after Elizabeth became queen at an unexpectedly young age and Philip was forced to give up his naval career, surname, and identity. Britannia became something of a release valve for Philip, who had served as a commander in the royal navy, and was able to oversee the design of the yacht’s technical features. The queen, meanwhile, handpicked the chintz fabrics and details down to the doorknobs and lampshades. It was the one home that Elizabeth and Philip had a true hand in designing, and was outfitted with a bolted-down piano for evening singalongs, framed family photos, travel mementos from around the globe, and a sundeck outfitted with wicker furniture.
Given that the queen and Philip used the yacht during their far-reaching commonwealth tours, the floating palace also featured formal accommodations fit to entertain 13 U.S. presidents, including the Eisenhowers, the Fords, the Reagans, and the Clintons. In addition to a grand staircase, silver and crystal tableware, and a wine cellar, Britannia featured a state dining room large enough to accommodate 100 that could be converted into a private cinema.
The complete privacy that the ship afforded is one reason why the queen famously described it as “the one place where I can truly relax.” According to Sally Bedell Smith’s biography Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch, the queen even tucked away her trademark skirts and dresses while aboard. “It was one of the few times when the Queen wore trousers other than on horseback or while participating in field sports, mainly so that she could easily (and modestly) go up and down the ladders and onto launches when they went ashore on deserted beaches for picnics,” wrote Smith. The Britannia offered the queen other opportunities to play at informality, too. For instance, the seaman aboard did “not wear their caps at sea, which means the seamen are technically out of uniform and not required to salute, enabling the Queen to walk around the vessel without formal recognition,” reported The New York Times in 1983, adding that the seamen did their best to act invisible around the monarch. “They have been trained to execute orders on the upper deck, where the Queen’s private quarters are situated, without spoken words or commands.”
The yacht was also a physical reminder of some cherished moments for the family. In 1954, the ship’s maiden voyage reunited the queen and Philip with their young children, Charles and Anne, after nearly 18 months apart from them. (“The ice broke very quickly and we have been subjected to a very energetic routine and innumerable questions which have left us gasping!” the queen told her mother.) Beginning in the 1960s, the royal family began an annual tradition of cruising through the western Isles of Scotland en route to Balmoral for the holidays—stopping off for picnics and a visit to the Queen Mother at the Castle of Mey. There was a water slide that family members would happily hurl themselves down, and humorous performances put on by the yacht’s staff. (The former yacht chef recently recalled the queen and Philip “absolutely laughing their heads off at the stupid antics we got up to” during his 16 years aboard.) When Anne turned 21, she reportedly celebrated with a party in the State Dining Room, which had been converted into a dance hall complete with a dance floor.