A View of her Majesty's Ship Royal Sovereign

Penschilderij on Parchment lai
Extensively Inscribed and Signed
13 x 11 3/4 inches, 33 x 29.8 cm
Essay: 

The picture bears the following inscription: 'TO HIS Roy. HIGHNs PRINCE GEORGE of DENMARK/Lord High ADMIRAL of GREAT BRITAIN, IRELAND/and of all Her Dominions in GENERAL And/of all Her Majesti (lower left) and further signed and inscribed 'THIS PIECE OF PARCHMENT Drawing A VIEW/of Her Majies SHIP SOVEREIGN/this is most humbly Dedicated/By his Most/Faithful Servant Tho Bastion".

Designed by Surveyor Harding and built under his direction, Royal Sovereign was a majestic three-decker measured at 1,883 tons and 174½ feet in length with a 50 foot beam. With a principal armament of 28-32pdrs. on her gundeck, she further mounted 28-18pdrs. on her maindeck and 28-9pdrs. on her upper deck, with additional 6pdrs. on the quarterdeck, forecastle and roundhouse (or poop) to give a total of 102 guns. In terms of sheer firepower, she was a worthy successor to her earlier namesake although the grandeur and lavishness of her external carvings and decoration were also just as spectacular. Indeed, it is intriguing to speculate just how much of her cost was attributable to all this splendid though needless finery, an issue which assumes even greater importance once her career is examined.
Launched on 25th May 1701 and commissioned for sea under Captain John Fletcher, her first operational role was as flagship to Sir George Rooke when the War of the Spanish Succession began in 1702. Rooke's initial objective was the capture or destruction of Cadiz and, to this end, the fleet he had assembled left Spithead on 19th June (1702). Arriving at their intended anchorage near Cadiz on 12th August, Rooke then displayed "an ominous lack of energy" which resulted in the failure of the several operations to take the city and a complete withdrawal a month later. From there, Rooke took the fleet to Vigo Bay where, on 12th October (1702), he partially restored his reputation not only by destroying the French fleet at anchor there, but also by seizing the Spanish treasure galleons it was guarding. Millions in specie was captured yet one of the most curious aspects of the affair was that Rooke transferred his flag to the 80-gun Somerset beforehand and Royal Sovereign took no part in the action whatsoever.
One possible explanation could be that Rooke was under orders not to damage, let alone hazard, his flagship by exposing her to enemy fire such was her status as the symbolic flagship of the entire Navy and, in effect, a national icon. There is no documentary evidence to support such a theory yet it remains a mystifying fact that she never participated in any of the great sea-fights of her era despite several periods as flagship to successive commanding admirals. For unspecified reasons, she was effectively rebuilt by Master Shipwright J. Rosewell at Chatham between 1723 and 1729, even though details of her later career are equally sparse. Re-classed as a 90-gun 2nd Rate in 1756, three years later she was made Guardship in the Downs, a position of some significance, especially in time of war, as was the case from 1756-63. Further reduced to an 80-gun ship in 1763, perhaps as a result of the restoration of peace, she was broken up at Chatham a few years later, probably in 1766 although some sources state 1768. This lack of clarity concerning the precise year of her demise somehow reflects the whole of her sixty-year career which started with such promise yet achieved so little. Despite her obvious potential as a great ship-of-war, her life was curiously unfulfilled and, thus far at least, something of an enigma.

The wooden ceiling from the Great Cabin of the Royal Sovereign, an allegorical scene attributed to Thomas Highmore and based on sketches by Sir James Thornhill, was salvaged and is now over the main staircase in the Commissioner's (Medway) House, Chatham Dockyard.

Provenance: 

Private Collection, UK