Q Why did Royal Navy ships carry figureheads?
O Adamberry, Gibraltar AFeatured on the prows
of Royal Navy warships from the 16th to the early 20th century, figureheads were intended to embody the spirit of a ship. These works of art, created by specialist wood carvers, focused crew identity, and sailors would even risk their lives to repair them during battle. As mobile representations of national power, great warships like King Charles I’s Sovereign of the Seas, and Cromwell’s Naseby carried complex allegorical structures that spoke of dominance, prestige and power. When Charles II renamed Cromwell’s flagship the Royal Charles, Cromwell’s figurehead was ceremonially burned and replaced by a new royal image. HMS Victory, the last sailing flagship, similarly carries the royal arms.
Smaller ships were fitted with representations of their name, be it a person, a classical deity, a locality or a river, animals, birds, fish or naval commanders. In 1850, the ships Trafalgar, Aboukir, Nile, Horatio, Hero, and of course Nelson, all featured the great man as their figurehead.
As ship designs developed, those without a sailing rig no longer had a prow to carry a figurehead. So while small sloops with sails were built with figureheads as late as 1903, HMS Rodney, completed in 1888, was the last battleship to carry one.
Andrew Lambert’s latest book is Seapower States (Yale, 2018)
HMS Victory’s colourful figurehead, bearing the royal arms