The Crown season five begins and ends with the same plot point: The Royal Yacht Britannia. The vessel serves as a—fairly obvious—metaphor in the first episode, where Imelda Staunton’s Queen Elizabeth describes it as “a floating, seagoing version of me.” The problem with her metaphorical marine self? It’s in desperate need of multi-million dollar repairs.
She asks British prime minister John Major, played by Jonny Lee Miller, whether the government might be able to help foot the bill. He, in turn, asks if the royal family might front the cost, given the public pushback they both might receive if such a seemingly extravagant project was approved. In the final episode of the season (a note to the reader: spoilers will follow), Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth agree to decommission the yacht after Prince Charles’s trip to Hong Kong.
The Crown is known for taking much of its plot material from real-life events. In the case of the Royal Yacht Britannia, though—what really happened to the boat, and how much political controversy did it really cause?
To go back to the beginning, King George VI first commissioned the royal yacht that would become the Britannia in 1952. It was an exciting project, as the previous official boat had belonged to Queen Victoria, and was rarely used. (Queen Victoria, for one, did not like the water and never sailed.) Then, during the early 20th century, England was mostly at war, and making a massive, slow-sailing luxury ship would be a massive security risk in international waters.
The Royal Yacht Britannia, George decided, should both be an extravagant vessel and a functional one, able to double as a hospital if times of war were to arise again. In 1953, the newly-crowned Queen Elizabeth christened the ship with a bottle of wine, as champagne was still seen as too extravagant post-war. In 1954, she set sail for the first time.
The Royal Yacht fulfilled many functions, most of them leisurely. Over the years, the boat hosted four royal honeymoons, including that of Princess Diana and Prince Charles, as well as many family vacations. In 1969, after his investiture as the Prince of Wales, Charles hosted an intimate party on board to celebrate. (Newspapers at the time wrote that he danced with his dear friend Lucia Santa Cruz—the very person who eventually introduced him to Camilla Parker Bowles.)