Customs and traditions of the Royal Navy

Customs and traditions of the Royal Navy

There are many customs and traditions associated with the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom. These include formal customs including separate crests associated with ships, ensigns and fleet reviews. There are also several less formal customs and traditions including Naval slang commonly referred to as Jack Speak and the traditional games of Uckers and Euchre.




Commissioned ships and submarines wear the White Ensign at the stern whilst alongside during daylight hours and at the main-mast whilst under way. When alongside, the Union Jack as distinct from the Union Flag, is flown from the jackstaff at the bow, but can only be flown underway on special circumstances i.e.: to signal a court-martial is in progress or to indicate the presence of an Admiral of the Fleet on-board (including the Lord High Admiral or the Monarch).[1]

The Union Flag is distinct from the Union Jack in size. The Flag is 1×2, and a Jack is 3×5 ratio, making the Jack more square looking.

Ships badges

The Royal Navy assigns badges to every ship, submarine, squadron and shore establishment. Prior to the age of steam ships, ships were identified by their figurehead. With the removal of the figurehead, ships badges and mottoes were created to graphically represent the ships. The official process for creating the badge was initiated by Charles ffoulkes after World War I who was appointed as the Admiralty Advisor on Heraldry. Soon after his appointment The Ships' Badges Committee was established. This was amalgamated in 1983 with the Ships' Names Committee (founded in 1913) to create the Ships' Names and Badges Committee. The Naval Crown adorns the top of all the badges. The frame is gold rope. Originally, different classes of ships had different shapes, but currently all ships and submarines have a circular design. Shore establishments have an offset square design.

Fleet reviews

The Fleet Review is an irregular tradition of assembling the fleet before the monarch. For example, at the most recent Review on 28 June 2005 to mark the bi-centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar, 167 ships of the RN, and 30 other nations, were present. The fleet review in 2005 showed the marked contrast between the size of the Navy in 2005 compared to the last review in 1977. In total the Royal Navy had 67 ships on display, with the largest ship present being the French carrier Charles De Gaulle at over 200 feet longer than HMS Invincible.[2]

Service nicknames

Nicknames for the service include The Andrew or Andrew Miller (of uncertain origin, possibly after a zealous press ganger)[3][4] and The Senior Service.[5][6] It has also been referred to as the Grey Funnel Line in ironic comparison with the commercial Blue Funnel Line, notably in the Cyril Tawney song of that name.

Naval salute

Originally subordinates would remove their headgear to a superior. In a book called New Art of War, printed in 1740, it is stated that;

When the King or Captain General is being saluted each Officer is to time his salute so as to pull off his hat when the person he salutes is almost opposite him.

Queen Victoria instituted the hand salute in the Navy to replace uncovering when she sent for certain officers and men to Osborne House to thank them for rendering help to a distressed German ship, and did not like to see men in uniform without headress.[citation needed]

The personal salute with the hand is borrowed from the military salute of the Army, and there are various theories concerning its origin. There is the traditional theory that it has been the custom from time immemorial for a junior to raise their headress to a superior, and even today men on Captain's Defaulters remove their hats. In this theory, the naval salute is merely the first motion of removing one's headress. It was officially introduced into the Navy in 1890, but during the First World War a large number of old retired officers were in the habit of doffing their headgear instead of saluting, this, of course, being the method to which they were accustomed.

Another theory holds that in the age of sail, hemp ropes were preserved in tar, causing the sailor's hands to become stained. It would have been a discourtesy to show the dirty palm to one's superior, therefore the naval salute differs from the military salute in that it has the palm turned down, rather than outwards.[7] The Royal Marines, with their military origin, use the army type rather than the naval salute.


The Toasts of the Royal Navy are a set of traditional drinking toasts.

Day Toast
Sunday "Absent Friends"
Monday "Our Ships at Sea"
Tuesday "Our Men"
Wednesday "Ourselves" (As no-one else is likely to concern themselves with our welfare!)
Thursday "A Bloody War or a Sickly Season"
Friday "A Willing Foe and Sea-Room"
Saturday "Wives and Sweethearts" (May they never meet!)

The words in brackets are understood but unspoken, though often those not toasting will say them in response. By tradition, these toasts were proposed immediately after the loyal toast, on the relevant day of the week.

While most of these toasts are self-explanatory, "a bloody war or a sickly season" refers to the desire and likelihood of being promoted when many people die: during war or sickness.[8] The Navy traditionally makes the loyal toast seated, due to the evident danger of low deckheads on wooden sailing ships.


Ships will engage in a number of affiliations with cities (e.g., HMS Newcastle with Newcastle upon Tyne), elements of the other forces (e.g. HMS Illustrious with 30 Signal Regiment), schools, cadet units and charities. Every sea cadet unit in the UK has an affiliated ship, with the exception of Yeovil unit which, due to their location on RNAS Yeovilton, are affiliated with 848 Helicopter Squadron.

Naval slang

The RN has evolved a rich volume of slang, known as Jack-speak. Nowadays the British sailor is usually Jack (or Jenny) rather than the more historical Jack Tar, which is an allusion to either the former requirement to tar long hair or the tar-stained hands of sailors. Nicknames for a British sailor, applied by others, include Matelot (pronounced "matlow", and derived from the French for sailor), and Limey, from the Lime-juice given to British sailors to combat scurvy - mainly redundant in use within the Royal Navy. Royal Marines are fondly known as Bootnecks or often just as Royals.[5]

Uckers and Euchre

Uckers is a four player board game similar to Ludo that is traditionally played in the Royal Navy. It is fiercely competitive and rules differ between ships and stations (and between other services).

Euchre, pronounced you-ker, is a card game also played on board ships, in naval establishments and also in pubs in Devon. It is similar to Trumps, is highly competitive and extremely difficult to learn. Euchre involves nominated partners, is played only with the nine card and higher, apart from the two of spades - called the "Benny" - (making 25 cards in all) and uses the eight and seven cards as a score board. The winner is the first team to score 15.

Songs and marches

There are several songs that are commonly associated with the Royal Navy including "Heart of Oak" (the official quick march) and "Rule, Britannia!."

Notes and references

  1. ^ "Use of the Union Jack at Sea". Flags of the World. Retrieved 2007-07-14. 
  2. ^ "French top gun at Fleet Review". London: The Times. 2005-06-26. Retrieved 2007-07-12. 
  3. ^ Admiralty Manual of Seamanship. HMSO. 1964. 
  4. ^ "FAQs;Royal Navy's nickname". National Maritime Museum. Retrieved 2007-07-14. 
  5. ^ a b Jolly, Rick. Jackspeak. Maritime Books Dec 2000. ISBN 0-9514305-2-1. 
  6. ^ "Naval Slang". Royal Navy. Retrieved 2007-07-14. 
  7. ^ "FAQs; Salutes". Royal Air Force. Retrieved 2007-07-14. 
  8. ^

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