A long naval tradition
There is a long tradition of figureheads on the Royal Navy’s warships. Carved figureheads of animals, representing the ship’s name, can be seen on some of Henry VIII’s ships in the ‘Anthony Roll’ from 1546. A unicorn and a salamander are visible on the ships called the Unicorn and the Salamander. The emblem of the Tudors, a rose is also visible on the front of the Mary Rose in the ‘Anthony Roll’. In 2005 divers raising part of the Mary Rose in the Solent found a four foot long carved wooden artefact which has been identified as the ship’s figurehead/badge. It is now on display in the Mary Rose Museum.
Lions commonly featured on the front of naval vessels in the seventeenth-century. Large men-of-war often received more elaborate and expensive decoration and figureheads. The original figurehead for the Sovereign of the Seas launched in 1637 was of King Edgar on horseback. In 1727, the admiralty issued an order that permitted the carving of figures instead of a lion’s head. During the eighteenth-century, figures of people became more common on the Royal Navy’s ships. The carved wooden figureheads usually illustrated the name of the ship. Over time, they evolved into busts by the nineteenth-century.
Figureheads began to fall out of fashion in the 1860s as iron and steel hulls replaced wooden ships. In 1894, the admiralty ended the practice of putting figureheads on larger naval ships. Some smaller vessels continued to have figureheads fitted until around the 1900s. HMS Espeigle was the last Royal Navy ship to have a figurehead when the ship was broken up in 1923. It’s figurehead is now housed at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth. The need remained for a symbol that illustrated the ship’s name remained. Originally, badge design was unregulated. After World War I a uniform style was adopted for different classes of ships.