You must have heard of it – the online poll to name a polar scientific research vessel, won by a humorous (but, it must be said, not particularly inspired) choice that is considerably less august and impressive than the Natural Environment Research Council were probably hoping for. As it turns out that the voice of the people may be ignored and some other name chosen, it is being taken as a parable about democracy in our time. On a slightly different note, over at the History@Manchester blog Linda Briggs has written about the rituals with which early modern French monarchs and merchants named their ships. This seemed to me a good excuse to borrow the idea and take a look at early modern ship-naming in Britain and Europe more generally.
For other rulers as for the French, ships, their decorations, and especially their names were an important (and still quite understudied) part of royal symbolism in Europe, at least for countries with coastlines and navies. In 1516, as Linda Briggs writes, Francis I named a new ship La Dauphine after his son; only a few years earlier the Scottish king James IV had named his new ship the Michael, after the archangel, and not to be outdone Henry VIII of England rushed to have his own large warship built, called Henry Grace à Dieu.1 It continued into the seventeenth century: in 1628 Gustav II Adolf, the king of Sweden, launched the Vasa, named for his dynasty (which, unfortunately for Gustav, sank after sailing only 1,300 metres: you can find out more at the Vasa Museet website). In a manner resembling their sixteenth-century predecessors, during the 1630s Louis XIII of France built La Couronne, and Charles I of Britain produced the Sovereign of the Seas.
All of these ships were, when built, supposed to be larger than both previous warships and their contemporary rivals. On one level, then, this was petty competition over who had the biggest ship, a version of early modern throne envy. At the same time, symbolism and power were intertwined; names like La Couronne or Sovereign were statements about monarchical authority, and Charles’s Sovereign was part of a wider policy in which he claimed to rule the waves, although admittedly without much success.2 The iconography of the ship’s lavish decoration (described in detail here) was also significant, including as a figurehead a mounted King Edgar – believed by seventeenth-century antiquarians to be the founder of the English navy. Although these large ships tended to be expensive and unmaneuvrable and therefore not always very useful tactically, they mattered as part of the international theatre of royal government during this period.
This became even more obvious as British naval ship names see-sawed during the Interregnum of the 1650s and then the Restoration.3 The Sovereign briefly became the Commonwealth but reverted to the Sovereign, presumably because it was ambiguous enough, but the figurehead of King Edgar was replaced by Oliver Cromwell. New ships were christened after famous battles, like the Naseby, Marston Moor, or Dunbar. After 1660 ships either returned to their original names or took on new, suitably royalist ones: the Naseby became the Royal Charles. The importance of such symbolism is clear from another famous incident, when the Dutch fleet sailed up the Medway in 1667. They burned a number of ships, but the Royal Charles they took back to the Netherlands (and the stern carving is still on display in the Rijksmuseum). This was both a strategic victory and a personal jibe at Charles II.
Naval ships were a minority of the vessels sailing the seas during this period, and for merchants and shipowners as well as monarchs, names and decorations represented a way to express something. There is not much evidence about how these names were chosen, but most ships were owned by a syndicate, as seafaring was a risky business: buying shares in multiple ships was a safer investment than buying one whole ship. It might not be too fanciful to imagine something similar, if much smaller, to that online poll happening in a dockside tavern or merchant’s office. This is perhaps what occurred when London merchants William Crosse and Thomas Vincent unimaginatively – but diplomatically? – decided to call their ship the William & Thomas.4
In the early summer of 1640 Richard Kennede was ‘imployed by his mother Mrs Elizabeth Kennede…and sent over from London to Rotterdam in Holland to buy a small vessel…for the use of his said mother and partners’; they called the ship the Patrick, and Elizabeth shared ownership with the shipmaster Thomas Langford and one Edward Gilpyn.5 Many other ships were named after the owners or their families; in the records I work with there are a huge number of references to ships named after a person, and in most cases it is impossible to find out who that person was (like the Patrick).
Other choices were more pointed. Monikers like the God’s gift, the Bonaventure, the Prosperous, the Hopewell, or the Speedwell all declared a degree of optimism about the ship’s voyaging prospects. The Neptune appealed to obvious classical themes. Some were a little more distinctive or fanciful: the Eagle, the Dolphin, the Seahorse, the Pleides. Names like these were even more common in the Dutch fleet. Indeed in 1593 a Spanish official asked ‘what Christians are they with all their ships; they only carry names of unicorns, tigers, lions, dogs cats and snakes, they don’t know male or female saints’. To this a Dutch admiral replied that they simply had so many ships that ‘all the names of saints, male and female, from the almanac had already been given twice, so they had to look for other names’.6 That anecdote brings us back to the idea of ships as symbols in the political rivalries of early modern Europe.
Boaty McBoatface seems quite far removed from all this; but doesn’t it also represent a statement, a sort of ownership claimed by those people who voted for it? Perhaps also a way of saying that even important scientific endeavours should be able to laugh at themselves? That may be making too much out of what is, basically, a silly joke; but it does suggest that ships’ names still have some symbolic power, even if online voting means that it comes out in unexpected ways.
 For more on Henry VIII, see Geoffrey Moorhouse, Great Harry’s navy: how Henry VIII gave Britain seapower (London, 2009).
 For more on this period see Bernard Capp, Cromwell’s navy: the fleet and the English revolution, 1648-1660 (Oxford, 1992), or for a shorter introduction you can listen to the second half of this episode of Making History on BBC Radio 4.
 Quoted in Tijl Vanneste, ‘Sailing through the Strait: seamen’s professional trajectories from a segmented labour market in Holland to a fragmented Mediterranean’, in Maria Fusaro, Bernard Allaire, Richard J. Blakemore, and Tijl Vanneste, eds, Law, labour, and empire: comparative perspectives on seafarers, c. 1500-1800 (Basingstoke, 2015), p. 123.