The Admiralty: Command of the Royal Navy

The Admiralty was the authority responsible for the command of the Royal Navy in the Kingdom of England, and later in Great Britain and until 1964 in the United Kingdom. Originally exercised by a single person, the Lord High Admiral, the Admiralty was from the early 18th century onwards almost invariably put “in commission” and exercised by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, who sat on the Board of Admiralty.

In 1964, the functions of the Admiralty were transferred to a new Admiralty Board, which is a committee of the tri-service Defence Council of the United Kingdom and part of the Ministry of Defence. The new Admiralty Board meets only twice a year, and the day-to-day running of the Royal Navy is controlled by a Navy Board (not to be confused with the historical Navy Board). It is common for the various authorities now in charge of the Royal Navy to be referred to as simply The Admiralty.

Flag of the Lord High Admiral [Public Domain, Uploaded by Yaddah]

Flag of the Lord High Admiral [Public Domain,
Uploaded by Yaddah]

The title of Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom was vested in the monarch from 1964 to 2011. The title was awarded to Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, by Queen Elizabeth II on his 90th birthday. There also continues to be a Vice-Admiral of the United Kingdom and a Rear-Admiral of the United Kingdom, both of which are honorary offices.

The office of Admiral of England (or Lord Admiral and later Lord High Admiral) was created around 1400, though there were before this Admirals of the Northern and Western Seas. In 1546, King Henry VIII established the Council of the Marine, later to become the Navy Board, to oversee administrative affairs of the naval service. Operational control of the Navy remained the responsibility of the Lord High Admiral, who was one of the nine Great Officers of State.

In 1628, Charles I put the office of Lord High Admiral into commission and control of the Royal Navy passed to a committee in the form of the Board of Admiralty. The office of Lord High Admiral passed a number of times in and out of commission until 1709, after which the office was almost permanently in commission (the last Lord High Admiral being the future King William IV in the early 19th century).

In 1831, the Navy Board was abolished as a separate entity and its duties and responsibilities were given over to the Admiralty.

In 1964, the Admiralty was subsumed into the Ministry of Defence along with the War Office and the Air Ministry. Within the expanded Ministry of Defence are the new Admiralty Board, Army Board and Air Force Board, each headed by the Secretary of State for Defence. As mentioned above, there is also a new Navy Board in charge of the day-to-day running of the Royal Navy.

The Board of Admiralty

When the office of Lord High Admiral was in commission, as it was for most of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries until it reverted to the Crown, it was exercised by a Board of Admiralty, officially known as the Commissioners for Exercising the Office of Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, &c. (alternatively of England, Great Britain or the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland depending on the period).

The Board of Admiralty consisted of a number of Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty. The Lords Commissioners were always a mixture of admirals, known as Naval Lords or Sea Lords, and Civil Lords, normally politicians. The quorum of the Board was two commissioners and a secretary.

The president of the Board was known as the First Lord of the Admiralty, who was a member of the Cabinet. After 1806, the First Lord of the Admiralty was always a civilian, while the professional head of the navy came to be (and is still today) known as the First Sea Lord.

Admiralty Buildings

 More details The Admiralty complex in 1794. The colours indicate departments or residences for the several Lords of the Admiralty. The pale coloured extension behind the small courtyard on the left is Admiralty House. View author information [Public Domain Uploaded by Ian Dunster]

More details
The Admiralty complex in 1794. The colours indicate departments or residences for the several Lords of the Admiralty. The pale coloured extension behind the small courtyard on the left is Admiralty House.
View author information
[Public Domain
Uploaded by Ian Dunster]

The Admiralty complex lies between Whitehall, Horse Guards Parade and The Mall and includes five inter-connected buildings. Since the Admiralty no longer exists as a department, these buildings are now used by separate government departments:

The Admiralty
The oldest building was long known simply as The Admiralty; it is now known officially as the Ripley Building, a three storey U-shaped brick building designed by Thomas Ripley and completed in 1726. Alexander Pope implied the architecture is rather dull, lacking either the vigour of the baroque style, which was fading from fashion at the time, or the austere grandeur of the Palladian style, which was just coming into vogue. It is mainly notable for being perhaps the first purpose built office building in Great Britain. It contained the Admiralty board room, which is still used by the Admiralty, other state rooms and offices and apartments for the Lords of the Admiralty. Robert Adam designed the screen which was added to the entrance front in 1788. The Ripley Building is currently occupied by the Department for International Development.

Admiralty House
Admiralty House is a moderately proportioned mansion to the south of the Ripley Building, built in the late 18th century as the residence of the First Lord of the Admiralty, serving that purpose until 1964. Winston Churchill was one of its occupants. It lacks its own entrance from Whitehall and is entered through the Ripley Building. It is a three-storey building in yellow brick with neoclassical interiors. Its rear facade faces directly onto Horse Guards Parade. The architect was Samuel Pepys Cockerell. There are now three ministerial flats in the building. [Sir Charles Walker, Thirty-Six Years at the Admiralty (London, 1933)]

Admiralty Extension

The Admiralty Extension (which is also one of the two buildings which are sometimes referred to as the “Old Admiralty”) dates from the turn of the 20th century.
This is the largest of the Admiralty Buildings. It was begun in the late 19th century and redesigned while the construction was in progress to accommodate the extra offices needed due to the naval arms race with the German Empire. It is a red brick building with white stone detailing in the Queen Anne style with French influences. It has been used by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office since the 1960s. The Department for Education will move into the building in September 2017 following the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s decision to leave the building and consolidate its London staff into one building on King Charles Street.

Admiralty Arch

Admiralty Arch is linked to the Old Admiralty Building by a bridge and is part of the ceremonial route from Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Palace.[C. Hussey, “Admiralty Building, Whitehall”, Country Life, 17 and 24 November 1923, pp. 684–692, 718-726.]

The Admiralty Citadel
This is a squat windowless World War II fortress north west of Horse Guards Parade, now covered in ivy. See Military citadels under London for further details.

“Admiralty” as a metonym for “sea power”

In some cases, the term “admiralty” is used in a wider sense, as meaning sea power or rule over the seas, rather than in strict reference to the institution exercising such power. For example, the well-known lines from Kipling’s Song of the Dead:

If blood be the price of admiralty,

Lord God, we ha’ paid in full!

In addition to the citations within the post, London Remembers and Wikipedia supplied information.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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4 Responses to The Admiralty: Command of the Royal Navy

  1. In your post you mentioned Winston Spencer Churchill, during WWI Churchill was the First Lord of the Admiralty and was in pretty well in every sense the architect of one of the great disasters of WWI. Gallipoli!. On the 25th April this year we in Australia and New Zealand will celebrate ANZAC Day, probably the most important day in our calendar for it was on this day in 1915 that the ANZAC’s stormed the beaches at Gallipoli, and for some 8 months the battle raged with tremendous loss of life on both sides. The Turks were led by the most brilliant General of the 20th Century, forget Montgomerey, Eisenhower,et al they could not hold a candle to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, he never lost a battle, ever! He took Turkey into the 20th century and liberated the women (ah for an Aturturk in the middle east now), He is even honoured with a statue here in Australia even though he thrashed us,

    But back to Winston Churchill; at the outbreak of WWII on the 3rd September 1939 Churchill was once again appointed to the post of First Lord of the Admiralty and the signal (the navy like signals) went out to all ships of the Fleet and all naval stations across the Empire ( we still had one of sorts at the time) “Winston’s back!” to loud cheers from all!

    You know of course that Churchills mother was an American, asocialite who married Lord Randolph Churchill

    • I wish I had your many insights ready at hand, Brian.

      • This is my particular area of any expertise I might have Regina, I didn’t come to novels (except perhaps for Steinbeck and a couple of other 20th century writers until I got to my 70’s.I had my head forever buried into books on the Royal Navy and Great Britain at war in the 20th century. I think I should concentrate my blogging on that subject, but the mind wanders too much. Think I’m getting old! 🙂

      • It is a shame much of History has gone by the wayside with the current generation.

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