Behind the name: ‘HMS Unicorn’

← Back to history

HMS Unicorn, the Frigate Unicorn or HMS Cressy?
Here’s a summary of why the ship has been known by different names over the years.

Surplus to Naval Requirements

In 1968, on the completion of new shore headquarters for Tay Division RNR, named HMS Camperdown, HMS Unicorn became surplus to Naval requirements and was transferred to the newly-formed Unicorn Preservation Society.  The Unicorn Preservation Society was one of the first in the World to tackle the private preservation of a large warship, and there was very little in the way of precedent to follow.

In particular, naval sensitivities about the use of ‘HMS’ and the white ensign meant that HMS Unicorn’s early years in preservation required her to take a new designation, and she became ‘The Frigate Unicorn’.

This cumbersome title was also historically meaningless, and from the mid-1990s she became known as HM Frigate Unicorn, a little closer to her proper title.

Returning to the name ‘HMS Unicorn’

Now that many other subsequently preserved warships have retained their ‘HMS’ (e.g. HMS Belfast, HMS Cavalier, HMS Trincomalee, HMS Warrior) it has been agreed that the ship should also return to her historically correct designation of ‘HMS Unicorn’.  This is also still, after so many years, the designation by which most members of the public recognise the ship.

His Majesty’s Ship Unicorn was launched from Chatham Dockyard on 1824, and there is a letter from the Commissioner at Chatham Dockyard to the Commissioners of the Navy Board dated 30 March 1824:

“I have to acquaint you that His Majesty’s Ship UNICORN was launched to day from the 4th slip at this Yard.”   (ADM106 in PRO)

History of Unicorns (the mythical creature, and ships of the same name!)

HMS Unicorn’s figurehead

Unicorns are the heraldic supporters of the Scottish Royal Arms, and earlier Unicorn ships were the flagships of the old Scots navy.  A Scottish Unicorn ship was captured, along with another Scots ship, the Salamander, from Leith during the ‘Rough Wooing’ which was an English punitive raid on Edinburgh in 1544.  Henry VIII ordered the expedition after the Scots parliament had rejected the idea that the infant Mary, later Queen of Scots, should be betrothed to Edward, Prince of Wales.  This visionary marriage never took place, but would have dramatically changed the history of the British Isles.  This Unicorn ship became the first of some fifteen ships in the Royal Navy to be named HMS Unicorn.

Change to the name ‘HMS Cressy’

In June 1939, an Aircraft Carrier was launched with the name HMS Unicorn and this frigate took the name HMS Unicorn II.  Following confusion over mail and tales of Fleet Air Arm ratings arriving in Dundee looking for an aircraft carrier, the frigate was renamed as HMS Cressy.

When the time came for the aircraft carrier to be scrapped, the frigate recovered her original name and was renamed HMS Unicorn on 14 July 1959.

The frigate also acquired the aircraft carrier’s impressive No1 bell, a painted display board listing previous ships of the name, her battle honour scrolls and three new battle honours.

©2005 Hynek Moravec