Posted by: Rob Viens | July 1, 2012

Divine Services (and Divine Music) on the HMS Warspite

(Skip ahead and start the YouTube video at the end of the post and listen to it while your read today’s post. Trust me, it will eventually make sense…)

On Sunday, July 1st, Darwin “Attended divine service on board the Warspite” (i.e., church services), noting:

“The ceremony was imposing; especially the preliminary parts such as the “God save the King”, when 650 men took off their hats.” (July 1)

It was navy regulation that the captain would hold Divine Services and that the crew would attend. During the service the ship would fly the “church pennant” – the only flag allowed to fly higher than the Royal Navy ensign. In times past, ships would not attack one another when Divine Services were in progress. When at sea, flying the church pennant also alerted other ships to be aware that the ship’s crew was occupied and should not be interrupted. The Beagle held Divine Services every Sunday (led by FitzRoy), at which Darwin would have been in attendance.

Church pennant (from Royal Navy & Marine Customs and Traditions):
church pennant

After the services Darwin got to spend some more time admiring the size and glory of a third-rate warship. I’ve already discussed the Warspite in some detail (see “Flocks of Fowl” on the HMS Warspite). So today, I thought I’d let Darwin describe the ship as he saw it.

“Seeing, when amongst foreigners, the strength & power of ones own Nation, gives a feeling of exultation which is not felt at home.— This ship would be in exactly the same state, if she was going to fight another battle of Trafalgar.— It is in the whole & its parts a most splendid piece of mechanism.— Can one wonder at pride in the Captain, when he knows that all & everything bends to his will? When standing on the Quarter deck, in the midst of such a crew, can there be imagined a more lofty situation?— After divisions (the men being all arranged along deck in the two watches), the head officers go the rounds of the whole ship.— I accompanied them, & thus well saw all the store-rooms &c.— Those who have never seen them will form no just idea of their cleanliness & extreme neatness.— After Church I was introduced to two officers who were fond of Nat: History: I was surprised to find in one of their cabins an aviary of Cape-birds & plants in frames.— I dined in the Ward-room & had a very agreeable party.— Coming from a ten-gun Brig into such comforts & luxuries, makes one a little envious.— So many corners unoccupied, appeared to my eyes as great a waste as throwing good food overboard.— After the Kings health & “God save the King” the band played some beautiful music.— It was no common pleasure to hear the Overture to Figaro, Semiramide, Il Barbiere. After so long a fast, the appetite for Music becomes very keen.—

Before I returned to the Beagle I saw all the hammocks carried down out of the nettings.—it is said that this rush of the men surprised Napoleon more than anything else on an English ship.” (July 1)

Sketch of a Third-Rate Ship of War from the 18th century (from Cyclopaedia, Volume 2 (1728)):
third rate warship
Click on the image to see a larger version (where you can read the details). Note the that the bottom part of the sketch is a First Rate ship (you can tell by the three decks of cannons).

By the way, I believe the music Darwin refers to that was played by the band includes Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and music from Rossini’s operas – Semiramidie and The Barber of Seville. (For Darwin, these opera’s where both fairly new, having been first performed in 1816 and 1823 respectively.) If you want to experience the music Darwin listened to while on the Warspite on this day 180 years ago, take a listen to this recording of the Overture from the Barber of Seville from the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. Though to be fair, I’m not sure what instruments they had on board – so I;m sure it sounded a bit less polished.  If anyone has any idea what would have been likely, please let me know.

I will confess, I know this song well from growing up with “The Rabbit of Seville”. Who says cartoons don’t teach you anything? (RJV)


  1. How cool would it be to explore one of those old ships?

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