Royal Navy

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The Royal Navy is the official name of the branch of the British armed forces fighting at (or under or over the) sea, although in colloquial British English, 'The Navy', as in 'He's in the navy', can usually be taken as meaning the Royal Navy, which carries more prestige. Academic writers should be careful to distinguish between

  • the Royal Navy (R.N.), an armed and official force for naval warfare, and
  • the Merchant Navy, commercial vessels built for the use of firms engaging in trade, and a less organized body than the Royal Navy. (It has no recognized abbreviation.) Merchant Navy ships are not armed in modern times, although they were in the past. Occasionally, when sailing in pirate-infested waters, they may carry personnel and arms seconded from the Royal Navy in order for the latter to fulfil its duty to protect British shipping most effectively.
At sea, the two groupings may be distinguished by the flags they wear: Royal Navy ships fly the White Ensign (a St George's Cross [red on white] with the upper quarter nearest the flagstaff filled with a Union Flag), while Merchant Navy ships fly the Red Ensign (a red flag, with the upper quarter nearest the flagstaff filled with a Union Flag). (This is affectionately called 'The Red Duster'.)
The Royal Navy is proud of its prestige. It takes precedence over both the Army and the Royal Air Force as 'The Senior Service': a standing (permanent) force has been maintained at sea since the time of the Tudors, while a standing army did not come into being until Parliament created the New Model Army during the Civil War. Following the Restoration, the idea of a permanent army was regarded with such suspicion that there was none, other than a few ad hoc units until the Jacobite Risings of 1715 and 1745. (It remains true that, under the Bill of Rights of 1689, Parliament has to vote annually to continue the existence of the British (not 'the Royal') Army.) The Royal Air Force had to wait until the technological advances of the twentieth century, and was actually formed (out of the Royal Flying Corps of the Army and the Royal Naval Air Service) in 1918.
Go to Royal Navy (history) for a brief sketch of the history of the Royal Navy.