Majestic class battleships

The Majestic class pre-dreadnoughts were the oldest British battleships to see active service at sea during the First World War (one example of the earlier Royal Sovereign class, HMS Revenge, was used as a coastal bombardment ship, but not as a battleship). 

The nine strong Majestic class was the largest class of battleships ever build, one bigger than the eight-strong King Edward VII class of 1892-1907. It was built under the “Spencer Programme” of 1893, agreed by Parliament after the entire Board of Admiralty threatened to resign. The nine Majestic class ships were followed by another twenty very similar ships in the Canopus, Formidable, London and Duncan classes. In comparison the United States began work on six Iowa class battleships, completing only four of them (all of these figures are dwarfed by the twenty four members of the American Essex class of aircraft carriers, at 34,811 tons fully loaded each twice the size of a Majestic class ship!)

They were only the second large class of pre-dreadnoughts built for the Royal Navy. This type of battleship carried four main guns, in two twin turrets, one fore and one aft, with secondary and tertiary guns carried on the sides. Compared to the later dreadnoughts they often appear to be bulky ships, mostly due to the upper works required to carry that secondary armament.

The Majestic class were the first British battleships to feature the wire wound 12in guns that would become the standard armament on British battleships for twelve classes, before being replaced by 13.5in guns on the Orion class dreadnoughts of 1911-1912. These 12in guns replaced the earlier 13.5in guns used on the Royal Sovereign and earlier classes. The new guns fired lighter shells, but were generally faster firing and more accurate.

The Majestic class ships were the first British battleships to feature gun turrets as they would later be understood. Earlier “true” turrets effectively placed the guns on a turntable mounted on the deck and protected by armour. These turrets produced top-heavy ships with an unacceptable low freeboard, and were not a great success.

They were generally replaced by barbettes. In this system the turning mechanism was placed below the decks with the gun barrel mounted on the roof of the barbette. This system lowered the centre of gravity of the gun mechanism, but in early models the gun itself was unprotected (as on the Royal Sovereign class battleships). The next step was to provide armoured gun houses. On the Centurion class of battleships this had taken the form of an armoured shield, with an open back. Finally, on the Majestic class ships the gun house was entirely enclosed, producing a similar visual effect to the earlier turrets. Unsurprisingly these barbettes with armoured gun houses soon became known as turrets.

The Majestic class also featured a second important innovation in the development of the later turret. On the first seven ships of the class the barbette had been pear-shaped. The gun could be loaded from a fixed position in the tip of the pear, or from a limited supply of pre-prepared ammunition stored close to the gun. Once the pre-prepared ammunition was exhausted, the guns would have to be returned to their home position (pointing either fore or aft) before they could be reloaded, massively reducing the possible rate of fire.

HMS Illustrious before 1904
HMS Illustrious before 1904

On the last two members of this class (HMS Caesar and HMS Illustrious)the pear shaped barbette was replaced by a circular barbette combined with a new gun mounting that allowed the guns to be loaded from any position. This type of gun turret would become a standard feature on the vast majority of battleships built over the next sixty years. As a result the rate of fire was increased from a salve every 90 seconds in the Majestic to one every 72 seconds in Caesar.

Harvey steel was used for the armour, providing an increase in protection of around 15-20% on the nickel-steel armour used in previous ships.

All nine Majestic class battleships survived to see some active service during the First World War, in some cases have rather more interesting wars than their more illustrious dreadnought successors, most of which spent the entire war at Scapa Flow waiting for the next big battle. At the start of the war it had been planned to form the entire class into the 7th Battle Squadron, part of the Channel Fleet, but only two of the class ever served with that squadron, the rest being detached to perform other duties.

For most of the class that active career only lasted in 1915. Hannibal, Illustrious, Magnificent, Mars and Victorious began the war as guard ships, before all but Illustrious were disarmed in 1915 to provide 12in guns for the new Lord Clive class monitors. HMS Caesar was allocated to the 8th Battle Squadron in the Channel Fleet in August 1914, before spending 1915-1918 on the North American and West Indies station. In 1918 she was sent to the Mediterranean, and was part of the fleet sent through the Dardanelles at the end of the war. HMS Jupiter had a spell as a guard ship, before being sent to Archangel to act as an icebreaker, a role she was clearly well suited to perform – when she arrived at Archangel in February 1915 she set a record as the earliest ship to reach the ice-bound port.

HMS Majestic and HMS Prince George were both sent to the Dardanelles in early 1915 to act as “mine-bumpers” during the early naval operations. Majestic was the only member of the class to be lost in action. On 26 May 1915 she was selected as the flagship of Admiral Nicholson, and on the very next day was torpedoed by U-21, sinking in only 7 minutes, but with a surprisingly low loss of life. HMS Prince George survived to cover the evacuation of Gallipoli in early 1916 before being paid off to act as a support ship.

Displacement (loaded)

15,730-16,060t

Top Speed

16kts natural draught
17kts forced draught

Range

 

Armour – belt

9in

 - bulkheads

14-12in

 - barbettes

14in

 - gun houses

10in

 - casemates

6in

 - conning tower

14in

 - deck

4in-2.5in

Length

421ft

Armaments

Four 12in guns
Twelve 6in quick firing guns
Sixteen 12pdr quick firing guns
Twelve 2pdr quick firing guns
Five 18in torpedo tubes, four submerged

Crew complement

672

Launched

1894-1896

Completed

1894-1898

Sunk

HMS Caesar
HMS Hannibal
HMS Illustrious
HMS Jupiter
HMS Majestic
HMS Magnificent
HMS Mars
HMS Prince George
HMS Victorious

British Battleships 1889-1904 New Revised Edition, R A Burt. Magnificent study of the Royal Navy's pre-dreadnought battleships, amongst the most powerful ships in the world when built, but seen as obsolete by the outbreak of war in 1914. Traces the development of the 'classic' pre-dreadnought design and the slow increase in the power of the secondary armament, leading up to the all-big gun ships that followed. [read full review]
cover cover cover

Books on the First World War | Subject Index: First World War

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (29 October 2007), Majestic class battleships , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_majestic_class_battleships.html

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