There was a time in the history of Britain’s battle for supremacy to build a strong global empire that the reigning monarch decided to reward his admirals and captains for their courage in ensuring the nation remained victorious.
The Naval Gold Medal was born out of that sentiment – a rare honour bestowed on those commanders at sea who brought home victory following many of the most significant battles that would go on to shape the history of Britain’s imperial century.
To emphasise the status and standing of those to receive the medal, the majority of recipients are in the company of some of the most iconic figures in British history, the most notable of which is perhaps Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson.
Why Were Naval Gold Medals Awarded?
King George III commissioned the medal following the Glorious First of June – the first major naval conflict of the war with Revolutionary France in 1794 – as a way of honouring those admirals and captains for their bold and courageous actions, and perhaps more importantly, for victory.
The King also wanted to create the highest honour for those who might distinguish themselves in future battles – those battles that gave Britain an advantage in building its empire and control of the seas.
The Naval Gold Medal was the only campaign medal awarded for naval victories between 1794 and 1815 and its significance cannot be underestimated in elevating its recipients in status, respect and standing in society at the time.
The Royal Navy considered the medal such a high honour that an entire section was devoted to its recipients in the Navy List – the naval equivalent of Who’s Who that lists all serving commissioned officers of the Royal Navy and reserve officers liable for recall and includes the names of the most influential figures of the age.
Spencer C Tucker, in the Encyclopedia Of The War Of 1812, writing on the medal, said:
“It was really something significantly more than a simple campaign medal, awarded to all ranks for service in a particular battle.
“Rather, the Naval Gold Medal was actually a service award to flag officers and ship’s commanders.
“The subordinate officers of a given ship received no such recognition.”
He also notes that the “the medal was only awarded for successful actions, not for defeats.”
Who Received The Naval Gold Medal?
The awarding of a Naval Gold Medal was rare – reserved only for those Flag Officers and captains who were conspicuous in distinguishing themselves in victorious battle.
There were two versions of the medal – a large version that was awarded to Flag Officers, better known today as Admirals, and to commodores, and a small version then tended to be awarded to captains.
Just 22 large Gold Naval Medals were ever awarded for the most notable Flag Officers up until 1815.
There are conflicting records of the number of small versions awarded but it was in the vicinity of 70 to just over a hundred.
Among notable recipients are Earl Howe, for his victory in commanding the British Fleet at the Glorious First of June, Admiral Adam Duncan, 1st Viscount Duncan, for his victory at Camperdown, John Jervis, Earl of St Vincent, who commanded the British fleet in the battle of St Vincent, and perhaps most notably, as mentioned earlier, Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson.
There were only three naval officers who earned three of the gold medals – Sir Edward Berry, Lord Collingwood and Viscount Nelson.
The rarity of the surviving Naval Gold Medals makes them highly collectable and they often command significant interest if any go up for auction such as the two gold medals awarded to Captain Bligh, of the famous mutiny, and which sold in 2011 for almost £250,000.
Some are held in museums, such as the gold medal awarded to Admiral Sir William Carnegie, Earl of Northesk, in 1805 for his part in the Battle of Trafalgar and which is part of the collection at National Museums Scotland.
That medal, one of the large versions, was one of just three awarded for the Battle of Trafalgar – with the others handed to Lord Nelson and his second-in-command, Lord Collingwood.
Design Of The Naval Gold Medal
The large Naval Gold Medal measures 51mm in diameter and the small measures 38mm in diameter and they both feature a winged figure of Victory bestowing a laurel wreath on Britannia on the observe, or what we might think of as the ‘front’ side, while the reverse bears the engraved rank and name of the recipient, plus the victory or engagement for which the medal was awarded.
The Latest Naval Gold Medal To Sell At Auction
A rare Naval Gold Medal awarded to Royal Navy Captain Sir William Hoste KCB, a protégé of Admiral Lord Nelson, has just sold at auction for £100,000.
Captain Sir William Hoste was awarded his gold medal following the Battle of Lissa in 1811, off the coast of what is now southern Croatia and the island of Vis – the island which, in modern times, provided the picturesque backdrop for the hit blockbuster musical film Mamma Mia 2.
Hoste was outnumbered and outgunned when he took on the Franco-Venetian squadron commanded by Bernard Dubourdieu.
Hoste’s four frigates, with 124 guns manned by fewer than a hundred men, faced a fleet of seven frigates, four smaller warships, and 276 guns.
However, inspiring his men to “Remember Nelson,” Hoste displayed superior seamanship and his crews’ skilled gunnery managed to defeat the enemy, sailing home to victory with the highest praise from the King.
His Naval Gold Medal, which sold at auction house Morton and Eden, exceeded the expected £60,000 to £80,000 price that it was listed for, hitting the £100,000 high for the final sale.