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Government Department overview
Preceding Government Department
Superseding department
JurisdictionGovernment of the United Kingdom
HeadquartersWar Office building
Government Department executive
Parent Government DepartmentHM Government

The Admiralty or the Admiralty Department or Department of Admiralty was the Government Department[1][2] responsible for the command of the Royal Navy first in the Kingdom of England, later in the Kingdom of Great Britain, and from 1801 to 1964,[3] the United Kingdom and former British Empire. Previously known as the Admiralty and Marine Affairs Office, and was originally exercised by a single person, the High Admiral of England, the Admiralty was, from the early 18th century onward, almost invariably put "in commission" and exercised by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, who sat on the Board of Admiralty.

In April 1964, the Admiralty Department was unified along with War Office and Air Ministry into the Ministry of Defence where it became one of three ministerial service departments known as the Navy Department the others being the Air Department and Army Department.[4]


Ariel Photograph of Old Admiralty Buildings, the Admiralty Arch and Grounds, Whitehall, London, Government Ministry and operational Naval HQ of HM Naval Service, it accommodated the Board of Admiralty chaired by the First Lord of the Admiralty, the First Sea Lord, including the other four Sea Lords, the Permanent Secretary to the Admiralty the Admiralty Naval Staff and a large proportion of the Admiralty Departments

From 1294 until 1360 the English Navy was distributed and operated between three regional admiralties. In 1320 the first civil administrator of the navy was appointed the Clerk of the King's Ships, one of what became known as the Offices of the Clerks of the Kings Marine. In 1360 Edward III appointed command of the whole English Navy to a single person, John de Beauchamp, 1st Baron Beauchamp de Warwick. He was given the titles of High Admiral of England and the first naval commission of Admiral of the North, South and West the progenitor of the Admiral of the Fleet. In 1386 Richard II appointed Richard FitzAlan,10th Earl of Arundel the first High Admiral of England, Ireland and Aquitaine by official letters patent. In 1414 the office of the final regional commander of the English Navy the Admiral of the North and West was unified with that of the High Admiral of England creating a single Admiralty Office for all England for the command and control of the Navy Royal.

In 1513 the office of High Admiral of England was renamed Lord Admiral of England. In 1545 in a move to create a regulatory logistical organisation for the navy, the separate offices of the Clerks of the Kings Marine were unified into a Council of the Marine under Henry VIII of England, its members were collectively known as the Chief Officers of the Admiralty. In 1578 the council was renamed the Navy Board it was headquartered at the Navy Office in Tudor times then headquartered next to Deptford Dockyard. Operational control of the Navy Royal remained the responsibility of the Lord Admiral, who was one of the nine great Ministers of State of England, whilst civil and logistical control was the domain of the Navy Board.

In 1610 the title of Lord Admiral of England was changed to Lord High Admiral of England. In 1628 King Charles I put the office of Lord High Admiral into commission, and operational control of the navy passed to a commitee in the form of a Board of Admiralty. The office of Lord High Admiral passed in and out of commission number of times until 1690 when a permanent government ministry the Admiralty was created for the control and direction of the now Royal Navy. The office of Lord High Admiral was revived briefly two more time in the 18th and 19th centuries when a Lord High Admirals Council replaced the Board of Admiralty.

In this organisation a dual system operated the Board Admiralty (from 1628) exercised the function of general control (military administration) of the Navy and they were usually responsible for the conduct of any war, while the actual supply lines, support and services (including (accounting, finance, shipbuilding and maintenance of ships, and records of business) were the responsibility of the Navy Board. This structure of administering the navy lasted for 285 years, however, the supply system was often inefficient and corrupt. Its deficiencies were due as much to its limitations of the times they operated in. The various functions within the Admiralty were not coordinated effectively and lacked inter-dependency with each other, with the result that in 1832, the First Lord of the Admiralty Sir James Graham abolished the Navy Board and merged its functions within those of the Board of Admiralty. At the time this had distinct advantages; however, it failed to retain the principle of distinctions between the Admiralty and supply, and a lot of bureaucracy followed with the merger.

During the 1860's there was big growth in the development of specialist technical crafts,and the expansion of more Admiralty Departments that really began with Age of Steam that would have an enormous influence on the navy and naval thought. Between 1860 and 1908, there was no real study of naval strategy and policy formulating and of the staff work conducted within the naval service; it was practically ignored. All the navy's real talent flowed instead to the great technical universities. This school of thought for the next 50 years was exclusively technically based. The first serious attempt to introduce a professional military staff organisation led to the creation of the Admiralty Navy War Council in 1909.[5] It was generally believed by officials within the Admiralty at this time, that the running of a war was just a simple matter for any flag officer to undertake who ha, had no formal training. However, this mindset would be severely questioned with the advent of the Agadir crisis, when the Admiralty's war plans were heavily criticised.

Following the charges of incompetence directed at the Admiralty, a new advisory military staff organisation came into being, known as the Admiralty War Staff instituted in 1912, it was headed by the Chief of the War Staff who was responsible for administering three new specialist sub-staff divisions responsible for operations, intelligence and mobilisation. The new War staff had hardly found their feet and they continually struggled with the opposition to their existence from senior flag officers. The deficiencies of the system within this department of state could be seen in it conduct the disaster of the Dardanelles Campaign. There were no mechanisms in place to address these type of big strategic questions. In 1916 the new incoming First Sea Lord Sir John Jellicoe re-organised the war staff into further specialist staff divisions for Operations, Plans, Intelligence, Mobilisation, Signals, and Trade.

In May 1917 the Admiralty War Staff was abolished and replaced by the first professional military staff organisation, the Admiralty Naval Staff the First Sea Lord led the naval staff and given the new additional title and role as Chief of Naval Staff, supporting him would be a Deputy Chief of Naval Staff, and an Assistant Chief of Naval Staff; all were given seats on the Board of Admiralty. This for the first time gave the naval staff had direct representation on the board; the presence of three senior naval members on the board ensured the necessary authority to carry through any operation of war. The Deputy Chief of Naval Staff would direct all operations and movements of the fleet, while the Assistant Chief of Naval Staff would be responsible for all mercantile movements and anti-submarine operations. In September, 1917 the office of Controller of the Navy was re-established to deal with all questions relating to supply; and a Deputy First Sea Lord, was added to the board to administer operations abroad and deal with questions of foreign naval policy.

In September 1917, the development of the naval staff was carried one step further by the creation of two sub-committees of the Board of Admiralty, an Operations Committee and the Maintenance Committee. The First Lord of the Admiralty was chairman of both committees, the Operations Committee consisted of the First Sea Lord as Chief of Naval Staff, the Deputy First Sea Lord, the Assistant Chief of Naval Staff, and the Fifth Sea Lord with a new additional role as Chief of Naval Air Service. The Maintenance Committee consisted of the Deputy First Sea Lord (representing the operations committee), the Second Sea Lord was given control over all (personnel and training) matters, with the additional role of Chief of Naval Personnel. The Third Sea Lord remained in control of (ships and material), but the title of his other office, Controller of the Navy was changed briefly to Chief of Naval Materiel before reverting back. The Fourth Sea Lord was to control (transport and stores) with the additional role of Chief of Naval Supplies and Transport. Also on this committee were the Civil Lord of the Admiralty, the Controller and the Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to the Admiralty.

In October, 1917 following an Order in Council full operational control of the Royal Navy was passed over to the Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), under which he became responsible for the issuing of orders affecting all war operations directly to the fleet. It also empowered the CNS to issue orders in their own name, as opposed to them previously being issued by the Permanent Secretary to the Admiralty in the name of the Board of Admiralty.

In April 1964, the Admiralty along with the War Office and the Air Ministry were all abolished as separate departments of state, and were unified into the Ministry of Defence creating a single government department responsible form all of the British Armed Forces. The former ministries; including the Admiralty became a ministerial subsidiary service departments called the Navy Department, the War Office became the Army Department and the Air Ministry became the Air Department. At the same time the Board of Admiralty became the Admiralty Board with a new sub committee, the Navy Board (Ministry of Defence) it became responsible for the day-to-day running of the Royal Navy to this day. The Army Council became the Army Board and the Air Council became Air Force Board. Each board was headed by a single Secretary of State for Defence. For the organisational structure of the department and how it developed through the centuries see the following articles below.

Organisational structure

The Board of Admiralty meeting in April, 1960. Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum London.

In the 20th century the structure of the Admiralty Headquarters was predominantly organised into four parts:[6]

  1. The Board of Admiralty, which directs and controls the whole machine chaired by a civilian government minister the First Lord of the Admiralty. His chief military adviser was the First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff as the Senior Naval Lord to the board.[6]
  2. The Admiralty War Staff later the Admiralty Naval Staff, advised and assisted the Board of Admiralty in chief strategic and operational planning, in the distributing of fleets and the allocating of assets to major naval commands and stations and in the formulating of official policy on tactical doctrine and requirements in regard to men and material. In order to deliver this the Naval Staff was organised into specialist Divisions and Sections. When the Admiralty unified with the Ministry of Defence in 1964 they were re designated as Directorates of the Naval Staff.[6]
  3. The Admiralty Departments, which provides the men, ships, aircraft and supplies to carry out the approved policy. The departments are superintended by the various offices of the Sea Lords.[6]
  4. The Department of the Permanent Secretary which was the general coordinating agency, regulating naval finance, providing advice on policy, conducing all correspondence on behalf of the Board and maintaining admiralty records. Its primary component to deliver this is the Admiralty Secretariat (Department of the Permanent Secretary), sections of the Secretariat (other than those which provide Common Services) were known as Branches.[6]

Board of Admiralty

Flag of the Board of Admiralty from 1922

When the office of Lord High Admiral was in commission, as it was for most of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, until it reverted to the Crown, it was exercised by a Board of Admiralty, officially known as the Commissioners for Exercising the Office of Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, &c. (alternatively of England, Great Britain or the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland depending on the period). The Board of Admiralty consisted of a number of Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty. The Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty were the members of The Board of Admiralty, which exercised the office of Lord High Admiral when it was not vested in a single person. The commissioners were a mixture of politicians without naval experience and professional naval officers, the proportion of naval officers generally increasing over time.[6]

The quorum of the Board was two commissioners and a secretary. The president of the Board was known as the First Lord of the Admiralty, who was a member of the Cabinet. After 1806, the First Lord of the Admiralty was always a civilian, while the professional head of the navy came to be (and is still today) known as the First Sea Lord.[6]

Government Ministers

First Lord of the Admiralty
Richard Weston, 1st Earl of Portland, the (1st) First Lord of the Admiralty of England from (1628-1635), photo courtesy of [ Wikimedia Commons, Laura1822.
George Patrick John Rushworth Jellicoe, 2nd Earl Jellicoe by Walter Stoneman bromide print, 1955, © National Portrait Gallery, London, the 118th and final First Lord of the Admiralty of the United Kingdom

The First Lord of the Admiralty or formally was the Minister of State and the British government's senior civilian adviser on all naval affairs and the minister responsible for the direction and control of the Admiralty and Marine Affairs Office later the Department of Admiralty. Below him were two junior ministers the civil lord and parliamentary secretary. His office was supported by a civil service Naval Secretariat.[6]

Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to the Admiralty

The Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to the Admiralty originally known as the Secretary to the Admiralty (1660-1764) his office changed names a number of times,[7] was a junior Minister of State and deputy to the First Lord usually filled by a Member of Parliament, Although he attended Board of Admiralty meetings informally he was not made a full member of that Board until 1929,[8] He was mainly responsible for all Naval Accounts, Estimates, Expenditure, Finance and Spending proposals from 1660 until 1959.

Civil Lord of the Admiralty

The Civil Lord of the Admiralty was the second junior Minister of State and deputy to the First Lord was responsible for the Royal Navy's supporting civilian staff, its works departments and naval lands officially designated as an office held by one person from 1830 until 1964.

Additional Civil Lord of the Admiralty

The Additional Civil Lord of the Admiralty was an extra junior minister and member of the board from 1882 to 1885 and 1912 to 1919 and was responsible for promotions and transfers of professional officers and workmen in the dockyards.

Senior Military Staff

First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff
Admiral Arthur Herbert, 1st Earl of Torrington, the (1st) Senior Naval Lord (1689-1690) painted in 1690 by John Closterman, photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Admiral Sir (John) David Luce, by Walter Bird, bromide print, March 1960, © National Portrait Gallery, London (in the uniform of a Vice-Admiral) was the final First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff of the Admiralty (1963-1964) and 122nd Chief Naval Adviser to the First Lord

The First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff originally called the Senior Naval Lord (1689–1771) was the Chief Naval Adviser on the Board of Admiralty to the First Lord. Prior to 1805 he acted on orders passed to him from the First Lord through the permanent secretaries office this included the distribution of fleet gradually he would assume full operational control and allocation of naval forces of the Royal Navy by 1917. He was assisted by three senior officials of the naval staff who were responsible for directing the divisions of the naval staff. In addition he superintended the each of the sea lords.[6]

Deputy First Sea Lord

The Deputy First Sea Lord (D.F.S.L.) was a senior Royal Navy flag officer on the Board of Admiralty of the Royal Navy and served a immediate deputy to the First Sea Lord.[1]. The office was first created from September, 1917 to August, 1919 before being abolished. It was revived for second and final time from July, 1942 to May, 1946.[6]

Second Sea Lord

The Second Sea Lord or 2nd Sea Lord or (2SL) is one of the oldest and most senior admirals of the British Royal Navy, responsible for personnel and naval shore establishments. Originally titled Second Naval Lord in 1771, the post was restyled Second Sea Lord in 1903.[6]

Third Sea Lord

The Third Sea Lord (abbreviated as 3SL) replaced the earlier office of Third Naval Lord (1832-1904) due to a name change and retained the joint title of Controller of the Navy. In 1917 his joint naval staff title Controller of the Navy was altered to Chief of Naval Materiel before reverting back again in 1918. In 1965 the office of the Third Sea Lord was abolished.[6]

Fourth Sea Lord

The Fourth Sea Lord (abbreviated as 4SL) originally known as the Fourth Naval Lord (1830-1868) later renamed Junior Naval Lord (1868-1904) was formerly one of the Naval Lords and members of the Board of Admiralty which controlled the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom, the office existed until 1964. Since then the post is currently known as the Chief of Fleet Support.[6]

Fifth Sea Lord

The Fifth Sea Lord (abbreviated as 5SL) was formerly one of the Naval Lords and members of the Board of Admiralty that controlled the Royal Navy established in 1917. The post's incumbent had responsibility for naval aviation until 1965 when the office was abolished.[6]

Admiralty Naval Staff

It evolved from Navy War Council, (1909–1912) which in turn became the Admiralty War Staff, (1912–1917) before finally becoming the Naval Staff in 1917. It was the former senior command, operational planning, policy and strategy department within the British Admiralty. It was established in 1917 and existed until 1964 when the department of the Admiralty was abolished, and the naval staff transferred to the new Navy Department of the Ministry of Defence becoming the Navy Department, Naval Staff.[9]

Senior Officials of the Naval Staff
  1. Assistant Chief of Naval Staff
  2. Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Air)
  3. Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Foreign)
  4. Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Home)
  5. Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Operations)
  6. Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Policy)
  7. Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Submarines)
  8. Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Warfare)
  9. Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (U Boats and Trade)
  10. Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Weapons)
  11. Chief of Naval Air Services
  12. Chief of Naval Materiel
  13. Chief of Naval Personnel
  14. Chief of Naval Supplies and Transport
  15. Controller of the Navy
  16. Deputy Chief of Naval Staff
  17. Vice-Chief of Naval Staff

Civil Service Secretaries

Permanent Secretary to the Admiralty
George Clarke MP.(1661-1736), the (1st) Assistant Secretary to the Admiralty (1702-1705), painting by studio of Godfrey Kneller

The Permanent Secretary to the Admiralty originally called the Assistant Secretary to the Admiralty (1702-1705) was head of the civil service staff based at the Admiralty although he attended all Board of Admiralty meetings he was not made permanent fixed member of the board until 1921, As Assistant Secretary he controlled and directed the Admiralty Secretariat then later the Department of the Permanent Secretary.[6]

Admiralty Departments

The Admiralty Departments were distinct civil components of the Department of Admiralty that were superintended by the various offices of the Sea Lords who were responsible for them; they were primarily administrative, research, scientific and logistical support organisations. The departments role was to provide the men, ships, aircraft and supplies to carry out the approved policy of the Board of Admiralty and conveyed to them during 20th century by the Admiralty Naval Staff. [6] The departments that were located at the Admiralty from from 1702 to 1805 were overseen by Assistant Secretary to the Admiralty later called the permanent secretary superintendence of the departments passed to the sea lords each responsible for specific functions. In 1832 the remaining departments under the Navy Board which was abolished were then assigned to a particular sea lord.

Organisational structure by time period

  1. The Admiralty (1707-1799)
  2. The Admiralty (1800-1899)
  3. The Admiralty (1900-1964

Admiralty Building's and Complex

The oldest portion of The Admiralty, was built on the site of Wallingford House (1596-1622). In 1622 George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, the Lord High Admiral, purchased Wallingford House. The first Admiralty building was constructed following the demolition of Wallingford House as a building for use as an Admiralty Office, and Sir Christopher Wren was ordered to submit a survey report on 28th August, 1694, following the issuing of the report, Wren recommended the site for the first planned Admiralty Office. The Board of Admiralty then directed the Navy Board, through the Treasurer of the Navy to pay the Solicitor for the Affairs of the Admiralty and Navy advanced money for building a new house for an Admiralty Office. The building was to be finished by 21 June, 1695 at which point the admiralty took possession of the new building. This original building would serve as the Royal Navy's HQ for 31 years before it started to expand in what would become the admiralty complex and so began an association between the site and the direction of the Royal Navy that lasted for some 350 years.

The Admiralty complex lies between Whitehall, Horse Guards Parade and The Mall, London the former department of state included five inter-connected buildings. The Admiralty which was the oldest building was long known simply as The Admiralty; it is now known officially as the Ripley Building, a three-storey U-shaped brick building designed by Thomas Ripley and completed in 1726. Admiralty House an 8 floored mansion to the south of the Ripley Building, built in the late 18th century as the residence of the First Lord of the Admiralty from 1788. It served that purpose until 1964. the The Admiralty Extension (which is also one of the two buildings which are sometimes referred to as the "Old Admiralty") dates from the turn of the 20th century. This is the largest of the Admiralty Buildings at 257,000 sq ft. It was begun in the late 19th century and redesigned while the construction was in progress to accommodate the extra offices needed by the naval arms race with the German Empire. the Admiralty Arch is linked to the Old Admiralty Building by a bridge and is part of the ceremonial route from Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Palace was completed in 1912 and the Admiralty Citadel a huge heavily protected Second World fortress right in the middle of Central London, located in between Horse Guards, it contained a bomb proof operations centre built for The Admiralty. The structure has foundations went 9 meters deep and has a reinforced concrete roof 6 meters thick. In 1992 the Admiralty Communications Centre was established here as the stone frigate HMS St Vincent, which became MARCOMM COMCEN (St Vincent) in 1998. The Admiralty Citadel is still used today by the Ministry of Defence.

Supporting Boards and Offices (1628-1832)

Navy Board

The Navy Board was an independent board from 1546 until 1628 when it became subordinate to, yet autonomous of the Board of Admiralty. Its principal commissioners of the navy advised the admiralty in relation to the civil administration of the naval affairs. The Navy Board was headquartered at the Navy Office from which it controlled and directed all civil departments, offices and staff including responsibility for the dockyard, medical, transport and victualling establishments until 1832 when it was abolished and the former responsibilities of its principal commissioners were assumed by the Board of Admiralty and distributed among the Sea Lords.

Navy Office

The Navy Office was the government office charged with responsibility for day-to-day civil administration of the Royal Navy from (1546-1832). It originally contained all the executive members of the Council of the Marine then later Navy Board and various other departments and offices. The day-to-day business of the Navy Office was originally administered by the Clerk of the King's Ships later called the Clerk of the Navy. In 1660 the former offices title was altered to Clerk of the Acts who remained responsible for the organisation of the office and management of its staff until 1796, when that office was abolished its duties were assumed by three separate committees, the Committee for the Accounts of the Navy, the Committee for the Correspondence of the Navy and the Committee for the Stores of the Navy. In 1817 a fourth committee was created the Committee for the Transports and Victualling of the Navy following the abolition of the Transport Board who were in turn presided over by the Comptroller of the Navy. In 1829 the navy board's committee system was abandoned and the former offices the Principal Officers and Commissioners of the Navy were revived and assumed the former committee's duties. It was one of two government offices (the other being the Admiralty) that were jointly responsible for naval affairs. In 1832 following reforms of the HM Naval Service the Navy Office was abolished all of its functions and staff were unified into the Admiralty.

See also


  1. Hamilton, C. I. (Feb 3, 2011). The Making of the Modern Admiralty: British Naval Policy-Making, 1805–1927. Cambridge University Press. p. 56. ISBN 9781139496544.
  2. Defence, Ministry of (2004). The Government's expenditure plans 2004–05 to 2005–06. London: Stationery Office. p. 8. ISBN 9780101621229.
  3. Lawrence, Nicholas Blake, Richard (2005). The illustrated companion to Nelson's navy (Paperback ed.). Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books. p. 8. ISBN 9780811732758.
  4. Archives, The National. "Admiralty, and Ministry of Defence, Navy Department: Correspondence and Papers". National Archives, 1660–1976, ADM 1. Retrieved 3 March 2017.
  5. Kennedy, Paul (Apr 24, 2014). The War Plans of the Great Powers (RLE The First World War): 1880–1914. Routledge. p. 128. ISBN 9781317702528.
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 6.12 6.13 6.14 6.15 Great Britain, Parliament, House of Commons (1959). "Admiralty Office". House of Commons Papers, Volume 5. London, England: HM Stationery Office. pp. 5–24.
  7. Hamilton, C. I. (2011). The Making of the Modern Admiralty: British Naval Policy-Making, 1805–1927. Cambridge University Press. p. 125. ISBN 9781139496544.
  8. O'Brien, Phillips Payson (1998). British and American Naval Power: Politics and Policy, 1900-1936. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 13. ISBN 9780275958985.
  9. Stationery Office, H.M. (31 October 1967). The Navy List. Spink and Sons Ltd, London, England. pp. 524–532.