After sea trials the Victory was put into "ordinary" (into reserve) until France joined the war of American Independence. First commissioned in February 1778, she became the flagship of Admiral Keppel, and thereafter was nearly always an Admiral's flagship. In March 1780, following new practice ordered by the Navy Board, she was docked and her hull sheathed with copper sheeting to combat shipworm and marine growth. This innovation also improved her speed.
1781 saw the Victory under the flag of Admiral Kempenfelt who, on 13 December, fell in with a French fleet off Ushant. The French, bound from Brest to the West Indies, were escorting a convoy of troopships. Though Kempenfelt's squadron was numerically inferior, he captured the entire convoy from under the escort's noses, and the Victory added another battle honour to those gained by her forbears of the same name. In October 1782, under the flag of Admiral "Black Dick" Howe (his complexion, not his temper, gave him the nickname), she took part in an action off Cape Spartel and the Relief of Gibraltar. (The Great Siege of Gibraltar lasted 4 years).
After the war she was refitted in March 1793 at a cost of £15,372, and her armament increased. Her sides, previously "payed bright" with rosin (distillate of turpentine) above the lower deck ports were now painted a dull yellow ochre. The area below remained painted black. (There is a large model of Victory in her earlier colours in the Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth, England).
But storm clouds were brewing over Europe; France's economy had been shattered by the war with Britain. Taxes soared, discontent prevailed and, inspired by the American achievements, the people of France began their own bloody revolution in 1789. The outcome was to change the face of Europe for ever. With the opening of the French Revolutionary war in 1793, HMS VICTORY became the flagship of Lord Hood who was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean fleet. (It was in 1789 that the use of HMS to describe a warship first became standard.) The opportunities were enormous. Toulon, the main French naval arsenal, surrendered to the British fleet, and the whole French Mediterranean fleet and its stores fell into British hands; but the government could not, or would not, provide reinforcements and Toulon was recaptured. (A young artillery officer named Napoleon Bonaparte played a prominent role.) Worse, when it was clear that Toulon must fall, the opportunity to burn the ships and the stores was bodged.
The fleet then captured, but was unable to hold, the Island of Corsica. It was at the taking of Calvi where he lost the sight of his right eye that a young Captain, Horatio Nelson, first made his name.
In 1794 Victory returned to Portsmouth and, after another refit at Chatham in 1795, returned to the Mediterranean. Not all Victory's actions were glorious victories. That July, the Victory was in the unsuccessful action off Hyeres where Admiral Hotham failed to fully engage the French fleet. The consequences of his failure were serious, since Britain had to withdraw her fleet from the Mediterranean, and operate from Lisbon. Nelson was himself at this battle, commanding the 64 gun Agamemnon.
Admiral Sir John Jervis hoisted his flag in Victory the following December. On 14 February 1797, off Cape St Vincent, the southwest corner of Spain, Jervis led Victory with 14 ships of the line against a Spanish squadron, comprising 27 ships under Admiral CORDOBA. A decisive victory was won. Much was due to the quick perception of Nelson who, now a Commodore in the 74 gun Captain, left the line of battle (an unheard of act for a junior officer), to prevent the two halves of the Spanish squadron from rejoining. Nelson engaged and boarded the San Josef then, using that ship as a "patent boarding bridge" captured the neighbouring ship San Nicholas. This action earned Nelson a knighthood and promotion to Rear Admiral.
In October 1797 Victory returned to England and was surveyed at Portsmouth. Now 32 years old and battle-weary, the ship was sent to Chatham to await her fate. On the 8 December, considered unfit for service, Victory was ordered to be converted to a hospital ship. Fortune reversed the decision when the first rate Impregnable was lost off Chichester Harbour on 8 October 1799, leaving the fleet short of one three-decker. Consequently Victory was given a new lease of life. Another survey considered that she was "in want of middling repair" at an estimate of £23,500.
Refitting commenced at Chatham in 1800. The "middling repair" turned into a "great repair" as more defects were found. She was modernised, her open stern galleries being removed and the entire stern closed in. Two extra ports were cut on her lower gun deck and the magazines were lined with copper. The heavy ornate figurehead, now very rotten, was replaced by the simpler, lighter design she carries today. Her pole masts (made from a single tree trunk) were replaced with composite masts (made from a number of trunks banded with iron hoops). The ship was also repainted with the black and yellow livery as seen today, although the port lids remained yellow. These were later painted black producing the "Nelson chequer" pattern which became standard after Trafalgar.
By March 1801 war had exhausted Britain and France. Political pressure had forced Pitt to resign and the new government negotiated a fragile peace with France. Just before the peace Nelson, under Admiral Parker, had crushed the Danes at the Battle of Copenhagen thereby destroying the Northern League and Napoleon's ambitions. During the short peace, Victory's refit continued and she was finally undocked on 11 April 1803. The cost of this "great repair" now amounted to £70,933. All her heavy lower deck 42 pounder guns were replaced with lighter and more manageable 32 pounders.
For the next 18 months Nelson blockaded the French fleet in Toulon to prevent them escaping to join forces with other squadrons based on France's Atlantic arsenals. Periodically, ships of Nelson's squadron would retreat to the safe anchorage of Agincourt Sound, Corsica. It was there, on 19 May 1805, that Nelson learned from one of his frigates, the "eyes of the fleet", that the Toulon fleet under Villeneuve had sailed. Not knowing where they were bound Nelson headed east first but, not finding the French in Egypt, beat back westward to Gibraltar where he learned that they were headed for the West Indies. Napoleon's invasion plan was that Villeneuve should sail to the West Indies to draw the English from the Channel. In hot pursuit Nelson followed. Villeneuve carried out a few half-hearted operations in the West Indies and returned to Europe, Nelson hard on his heels. Villeneuve, finding his way to the Channel blocked by Sir Robert Calder's squadron and with Nelson behind him, bolted into Cadiz, to be bottled up by his pursuers. Victory, with a fatigued Nelson, returned home arriving at Spithead on 18 August 1805; but Napoleon's invasion of Britain had been foiled and his troops were withdrawn from Boulogne to another theatre of war.
After brief respite the Victory sailed with Nelson from Portsmouth on 15 September 1805 to join the blockading fleet under Collingwood off Cadiz. Villeneuve's orders now were to take the combined Franco-Spanish fleet into the Mediterranean. On 18 October 1805 frigates signalled that the enemy were weighing anchor. Villeneuve's fleet, now comprising 33 ships of the line, headed for Gibraltar but, unable to shake off the British fleet, turned back for Cadiz and inevitable combat. As day broke on Monday 21 October 1805, off Cape Trafalgar, Nelson's fleet of 27 ships formed into two columns and sailed towards the enemy. Battle commenced about 1145 with Collingwood's division breaching the rear of the enemy fleet.
Nelson in Victory followed shortly, driving into the centre and opening a devastating fire into the stern of Villeneuve's flagship Bucentaure. Victory then engaged and grappled the Redoutable. At about 1315, when the fighting was at its fiercest, Nelson was shot by a French marksman and taken below where he died at 1630.
By this time the enemy had been routed and a great victory won. 17 ships had been captured and one, the French Achille, blew up as a finale to the battle. The French battle-fleet was never again a threat.
Much damaged, the Victory was towed to Gibraltar and finally returned to Portsmouth, arriving on 4 December 1805, bearing her dead Admiral. After repairs at Chatham, the Victory was recommissioned in March 1808. For the next 4 years she was on active service in the Baltic and off the coasts of Spain. In 1812, now 47 years old, she finally returned to Portsmouth on 4 December and paid off 16 days later, ending her sea-going life.>
After the war Victory was given a further refit but, the war with France being over, she was placed back into "ordinary". In 1824 she became the flagship for the Port Admiral.
In 1831 the ship was listed for disposal but Hardy, now First Sea Lord, at his wife's request declined to sign the warrant. In 1889 Victory became the flagship for the Commander-in-Chief and remains so today.
In 1903 she was accidentally rammed by HMS NEPTUNE under tow to the breakers. This event, together with the centenary celebrations for Trafalgar, raised questions about her future but nothing was resolved before World War I. Finally, following a national appeal led by the Society for Nautical Research, Victory was put into her present dock on 12 January 1922 and work began to restore her to her 1805 appearance. She remains now as the embodiment of the spirit and fine traditions of the Royal Navy.