‘…under this bridge the Medway foams and rolls with great violence and rapidity, and presently abating both, forms a dock finished for the finest fleet the sun ever beheld, and ready on a minutes warning, built lately by our most gracious sovereign Elizabeth for the security of her subjects and the terror of her enemies…'
The first documentary evidence of the Royal Navy's use of the River Medway can be found in 1547 with the rental of two storehouses on ‘Jyllingham Water'. By the reign of Elizabeth I (1558 -1603) the River Medway at Chatham had become England's principal fleet base with the majority of the Queen's ships overwintering in the river. From 1570, under the terms of John Hawkyns' ‘bargain' the majority of repair and maintenance was undertaken at Chatham in new facilities built around Sunne Hard, a site later occupied by the Ordnance Board. The first warship known to have been built at the new yard was the Sunne, a pinnace of five guns, launched in 1586.
In 1588 the shipwrights of Chatham prepared the Queen's ships for their ultimate test – to face the might of the Spanish Armada and in March of that year the majority of the fleet set sail under the Lord High Admiral, Lord Howard of Effingham to make the journey west to Plymouth to fight the Spanish fleet.
No buildings of the Tudor dockyard survive today for in 1613 the dockyard moved to its present site and the Tudor yard was redeveloped for the Ordnance Board's facilities at Chatham.
Royal Dockyards provided the Royal Navy with the shore support facilities it required to build, repair and maintain the fleet. Central to any Royal Dockyard were, as the name suggests, their dry docks and it was the provision of these expensive structures that set the Royal Yards apart from their civilian counterparts until well into the 19th century.
By the mid-18th Century the Royal Yards had developed into the largest industrial organisations in the world with complex facilities supporting thousands of skilled workers in a wide number of trades. Indeed it was the level of the facilities and skills provided in the Royal Dockyard's, particularly at Chatham that underpinned the Royal Navy's success at sea – from victory in battle; through the epic voyages of discovery made by Cook, Darwin and others; to the ceaseless anti-slavery patrols of the 19th century and the imposition of Pax Britannica. The above right photograph shows a Model of HMS Victory on display in the Museum of the Royal Dockyard.