Behind the Scenes Story of how HMS Queen Elizabeth received The Freedom of Wantage

Note: the events mentioned in the post have been postponed as a result of Coronavirus.

In 2009 the government changed the Local Government Act 1972 to allow towns such as Wantage to grant Honorary Freedoms. Previously granting such Freedoms only applied to Cities and Royal Boroughs.

Less than one year later Wantage Town Council became the first in Oxfordshire to grant the freedom of the town using the new powers. With a military history himself (and a father who had earned the Freedom of Glasgow for his work on the Mulberry Harbours for D-Day), Wantage Mayor Jim Sibbald proposed the Scots Guards because the great benefactor of Wantage, Baron Wantage of Lockinge, was an Ensign with the Scots Fusilier Guards in the Crimean War and won one of the first Victoria Crosses. The Scots Guards accepted the Honorary Freedom and they exercised that Freedom by marching through the town on 28 May 2011.

Several years later, as Chair of the Wantage British Legion, Jim was invited, along with the Wantage Royal Naval Association, to visit HMS Queen Elizabeth in March 2019 because one of the Ship’s Company, a serving Lieutenant RN, went to school in Wantage and still lives here.

After the tour and while enjoying a refreshment in the Wardroom, Jim read about HMS Queen Elizabeth holding the Freedom of London and Edinburgh. He commented that it was similar to the Scots Guards except they also had the Freedom of Wantage.  When he suggested that the Ship’s Company should have the Freedom of Wantage as well there was much laughing.

But when Jim became Mayor for a second time a few months later in May 2019 he pursued the idea of offering the Freedom of Wantage to HMS Queen Elizabeth.

No-one took giving the Freedom to the Royal Navy seriously because they thought Wantage had no naval history, so Jim asked Her Majesty’s Lord-Lieutenant of Oxfordshire, who is responsible for promoting relations between armed forces and local people, as to whether he would support a Naval Freedom.

He was delighted to support the idea so Jim emailed the PA to the Second Sea Lord and the next day got a reply from the Naval Regional Commander, Eastern England. The Commander said he could find no affiliation between Wantage and the Navy. Jim responded that Wantage was in fact the birthplace of King Alfred who is thought to have founded the English Navy in the 9th Century and therefore Wantage is the birthplace of the Royal Navy. Liking Jim’s cheek he was invited to a meeting at HMS President (Naval HQ in London).

By this time Jim had discovered there are many more ties between Wantage and the Naval Service:

  • Admiral Lord Nelson’s great nephew, The Honorable Reverend Edward Foyle Nelson was the Curate of Wantage Parish Church and there is a stained glass window in the Church dedicated to him.
  • In the 18th Century Wantage made ropes and hammocks for the Royal Navy.
  • Originally named after King Charles II’s tree, Wantage’s Royal Oak public house was re-named in June 1980 after HMS Royal Oak that was sunk on 14 Oct 1939, six weeks after WWII started, with over 100 boy sailors, 2 people from Wantage (Able Seaman Joseph Paschal Wilkins and Marine Verdun Loos James Pierpoint), 1 from Uffington, and 1 from Lockinge.
  • 20% of Wantage’s fatalities from WWII were naval.
  • Personnel from Wantage are serving on board HMS Queen Elizabeth today (in above photo with the Mayor).
Naval Regional Commander Eastern England receiving offer of Honorary Freedom of Wantage from Town Mayor

On top of all this, Wantage is 41 miles from the sea, in the middle of United Kingdom.  Most Freedoms granted to the Royal Navy are around the coast and it was felt the Nation’s flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth should also be appreciated from the heart of the Nation.

The Captain of HMS Queen Elizabeth agreed at end of July 2019. On the 80th anniversary of the sinking of HMS Royal Oak, 14 Oct 2019, the Naval Regional Commander received the Town Council’s letter offering the Freedom which he accepted on behalf of the Captain of HMS Queen Elizabeth which was on Exercise WESTLANT 19 off the coast of the United States of America.

Planning started straight away for a Freedom of Entry parade on Saturday 21 March 2020.

Freedom of Entry Parade – Saturday 21 March

The Royal Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines will lead over 120 of the Ship’s company of HMS Queen Elizabeth to the marketplace at around 12 p.m.

There will be a ceremony with the presentation of the scroll after which bayonets will be fixed, swords drawn and the Colours will be uncased and let fly.

The parade will march past the King Alfred Statue to Manor Road Memorial Park where a Merlin Mk2 helicopter will have landed and the Royal Navy Parachute Display Team will jump into the park about 3.00pm, weather permitting. There will be stalls and refreshments including four beers specially requested by the Mayor. The White Horse Brewery has allowed the Mayor to rename their spectacular 7% Imperial Russian Stout Luna Sputnik II as “Merlin’s Lightning” in honour of two aircraft which embark on the carrier; the Merlin helicopter and the F35 Lightning II jet.  The event in the Manor Road Memorial Park will finish at 5 p.m.

Freedom of Entry Ball – Saturday 21 March

There will be a black tie Freedom of Entry Ball that night in the Beacon. The Bürgermeister from Wantage’s twin town of Seesen will be attending. A three-course dinner, wine and port with a woodwind quintet throughout and JackFM’s Rich will be DJing the party later.

Tickets are now £50 (due to event sponsorship) and are available from The Royal Oak, The Dolphin Gallery and Wantage Town Council.  

Half the profits will go to the Royal Navy and Royal Marine Charity, half to Mayor’s charities which are the October Club and Fitzwaryn School.

Calling Wantage Rockers

Eight special rocks are being hidden to commemorate the Freedom of Entry Parade. So far 4 have been hidden.  Find the special rock and take it to the Wantage Library, collect a £10 voucher for The Toy Planet & get entered in a prize draw for a VIP place at the Parade.

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One Response

  1. I and three other members of the Royal Oak Association will be travelling up to attend the Parade and look forward to a spectacular parade, looking forward to see see the birth place of my father hope the weather stays fine and dandy.

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