Scraps of cloth discovered in a dusty Sea Cadet locker have helped solve a 200-year-old mystery, namely what happened to the shot-riddled flag which was draped on Nelson’s coffin during his funeral. The remnants came from the Battle Ensign of the Admiral’s flagship HMS Victory, which was used by crewmen of the 100-gun flagship to honour their fallen hero.
According to contemporary accounts, when Nelson’s coffin made its last journey from the Admiralty, for a State burial ceremony in St Paul’s Cathedral, souvenir hunters – including Victory sailors – tore bits off the battle scarred flag. Found by chance at the Lambeth headquarters of The Marine Society & Sea Cadets, the pieces of cloth have been examined by experts who feel confident that they came from the flag which flew from Victory during the famous sea battle in October 1805. Forensic examination confirmed that the weave and structure date back to the Trafalgar era and although the provenance of the remnants is unclear it seems certain that they are from the flag.
They are believed to have been handed down the generations as treasured mementoes and some unknown benefactor presented them to the Sea Cadet Corps for safe keeping. Research indicates that they are genuine and identical to pieces of the flag already identified as Victory’s. The ancient strips of cloth were found during a clear out of old store rooms. They were carefully wrapped in a package on which was scribbled ‘Nelson’s Flag’. A specialist restorer was called in to preserve the remnants as the detective work began to confirm their authenticity.
First Port of call was Nelson’s flag ship, HMS Victory herself, preserved in a dock at Portsmouth. The ship’s curator, Peter Goodwin, examined the pieces and then put the Corps in touch with a textile conservation specialist at Salisbury Cathedral to confirm his opinion. There, expert Sharon Manitta, carried out tests and sent samples to the Conservation and Analytical Research Department at the National Museum of Scotland where thread count, weave and dye patterns established the authenticity of the remnants as part of Victory’s battle ensign.
The cloth was found to be identical to the strips of the ensign preserved at the National Maritime Museum and aboard HMS Victory. Flags had a particular significance In Nelson’s navy, not just as the principal means of signalling between ships at sea, but as Battle Ensigns during combat, which would only be “struck” to signify capture or surrender. And so now the Sea Cadet Corps, which has paid tribute to Nelson’s memory for more than a century with an annual parade in Trafalgar Square, displays its own testament to the nation’s finest hour at sea. For the remnants of Nelson’s flag are now displayed in the Council Chamber of The Marine Society and Sea Cadets’ London headquarters. And as the budding young sailors of today celebrate the 250th anniversary of their heros birth, alongside the ‘flag’ is an even more poignant link with the past.
It is a letter penned by Nelson himself in which the admiral regrets he cannot attend the annual meeting of the Marine Society, of which he was a founder member, and sends five pounds to help fund the charity’s work. The letter was written just before Nelson set sail for Trafalgar and the rest, as they say, is history.
by Roger Busby