Flag captured in 1800 to go on display in Norfolk for the first time in more than a century

15 February 2017

Norfolk Museums Service has today announced plans to put on display a ship’s Ensign, captured in 1800, for the first time in more than 100 years.

The huge flag, the Ensign of Le Généreux, is one of the most iconic objects connected to Norfolk’s most famous son, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, and was given to the City of Norwich in 1800.

It will form the centrepiece of this summer’s Nelson & Norfolk exhibition which explores Nelson’s relationship with his home county. The display can be viewed at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery from 29 July to 1 October.

Saturday 18 February marks the anniversary of the capture of the Ensign of Le Généreux, which measures 16m by 8.3m. Its huge size and the fragile nature of the flag means it has been kept in store for more than a century, with volunteers currently carrying out painstaking conservation works prior to it going on display.

Norfolk Museums Service together with the Costume and Textile Association are raising funds for the full conservation and permanent display of the Ensign as part of a Nelson gallery. The work is likely to cost in the region of £40,000. An online fundraising campaign page is in the process of being set up. For more details please see the Costume and Textile Association website.

The Ensign of Le Généreux is a remarkable survivor from the days of sea battles fought in sailing warships when such national flags played a vital role in naval engagement, fluttering through the cannon smoke and chaos of battle to ensure that friend and foe were clearly identifiable.

It’s not just the Ensign’s size and completeness which make it special. Evidence suggests that it is, quite possibly, one of the earliest, if not the earliest, Tricolour in existence. The design of the Tricolour as we know it today – with the order of colours from left to right running blue, white and red – was officially adopted on 15 February 1794. The Ensign installed at that point is quite possibly the same one which went on to be present in 1798 at the Battle of the Nile and was then captured by Captain Berry in February 1800. In which case it could be, in fact, the oldest surviving Tricolour.

The immediate dispatch of the Ensign after capture to the City of Norwich by Captain Berry and Lord Nelson reinforces their affection for the County of Norfolk and also shows a keen awareness of the powerful role that gift-giving plays in the creation of reputation and sustaining a legacy. The Ensign was the second trophy sent home to Norwich. In February 1797, a mere 12 days after the Battle of Cape St Vincent, Nelson wrote to the Lord Mayor of Norwich offering the sword of Spanish Rear Admiral Winthuysen which had been surrendered after the capture of the San Josef.

Ruth Battersby-Tooke, Curator of Costume and Textiles at the Castle, said: “The Ensign is remarkable for its survival in such a complete state, given its age and inherent fragility. It is emblematic of Norfolk Museums Service’s Nelson collections, the oldest French Ensign in the UK and the one with the most stirring and thrilling history. When we conceived the exhibition we were determined to find a way of putting the flag on display. This has not been without its challenges, not least finding a space large enough to unroll the flag to condition check it and begin the conservation process. Fortunately, St Andrews’ Hall has a large enough floor area for this initial assessment which took place in October 2016. It was incredibly moving to be able to unroll the Ensign in the space where it had been on display until 1897.”

Margaret Dewsbury, Chairman of Norfolk County Council’s Communities Committee, said: “It’s fantastic that we will be able to display this enormous piece of history as the worthy centrepiece of our Nelson exhibition. The exhibition will be of great interest to the people of Norfolk and be a strong draw for visitors to the county. The team has been working hard to painstakingly conserve the Ensign and it is fitting that it will be going on show as the centrepiece.”

The image below shows the Ensign undergoing conservation work at St Andrew's Hall.

Credit: Norfolk Museums Service

Background information

The story of the capture of the Ensign of Le Généreux

The story of the capture of the Ensign is the stuff of naval legend, worthy of a Hornblower novel.

Le Généreux was one of only two ships of the French fleet to escape the Battle of the Nile in 1798, the victory which sealed Nelson’s reputation as England’s greatest hero. A few days after the battle, Le Généreux succeeded in capturing the smaller British ship, HMS Leander, which was transporting Nelson’s flag captain, Edward Berry, carrying the dispatches from the Battle of the Nile. Berry was one of Nelson’s most trusted captains whom he once referred to as his “right hand”.

After this incident, Le Généreux, in a game of cat and mouse, went on to elude the British navy in the Mediterranean for a further 18 months until running into Captain Berry once again. This time Berry, in command of a larger ship, HMS Foudroyant, had the upper hand and succeeded in capturing Le Généreux. The French ship’s Tricolour Ensign was then ‘struck’, that is removed from the flagpole at the rear of the ship, indicating that she was no longer in battle.

The Ensign was immediately packed up to be sent to Norwich to be placed on display in the medieval splendour of St Andrews’ Hall, the most complete medieval friary complex surviving in this country and centre of civic life for hundreds of years. The flag was draped around the west window of St Andrews’ Hall, a source of civic pride and an emblem of Nelson’s affection and esteem for his birth county.

The Ensign was kept on display until 1897 and then placed in Norwich Castle Keep for the 1905 Centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar. It has not been publicly displayed since then.

The conservation of the Ensign

The decision to mount an exhibition at Norwich Castle on Nelson’s relationship with Norfolk has given impetus for the full conservation and display of the Ensign of Le Généreux, which will form a worthy centrepiece of the exhibition.

The flag had survived its long period in storage remarkably well with the blue, white and red colours clearly visible. This first stage in the conservation process involved careful cleaning with specialist equipment under the watchful eye of Textiles Conservator, Lindsay Blackmore. In addition to gentle cleaning, the decision was taken to remove the black cotton lining from the blue section of the flag which dates from the late 19th century and which had virtually disintegrated in the intervening years.

This was painstaking work as Lindsay Blackmore explains: “Everything we do in conservation must not damage the textile. It must keep hold of anything of historic interest and any cleaning is done with careful testing. We weigh up whether it would be an advantage to get rid of the dirt or leave it in. In this case we will keep all the dust that comes off, which has gunpowder and all sorts of interesting things in. So we can piece together what’s happened to the object in its long history.”

This initial conservation process yielded some exciting finds including a nail hammered through the rope which would have been used to ‘nail the colours to the mast’, fragments of wood, likely to be splinters from battle-damaged ships, and traces of gunpowder, all reflecting its proud and eventful history. In addition there are many patches and mends in the fabric both contemporaneous with the Ensign’s active life and from subsequent interventions over the years which are all part of the object’s rich history. The combination of damage and survival is very powerful and brings the reality of war into vivid relief.

This is an element which will be very much to the forefront of the interpretation of the ensign within the exhibition as Ruth Battersby-Tooke explains. “We want to display the Ensign sensitively and fully conscious of the terrible toll these sea battles took on the men involved, friend and foe alike. Nelson’s brilliant leadership at the Battle of the Nile and subsequently at Trafalgar were defensive actions which almost certainly saved Britain from invasion by Napoleon. While the exhibition will reflect on his achievements, the display of the Ensign is not designed to be jingoistic but to bring to life the sheer scale of these battles and the bravery and tenacity of the men on both sides.”

The Ensign’s future

The next phase in the complex process of conservation is now underway, with a new lining for the blue section of the flag being painstakingly hand-stitched by a team of wonderful volunteers under the direction of highly trained Conservators, who are working around the clock to ensure the Ensign will be ready for the exhibition opening at the end of July. This process will help stabilise the Ensign enabling it to be shown at its largest extent possible in the galleries, to give visitors the full impact of its scale. In fact the whole of the first gallery of the temporary exhibition spaces at Norwich Castle will be given over to the Ensign to allow time for visitors to take in the experience of viewing such an extraordinary artefact.

At the same time a fundraising drive aims to raise money for a permanent accessible storage to house the Ensign following the exhibition to enable it to be seen without having to unroll it to its full size, and make the flag available to be loaned. Given its significance as an early Tricolour this could mean a loan to France as well as other institutions in the UK.

There are also long-term plans to create a permanent Nelson gallery at Norwich Castle which could mean that the Ensign is accessible for longer periods of time as Steve Miller, Head of Norfolk Museums Service, explains: “After the exhibition, we don’t want the Ensign to have to go back into storage again for another 100 years. If we’re able to raise the money to do this, we can ensure this remarkable object is seen by the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come to the Castle each year, as well as audiences across the UK and further afield. To this day, Nelson holds a powerful fascination for people, and this is particularly felt in his home county of Norfolk. At the time of his death memorials to the great man sprang up around the country, many of them paid for through public subscription. That’s why we’re running a public fund-raising campaign as well as approaching the more usual channels of grant making trusts, because we believe it’s appropriate to the whole memory of Nelson and that the public will welcome the chance to get involved in preserving this unique piece of national history.”

Nelson & Norfolk Exhibition, 29 July – 1 October, Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery

The exhibition coincides with the 200th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone of the Nelson memorial in Great Yarmouth, the county’s most significant memorial to its local hero.

Alongside the Ensign, Nelson and Norfolk will showcase fascinating and unique objects drawn from Norwich Social History, Fine and Decorative Art and Great Yarmouth’s Sailors’ Home collections. Significant loans from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich will also be on display. The exhibition will be built around the objects, in explaining their stories and significance the context of the man and his times, the cult of his personality and the way he has been lionised and commemorated will give insights into the ways in which his legacy has been preserved and his importance to the county of Norfolk.

For political comment 

Cllr Margaret Dewsbury (Conservative) Chairman of the Communities Committee, on 01603 759693
Cllr Julie Brociek-Coulton (Labour) on 07786 694325
Cllr Paul Smyth (UKIP) on 07733 431358
Cllr David Harrison (Liberal Democrat) on 01263 735316
Cllr Richard Bearman (Green) on 01603 504124

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