Union Jack flag from the Battle of Trafalgar

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National Maritime Museum, Second floor, Nelson Navy Nation gallery

This Union Jack flew from the mast of HMS Minotaur at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Stepping on to the deck of the Victory shortly after daybreak on 21 October, Nelson saw enemy masts crowding the horizon. It was an encounter that he had been determined to engineer, and which he exploited as fully as possible. Long before he had communicated his order that each ship should fly a union flag for ease of recognition.

Nelson directed his fleet to form two divisions. He commanded one, with Captain Mansfield’s Minotaur towards the rear of the line. Sailing straight at the enemy, the aim was to smash through and dislocate their formation, precipitating a close-range, pell-mell engagement.

Battle raged into the early afternoon, when a squadron under the French admiral Dumanoir threatened to mount a counter-attack. By this time Nelson was mortally wounded and many British vessels, including Victory and Temeraire, were severely damaged. Ships including the Minotaur saw the danger and moved in to unravel Dumanoir’s intentions. With this menace neutralised, Minotaur then engaged the Spanish vessel Neptuno, which surrendered after a fierce contest.

At the close of the Napoleonic War, Stephen Hilton, master’s mate of the Minotaur, returned with both the vessel’s union flag and a captured ensign from the Neptuno.