Museum unfurls oldest Union command flag

Members of the Museum’s conservation team yesterday unfurled a vast Union flag on the floor of the Queen’s House.

Union flag, 18th centuryCommand flag of Lord Richard Howe. Repro ID F7985-001 Conservators from the National Maritime Museum unfurled a vast Union flag on the floor of the Queen’s House yesterday (8 Nov 2007). The command flag of Admiral of the Fleet Lord Richard Howe (1726–99), it was flown on his flagship 'Queen Charlotte' at the Battle of the Glorious First of June, 1794, the first fleet action of the French Revolutionary Wars.

Bought by the Museum earlier this year for £40,000 after a public appeal to save it from export, this is the only known surviving example of an 18th-century Union command flag. The approx. 4 x 5.5m flag, made of loosely-woven, hand-sewn wool bunting, is riddled with shot holes, bleached by sea spray and its edges are tattered from the wind. Conservation work is likely to cost almost as much again as the Museum paid for the flag.

The Battle of the First of June, 1794The Battle of the First of June, 1794; Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, 1795. The flag is visible in a painting of the battle by Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, also owned by the Museum. The painting shows Lord Howe in full uniform, although according to Dr Pieter van der Merwe, the Museum’s General Editor, the Admiral earned himself the nickname ‘Black Dick’ from his scruffy appearance and on the day of the battle was dressed in an old overcoat and woollen hat, and his face blackened by smoke.

The Glorious First of June

Admiral of the Fleet Howe, 1st Earl Howe, 1726-1799 Admiral of the Fleet Howe, 1st Earl Howe, 1726-1799. Repro ID BHC2790The Glorious First of June was the first fleet action of the French Revolutionary Wars. Howe took six prizes and sunk a seventh French ship without any British loss. However, the French Admiral Villaret de Joyeuse was protecting a large and important grain convoy. This evaded Howe and reached France safely.

The battle was dubbed The Glorious First of June by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the Irish playwright and Drury Lane theatre manager. Sheridan staged a benefit night in aid of the sailors' widows and orphans which raised £1500 – the highest one-night box office takings of any theatre in the 18th century.

The flag was handed down through the family of a midshipman in 'Queen Charlotte', William Burgh who was promoted lieutenant on the 24 July 1794, shortly after the battle of the Glorious First of June. His name is marked on the kitbag in which the flag was kept. The flag’s design does not include the saltire of St Patrick added when the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was formed in 1801.

Lord Howe

Lord Richard Howe (1726-1799) entered the Navy in 'Pearl' in 1739, but probably remained at school for another year. Howe accompanied Edward Legge in 'Severn' at the start of Anson's voyage round the world but turned back a short time after having rounded Cape Horn. He was promoted to the rank of Captain on the 10 April 1746. He was seriously wounded in an action with two French privateers on 1 May 1746 while commanding the 'Baltimore' sloop. In May 1757 he was elected Member of Parliament for Dartmouth. When in command of 'Magnanime', he took part in the abortive expedition against Rochefort during the same year and various attacks on the French Channel ports in 'Essex' the year following.

Under Hawke, he bore a distinguished part in the Battle of Quiberon Bay on 20 November 1759. After peace was declared, Howe accepted a seat at the Admiralty and was appointed Treasurer of the Navy. He was promoted to the rank of Rear-Admiral on the 18 October 1770 and to the rank of Vice-Admiral on the 5 February 1776. The same year, Howe was appointed Commander-in-Chief in North America and remained so during the subsequent war until his resignation in 1778. He returned to active service in 1782 as was promoted to the rank of Admiral on the 8 April 1782 and Commander-in-Chief in the Channel and succeeded in getting a convoy through to relieve the besieged fortress of Gibraltar.

After a spell as First Lord of the Admiralty, Howe was once again appointed to command the Channel fleet in 1790. After his success in the Battle of the Glorious First of June 1794, he was appointed Admiral of the Fleet on the 12 March 1796 and negotiated with the Spithead mutineers, his last official act prior to retirement. He died three years later on 5 August 1799.