A French ensign captured in 1800 is to be displayed in Norfolk for the first time in more than a century. Captured by the Royal Navy in 1800. The huge ensign of Le Généreux is one of the most iconic objects connected to Norfolk’s most famous son, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson.
The Ensign from the 74-gun ship of the line Le Généreux will form the centrepiece of this summer’s upcoming Nelson & Norfolk exhibition, which explores Nelson’s relationship with his home county. The exhibition opens at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery on 29 July and runs until 1 October.
The flag was captured during the Battle of the Malta Convoy, on 18 February 1800. The battle saw Rear-Admiral Lord Nelson, lead thee ships of the line, HMS Alexander, HMS Foudroyant, and HMS Northumberland, and the frigate HMS Success, against a French convoy of transport ships, corvettes and a fluyt, escorted by Le Généreux and commanded by Contre-amiral Jean-Baptiste Perrée.
The Le Généreux was one of only two French ships escape the Battle of the Nile in 1798, the victory which sealed Nelson’s reputation as England’s greatest hero. After the battle, Le Généreux succeeded in capturing the 50-gun British ship, HMS Leander, which was transporting Nelson’s flag captain, Edward Berry. Berry, one of Nelson’s most trusted captains whom he once referred to as his “right hand”, carried with him dispatches from the Battle of the Nile.After this incident, Le Généreux, in a game of cat and mouse, eluded the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean for a further 18 months, until she encountered Captain Berry once again off Malta. However, this time Berry was in command of a much larger ship – the 80-gun HMS Foudroyant.
At that point, Malta was controlled by the French. However, they had been pushed into Valletta and were placed under siege and the harbour was under blockade. The French garrison was running dangerously short of vital supplies and Perrée’s force was assembled in Toulon with the intention of running this blockade, forcing supplies through to Malta’s capital. His ships carried supplies for the beleaguered garrison, as well as 3,000 fresh troops. At the same time, Nelson’s forces, headed by Vice-Admiral Lord Keith, were landing 1,200 Neapolitan troops to relieve those supporting Maltese efforts on the island.
The French convoy was first sighted by HMS Success, a 32-gun frigate captained by Captain Peard. Success shadowed the force, while Nelson’s ships began to give chase. They quickly captured the transport Ville de Marseilles, while other French ships sailed into open waters. The Le Généreux, however, could not do the same and Perreé opted to hold position and cover the retreat of his convoy. While the British ships of the line manoeuvred into position, Success closed on the Le Généreux’s bows and fired. Peard was able to fire salvo after salvo before the French turned and retaliated. Although the Success was badly damaged, her first shots had blinded the French Admiral, and the second broadside took his right leg.
As Success drifted away, the Northumberland and Berry’s Foudroyant closed. With greater firepower, Berry had the upper hand. He fired two broadsides at the French ship, the French responded with a single broadside, and then the demoralised crew struck their colours. Berry’s had succeeded in capturing Le Généreux. The British had lost one man dead, and nine wounded. Perreé, who died of his wounds, was the only French casualty. Berry, in Foudroyant, would later chase down and defeat the Guillaume Tell, the last French survivor from the Battle of the Nile. Malta fell to the British on 4 September 1800, and would remain in British hands for 164 years.The captured French Tricolour ensign from the ship was immediately packed to be sent to Norwich, to be displayed in the medieval splendour of St Andrews’ Hall, a centre of civic life for hundreds of years and today the most complete medieval friary complex in Britain. The flag was draped around the west window of the hall, a source of pride and an emblem of Nelson’s affection and esteem for his birth county. It remained on display here until 1897, and then was placed in Norwich Castle’s Keep ready for the 1905 Centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar. It has not been publicly displayed since then.
The immediate dispatch of the ensign after capture to the City of Norwich by Captain Berry and Lord Nelson served to reinforce 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 of Le Généreux 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.
The huge but fragile ensign of Le Généreux, which measures 16m by 8.3m, is a remarkable survivor from the days when naval warfare was waged in sailing warships, where national flags played a vital role in naval engagement. Such flags could be seen through cannon smoke and helped to ensure that friend and foe were clearly identifiable in the chaos of battle. However, this particular ensign is even more remarkable, believed to be one of the earliest, if not the earliest, Tricolour in existence.
The design of the Tricolour as we know it today was officially adopted on 15 February 1794, and the surviving ensign of Le Généreux is thought to be the same flag which was seen flying during the Battle of the Nile in 1798. If the flag captured off Malta is the same veteran ensign flown during Nelson’s victory in the Nile, then evidence suggests that it is, quite possibly, the oldest surviving Tricolour.Ruth Battersby-Tooke, Curator of Costume and Textiles at Norwich Castle, explains: “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.”
The decision to mount an exhibition at Norwich Castle on Nelson’s relationship with the county has given impetus for the full conservation and display of the ensign of Le Généreux, which will form a worthy centrepiece. The flag has received some painstaking restoration works by volunteers prior to going on display. The flag has survived remarkably well with the blue, white and red colours clearly visible. The first stage of conservation involved careful and gentle cleaning with specialist equipment, and the removal of the black cotton lining from the blue section of the flag as this mostly disintegrated. This is to be replaced with a new, hand-stitched, lining. It is hoped that initial works will be complete by July 2017.
Textiles Conservator, Lindsay Blackmore, explained: “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.” The rope attached to the flag contained a nail hammered through the rope, fragments of wood, likely splinters from battle-damaged ships, and traces of gunpowder.
Patches and mends to the ensign reveal contemporary attempts to preserve the flag after battle or storm damage, as well as the skilled work of artisans as they worked to preserve the flag in the century it was displayed. The Norfolk Museums Service wishes to keep this history, with Ruth Battersby-Tooke stating: “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 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 expected to cost £40,000, but will be supported by an online fund-raising campaign page. Margaret Dewsbury, Chair 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 for 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.”