Remarkable Tales: The 'Victory Jack'



2018-01-18 14:34:11

Each week Objects in Time tells the remarkable story behind a historic artifact. This week it's the 'Victory Jack' - a singular piece of cloth which once carried the hopes of the British Empire.

Its edges are frayed and its colours are faded, but this tattered fragment of a British Union Jack flag is one of the most important relics in British naval history.

In 1805 the hand-sewn flag was flown during the famous Battle of Trafalgar aboard the HMS Victory, the flagship of Admiral Horatio Nelson.

Nelson was a national hero, a brave and occasionally reckless leader adored by his men, whose victories were celebrated throughout the land.

To this day he is regarded as one of the greatest Englishmen who ever lived. After all, not everyone gets their own statue on a 170ft column above London.

His greatest battle, against the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar, changed the course of history – and the 'Victory Jack' flag was there to witness it, flying proudly above Nelson as the story unfolded.

(Image: Sotheby

(Image: Sotheby's)

On the evening of October 20, 1805, the 821 men aboard the HMS Victory lay uneasily in their bunks. A few miles beyond the horizon lay the combined French and Spanish fleets, and there was no turning back.

From the youngest cabin boy to the most experienced Royal Marine, every crew member knew they were about to face the most dangerous moment of their lives.

By morning the full British fleet was in sight of the French, and the battle lines were drawn.

Nelson ordered the Victory's signal officer to relay a message to the fleet, which would become one of the most famous in naval history: "England expects that every man will do his duty."

What followed was a violent and bloody encounter which defied all convention.

Naval battles traditionally featured two lines of ships facing each other, taking turns to fire until one side was forced to flee or surrender.

But Nelson's plan was to confuse and terrify the enemy with a different tactic. Instead of a gentlemanly duel, he wanted a bar brawl.

'The Battle of Trafalgar, as seen from the starboard mizzen shrouds of the Victory' by J. M. W. Turner, circa 1808

The British ships sailed head-on towards the enemy, slicing through their lines with cannons blazing in all directions. Chaos ensued, ship's masts and rigging became tangled together, and the air was filled with acrid smoke and the echoing cries of the wounded.

As the battle played out, it became clear that's Nelson's plan was a touch of genius.

Without losing a single ship, the British fleet decimated the combined French and Spanish fleet by capturing 17 of its ships and sending one to the bottom of the ocean.

The combined fleet also suffered 10 times as many casualties as the British, with 4,500 killed compared to a British death tally of 449.

However, one of those 449 was Nelson himself.

During the skirmish, a Spanish sniper hidden in the rigging had fired a shot which would ring out across the British Empire: Admiral Nelson had been hit.

Captain Hardy found him on the deck of the Victory, fallen on his side and unable to stand. "Hardy, I do believe they have done it at last," Nelson exclaimed, "my backbone is shot through."

The bullet had struck his shoulder and passed through his spine, paralyzing him below his waist. He knew his time had come.

'The Fall of Nelson, Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805' painted circa 1825 by Denis Dighton

Nelson was carried to safety below and lay on the Victory's Orlop Deck, his lifeblood pumping away as the battle raged on outside. With a heavy heart, the ship’s surgeon William Beatty pronounced that there was nothing that could be done.

"Kiss me, Hardy," Nelson said as his captain approached, and Hardy knelt down to gently kiss him on the cheek and forehead.

"Thank God I have done my duty" he murmured as the surgeon attended to him, before whispering "God and my country".

And he was gone.

The triumph all but assured British naval dominance of the seas for the next 100 years. But rarely has a glorious victory been tempered by such sadness.

"We do not know whether we should mourn or rejoice," wrote The Times on November 6, 1805, when news of the battle reached England.

Upon hearing the news of Nelson's death, King George III said simply "We have lost more than we have gained".

Nelson's body was returned to England on December 4, 1805, and as he lay in state at Greenwich Hospital he was visited by an estimated 100,000 people wishing to pay their respects.

The grand funeral procession of Horatio Nelson, passing through Temple Bar and Fleet Street to St Paul

The grand funeral procession of Horatio Nelson, passing through Temple Bar and Fleet Street to St Paul's Cathedral, January 9th 1806

On the day of his funeral, January 9, 1806, the streets of London were lined with crowds who witnessed a procession of 10,000 soldiers make their way to St Paul’s Cathedral. 

Nelson’s coffin was lowered into a marble sarcophagus in the cathedral’s crypt, and the men who served with him on the Victory lined up to place the ship's two flags inside.

But at the last moment they were overcome with an outpouring of emotion, and instead they tore the flags to pieces as mementos, desperate to cling on to a part of their beloved commander.

Over the past two centuries these fragments have been passed down through generations and kept as treasured heirlooms.

This fragment of the Victory's hand-sewn Union Jack is by far the largest piece known to exist: a remarkable relic which has survived for more than 200 years.

For 130 years it was part of the museum collection at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British defence organization founded in 1831 by the Duke of Wellington to study naval and military science.

Then on January 17, 2018, the 'Victory Jack' was offered for sale at Sotheby's in London. Valued at £80,000 - £100,000, it soared to a final price of £297,000 ($408,761).

A small price to pay for a unique piece of history.

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