7 Historic Flags and Where to See Them

As symbols of unity, flags are often part of key historic events—the banner to which people flock, the symbol of a nation’s claim, or the ensign on a ship that must be surrendered. Below are seven amazing historic flags that have survived wars, expeditions, surrenders, and the passing of time:

1. ORIGINAL STAR-SPANGLED BANNER // WASHINGTON D.C.

The original Star-Spangled Banner that flew over Baltimore's Fort McHenry in 1814 during the British bombardment can be seen at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. It was the sight of this very flag, flying victorious, that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Defense of Fort M’Henry"—the poem that went on to become the national anthem.

It took flag-maker Mary Pickersgill and her assistants seven weeks to hand-stitch the 30 x 42-foot garrison flag as well as another storm flag used for inclement weather. After the victory, the commander of Fort McHenry during the bombardment, Lieutenant Colonel George Armistead, kept the flag as a family keepsake, occasionally displaying it at patriotic celebrations. By the 1870s the flag and the anthem had become famous across the nation and there were constant requests to put the flag on display; unfortunately, it was becoming more and more dog-eared as small sections were snipped off as gifts, including one of the stars. When New York stockbroker Eben Appleton inherited the family heirloom it had become something of a burden, and as a result he decided in 1907 to first loan, then later gift, the flag to the Smithsonian Institution, with the condition that it would be permanently displayed.

The flag has since been mended and restored a number of times, the last in 1998, when a $7 million project to clean and conserve it took 10 years to complete. After the thorough conservation, the flag was moved into its new home in a special climate-controlled case, where it is kept away from direct sunlight to preserve it for future generations.

2. GIANT TRICOLOR // NORWICH CASTLE, UK

An extremely rare 52 x 27-foot French tricolor flag will go on display at Norwich Castle in England this summer. The flag was flown on the French ship Le Généreux before being captured during the Battle of the Malta Convoy in 1800, and was later presented by famous British war hero Admiral Lord Nelson and his Captain Edward Berry to the city of Norwich. The trophy is thought to be one of the earliest examples of a tricolor flag, which came into use in 1794 as the official national flag of post-revolutionary France. The flag last went on display in 1905 and is undergoing restoration before it goes on display again.

Due to the enormous size of the flag, finding a space to unroll and inspect it wasn't easy. Fortunately, a nearby medieval friary, St Andrew’s Hall, proved large enough for the delicate flag to be laid out for review. Conservators were very excited to discover an old nail that would have been used to pin the flag to the mast, as well as traces of gunpowder and splinters of wood—the flag's battle scars.

3. FLAG RAISED BY ABRAHAM LINCOLN // GETTYSBURG FOUNDATION, PHILADELPHIA

On February 22, 1861, Washington’s birthday, President-elect Abraham Lincoln visited Philadelphia's Independence Hall and raised a flag with 34 stars. The country was then on the brink of civil war, with many southern states seceding from the Union, and as the flag was raised Lincoln talked about the specter of the coming conflict and his hopes that it might be averted (unfortunately, the Civil War broke out just five weeks after his inauguration). Fragments of this famous flag survived and were recently acquired by the Gettysburg Foundation, which will conserve and display them at their home in Pennsylvania.

4. SPANISH FLAG FROM THE BATTLE OF TRAFALGAR // NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM, LONDON

The ensign that flew from the Spanish ship San Ildefonso during the famous Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805, when British hero Admiral Lord Nelson defeated French Emperor Napoleon, has been safely stored at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London for over 100 years. Napoleon’s combined French and Spanish forces were intent on invading Britain and wiping out her naval might, but during the battle, Nelson outmaneuvered the French and took a decisive victory: Napoleon’s fleet lost 22 ships, while the British lost none.

However, the battle did claim the life of Lord Nelson, who was shot by a French soldier. At Nelson’s funeral, the huge 32 x 47-foot Spanish flag captured from the 74-gun Spanish warship was hung at St. Paul’s Cathedral as a symbol of his victory. In 1907 it was gifted to the Royal Naval Museum (now part of the Maritime Museum). The wool flag still shows signs of the damage it sustained during the battle and is so enormous it is very rarely put out on public display. The last time it was shown was in 2005, 200 years after the fateful battle.

5. CSS SHENANDOAH: LAST LOWERING OF CONFEDERATE FLAG // AMERICAN CIVIL WAR MUSEUM

During the Civil War, Confederate States cruiser the CSS Shenandoah circumnavigated the globe in an attempt to disrupt Union ships. Between October 1864 and August 1865 the ship flew a Confederate Second National flag, which today is housed at the American Civil War Museum in Virginia, while it attacked or sunk some 38 Union merchant vessels. When the ship encountered a British crew sailing out of San Francisco harbor, they discovered that the war had ended some months earlier. The ship then sailed for Liverpool in England, where on November 6, 1865 they surrendered to the British—the last surrender of the Civil War and the last lowering of a Confederate flag.

6. CAPTAIN SCOTT’S SLEDGE FLAG // NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM, LONDON

The flag that flew from Robert Falcon Scott’s sledge during his 1910-1913 expedition to the South Pole can be seen at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London. The small flag, machine-stitched in the shape of a medieval standard, is only 1 x 2.7 feet in size and is made from silk sateen. The English cross of St. George is near the hoist and the remaining flag is white over blue, with the crest of the Scott family—a stag’s head—hand-embroidered alongside the motto “Ready Aye Ready.”

When Scott and his team reached the South Pole they found, to their dismay, that Norwegian Roald Amundsen had beaten them to it. Sadly, Scott and his four fellow explorers died on the grueling return journey and eight months after their deaths the flag, as well as journals, letters, and pictures of the doomed group, were retrieved from Scott’s tent by a relief party.

7. ENGLISH CIVIL WAR BATTLE STANDARD // NATIONAL ARMY MUSEUM, LONDON

An extremely rare flag from the Parliamentarian army that fought in the English Civil War some 350 years ago has recently gone on display at the National Army Museum in London. It is thought that only about six Civil War Parliamentarian flags have survived, and most are in private collections, so it is especially amazing to see such a flag on public display. The 25-square-foot-flag features the cross of St. George in one corner, with five blue stars descending diagonally from the cross on a yellow background.

The flag originally belonged to Parliamentarian commander Sir John Gell and was stored at the ancestral family seat by 11 generations of the same family, alongside some other valuable pieces of Civil War memorabilia. The National Army Museum bought it in 1994.

BONUS: EARLY AMERICAN FLAG // BOUND FOR SPACE

While on a private tour of Glamis Castle in Scotland, NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock spotted a stars and stripes in the attic with just 48 stars. Wheelock realized the flag must be from before the last two states joined the union in 1959, and began taking pictures of it to show his colleagues. The astronaut’s enthusiasm for the old flag came to the notice of Mary, Dowager Countess of Strathmore at Glamis Castle, and she decided to give the flag to Wheelock on the condition that he take it with him when he next goes to space. Wheelock is due to go to space in 2019, and he intends to unfurl the flag on the International Space Station then.

Hundreds of 17th-Century Case Notes of Bizarre Medical Remedies Have Been Published Online

Illustrated portrait of Simon Forman.
Illustrated portrait of Simon Forman.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As medical texts, the writings of Simon Forman and Richard Napier aren't very useful. The so-called "doctors," regarded as celebrities in 16th- and 17th-century England, prescribed such treatments as nursing puppies and wearing dead pigeons as shoes. But as bizarre pieces of history, the 80,000 case notes the two quacks left behind are fascinating. The BBC reports that 500 of them have now been digitized and published online.

Forman and Napier were active in the English medical scene from the 1590s to the 1630s. They treated countless patients with remedies that straddled the line between medicine and mysticism, and their body of work is considered one of the largest known historical medical collections available for study today. After transcribing the hard-to-read notes and translating them into accessible English, a team of researchers at Cambridge University has succeeded in digitizing a fraction of the records.

By visiting the project's website, you can browse Forman and Napier's "cures" for venereal disease ("a plate of lead," "Venice turpentine," and blood-letting), pox (a mixture of roses, violets, boiled crabs, and deer dung), and breastfeeding problems (using suckling puppies to get the milk flowing). Conditions that aren't covered in today's medical classes, such as witchcraft, spiritual possession, and "chastity diseases," are also addressed in the notes.

All 500 digitized case notes are now available to view for free. And in case you thought horrible medical diagnoses were left in the 17th century, here some more terrifying remedies from relatively recent history.

[h/t BBC]

When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Tried Solving a Real Mystery

An 1892 drawing of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, published in The Strand Magazine
An 1892 drawing of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, published in The Strand Magazine
Sidney Paget, Wikimedia // Public Domain

On September 1, 1907, the New York Times wrote:

It looks as if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will eventually come to be considered an even greater detective than he made out Sherlock Holmes to be.

Doyle had found himself embroiled in a case that captured worldwide media attention for the fact that he, and not his famous sleuth, was trying to solve it. In 1906, a man named George Edalji was freed from prison after being sentenced for the crime of animal cruelty. He stood accused of injuring horses and cattle in Great Wyrley, and also of writing letters threatening to do the same to women. Upon his release, he wrote to Doyle asking for the celebrated author’s help in proving his innocence.

Doyle, who typically turned down such requests, was grieving over his wife's death and was eager for a distraction. He suspected Edalji’s Indian heritage was partly to blame for his conviction, as the Staffordshire police were believed to be racially discriminatory and the physical evidence was flimsy. (Another horse had even been attacked while Edalji was in prison.)

Doyle’s theory of the man’s innocence was largely dependent on his eyesight. In a remarkably Holmes-esque observation during their first meeting, Doyle noted Edalji held his newspaper close to his face. Since the animal mutilations had taken place at night and the criminal would have had to navigate a series of obstacles, he figured Edalji’s vision was too poor for the accusations to make sense.

Once Doyle took up his cause, Edalji became a symbol for injustice. Letters poured in, both to Doyle and to the Daily Telegraph, who had published his argument of Edalji’s innocence. The Scottish writer J.M. Barrie (creator of Peter Pan) wrote to say, “I could not doubt that at all events Edalji had been convicted without any evidence worthy of the name.”

Not everyone was convinced. The chief constable, George Anson, did not appreciate Doyle inserting himself into what police considered a closed case. Doyle was not simply posturing as an amateur sleuth: he was a pest, bombarding Anson almost daily with letters questioning their investigation, offering alternative theories, and using his celebrity to keep the case in the newspapers. Since Edalji had already been freed, his intention was to get some kind of financial compensation for the wrongful conviction. Anson responded unkindly, dismissing Doyle’s ideas and delivering sharp retorts.

Doyle was a “contemptible brute,” Anson remarked.

But the author would not be dissuaded, even when an anonymous letter had been delivered to him that was threatening in tone and insisted Edalji was the guilty party. It led him to believe the guilty party was worried enough to try and shut Doyle’s efforts down. By this point, he had isolated his suspicions to Royden Sharp, a former sailor who was said to be aggressive and once showed off a horse lancet capable of inflicting the wounds seen in the injured animals.

Doyle’s actions, the anonymous correspondent wrote, were “to run the risk of losing kidneys and liver.”

Doyle would later learn the letter was not written by a suspect, but instead commissioned by an unlikely tormentor: Constable Anson.

The officer had become so aggrieved with Doyle that he believed forging this letter would either discourage the author or send him on a wild goose chase. In recently discovered records that went up for auction in 2015, Anson even expressed glee that he had fooled “Sherlock Holmes.”

Despite Anson’s attempts to embarrass Doyle, the author had too large a platform for the Home Office to ignore. In 1907, they pardoned Edalji of the mutilation crimes, which allowed him to return to work as a solicitor. But they refused to apologize or offer any restitution.

Doyle was frustrated by their stubborn reaction, but his efforts had one crucial impact on British law: the publicity surrounding Edalji led to the creation of an official Court of Appeals, easing the process for future defendants.

Though Doyle won over the court of public opinion, he failed to solve the case: Sharp was not seriously investigated by police. Whoever had stalked the horses, cows, and sheep during those nights in Great Wyrley has never been identified.

This story was first published in 2016 and republished in 2019.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER