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.

London's Trafalgar Square Gets a Poetry-Writing Red Lion

Tolga Akmen, AFP/Getty Images
Tolga Akmen, AFP/Getty Images

London’s historic Trafalgar Square just got a fifth lion, the BBC reports. The fluorescent red, AI-powered lion takes visitor-submitted words and turns them into two-line poems, which are displayed on a screen inside its mouth. The history-inspired installation is part of the ongoing festivities for the London Design Festival, which ends Sunday.

The idea comes from set designer Es Devlin, who is participating in a yearlong collaboration with Google Arts & Culture. She was inspired by another designer who remarked that Sir Edwin Landseer, who sculptured the other lions in the square in the late 19th century, "never wanted [them] to look so passive.” Landseer apparently wanted the lions to assume a more lively stance, “but Queen Victoria found it too shocking,” Devlin says.

The story of how Trafalgar Square’s lions came to be is an odd piece of history. For one, the process was painfully slow. Landseer spent four years just working up a sketch and spent hours studying the habits of lions at the London Zoo. He even waited two years for one of the zoo’s lions to die, then carted it back to his studio and kept it there until it started to decay. He was forced to throw out the animal—and his reference material—before he finished. “Which is why, if you look closely, you can see that the lions in Trafalgar Square actually have the paws of cats, rather than lions,” The Telegraph notes.

[h/t BBC]

13 Facts About Notre-Dame Cathedral

iStock
iStock

Constructed between the 12th and 14th centuries, Notre-Dame de Paris has centuries of French history built into its stone. The Gothic cathedral reflects the prominent role of Paris as an economic and spiritual center in the 12th century, and its scars from the French Revolution are reminders of its long connection with the monarchy—a connection that almost resulted in its demolition. Yet although thousands of tourists enter its doors each day to photograph its rose windows and flying buttresses, this sacred destination still has its secrets. Here are 13 lesser-known facts about Notre-Dame de Paris.

1. A PAGAN CITY LIES BELOW THE CATHEDRAL.

The Île-de-la-Cité on which Notre-Dame de Paris now stands was once a Gallo-Roman city known as Lutetia. The cathedral may have been built right over remnants of a temple: Around 1710, pieces of a sculpted altar dedicated to Jupiter and other deities were discovered during an excavation under the choir (although it remains unclear if this is evidence of an ancient temple, or if the pieces were recycled there from another location). Additional architectural ruins found in the 1960s and '70s, many dating back to this ancient era, lie in the archaeological crypt located beneath the square just in front of Notre-Dame.

2. THERE'S SOME RECYCLED ARCHITECTURE ON ITS FAÇADE.

The Sainte-Anne Portal at Notre-Dame
The Sainte-Anne Portal at Notre-Dame

There are three portals on the western façade of Notre-Dame, each laden with sculpted saints and sacred scenes. One doesn't seem to fit, however—the Portal Sainte-Anne has a much earlier style than the rest. Its figures, such as the central Virgin and Child, look stiffer in their poses and less natural in their features compared to the other statues. That's because this tympanum, or semi-circular area of decoration, was recycled from a previous Romanesque church. A close examination in 1969 revealed that it was not originally made for this space, and had been adapted to fit the Gothic structure.

3. THERE'S A "FOREST" IN ITS ROOF.

The cathedral contains one of the oldest surviving wood-timber frames in Paris, involving around 52 acres of trees that were cut down in the 12th century. Each beam is made from an individual tree. For this reason, the lattice of historic woodwork is nicknamed "the Forest."

4. ITS FLYING BUTTRESSES WERE GOTHIC TRENDSETTERS.

Low angle view of the East end of Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral at sunset with flying buttresses
iStock

The cathedral was one of the earliest structures built with exterior flying buttresses. They were constructed around its nave in the 12th century to lend support to the thin walls, after the need for more light in the incredibly tall church required larger windows, and thus greater supports. The exposed flying buttresses became an iconic aspect of Gothic design, and although there's some debate over whether Notre-Dame was the first church to have them, they certainly set the trend in sacred architecture.

5. TWENTY-EIGHT OF ITS KINGS LOST THEIR HEADS IN THE FRENCH REVOLUTION.

In 1793, in the midst of the French Revolution, 28 statues of biblical kings in the cathedral were pulled down with ropes and decapitated by a mob. (King Louis XVI was guillotined earlier that year, and any iconography tied to the monarchy was under attack.) The mutilated stones were eventually tossed in a trash heap, which the Minister of the Interior dealt with by ordering the material be repurposed for construction. It wasn't until 1977 that the heads of 21 of these kings were rediscovered during work on the basement of the French Bank of Foreign Trade. Now they're at the nearby Musée de Cluny.

6. THE TOWERS ARE NOT TWINS.

The two towers of Notre-Dame
iStock

At first glance, Notre-Dame’s two towers appear like identical twins. Closer examination reveals that the north tower is in fact a bit bigger than the south. As with all the elements of the cathedral, they were built over time, and reflect how the cathedral is more of a collage of architectural trends and leadership than the culmination of one person’s vision.

7. ITS BELLS WERE ONCE MELTED DOWN FOR ARTILLERY.

The kings weren’t the only part of Notre-Dame destroyed during the French Revolution. The cathedral, like other churches around France, was transformed in the late 18th century from a Christian space and rededicated to the new Cult of Reason. All 20 of its bells—except the colossal 1681 bourdon called Emmanuel—were removed and melted down to make cannons.

While the bells at Notre-Dame were replaced in the 19th century, the new instruments were not as finely made as the older versions, and made a more dissonant noise when clanging. Finally, in 2013, a new ensemble of bells restored the cathedral to its 17th-century sound, with the deeply resonant Emmanuel still joining in the toll on special occasions.

8. NAPOLÉON AND VICTOR HUGO SAVED IT.

When Napoléon Bonaparte decided to have his 1804 coronation as emperor in Notre-Dame, the building was in bad shape. Centuries of decay as the city developed and changed around it, as well as the vandalism of the French Revolution, had left it on the verge of demolition. For years it had been used as little more than a warehouse. So when Napoléon declared its return to church use, and hosted his grand ceremony within his walls—an event in which he famously crowned himself—it brought Notre-Dame to new prominence.

Nevertheless, the coronation didn’t fix its structural deterioration. Then author Victor Hugo used the building as a personification of France itself in his 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris. (The book’s name is often translated as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, yet the hunchbacked bell ringer Quasimodo is not the main character; the central figure is Notre-Dame.) And Hugo vividly evoked its decrepit 19th-century state:

“But noble as it has remained while growing old, one cannot but regret, cannot but feel indignant at the innumerable degradations and mutilations inflicted on the venerable pile, both by the action of time and the hand of man, regardless alike of Charlemagne, who laid the first stone, and Philip Augustus, who laid the last. On the face of this ancient queen of our cathedrals, beside each wrinkle one invariably finds a scar. 'Tempus edax, homo edacior,' which I would be inclined to translate: 'Time is blind, but man is senseless.'”

The book was a success, and the momentum led to a major restoration overseen by architects Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.

9. ITS MONSTERS ARE MODERN, NOT MEDIEVAL.

Gargoyle and wide city view from the roof of Notre-Dame
iStock

Some of the most popular images of Notre-Dame are from the perspective of its gargoyles or chimera (the carved monsters that don’t act as waterspouts). Few visitors would guess that the fantastic creatures now on the cathedral weren't there until the 19th century; they were added between 1843 and 1864 during the radical restoration overseen by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc.

Hugo had described gargoyles extensively in Notre-Dame de Paris, and Viollet-le-Duc was reportedly inspired by this romantic vision of the past. A daguerreotype from before this overhaul shows a building more stark than the one we know today, with no beasts perched on its towers, its medieval gargoyles having long been removed. Unfortunately, many of the 19th-century gargoyles are now decaying; PVC pipes have taken the place of those that have been taken down for safety.

The gargoyles were far from the only fanciful addition by the architect Viollet-le-Duc. Among the 12 apostles he had installed around the new spire, he included himself as the face of Saint Thomas.

10. ITS SPIRE IS A SAINTLY LIGHTNING ROD.

Look way to the top of the spire and you'll spy a rooster. This is not a purely decorative bird. In 1935, three tiny relics—an alleged piece of the Crown of Thorns and some bits of Saint Denis and Saint Genevieve (the city's patron saints)—were secured inside the metal bird’s body. The idea, the story goes, was to create a sort of spiritual lightning rod to protect the parishioners within.

11. THE ORGAN IS THOUGHT TO BE THE LARGEST IN FRANCE.

The Notre-Dame organ involves almost 8000 pipes (some dating back to the 18th century) played with five keyboards, making it the biggest pipe organ in France (although some claim that Saint-Eustache has a larger one). While there are some slashes on the wood of the organ loft—damage from the French Revolution, when its fleur-de-lis symbols were carved off—it was restored in 2013 to mark the 850th anniversary of the cathedral.

12. ALL ROADS LEAD TO NOTRE-DAME DE PARIS.

Point Zero marker outside Notre-Dame in Paris
Jean-Pierre Bazard, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Mostly overlooked beneath the crowds of tourists milling around outside Notre-Dame is a diminutive circular marker with an eight-pointed bronze star embedded in the cobblestones. It’s engraved with the words Point zéro des routes de France, and is the point from which distances are measured from Paris to other cities in France. It was placed there in 1924, although it had to be temporarily dislodged in the 1960s during the excavations for what was intended to be an underground parking garage. Those construction plans were thwarted when workers turned up architectural ruins—now kept in the archaeological crypt.

13. BEES LIVE ON ITS ROOF.

On the Notre-Dame sacristy, adjacent to the cathedral, is a small hive of bees. It was installed in 2013, with Buckfast bees—a strain developed by a monk named Brother Adam and known for its gentleness—living in its hives. Their honey is made from the flowering plants in nearby gardens, including the Square Jean XXIII just behind the cathedral. According to The New York Times, the sweet stuff is given away to the poor.

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