J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Sir William Howe’s Banner on Display in Penn

Yesterday Dr. Sushma Jansari of the British Museum shared this photograph in a tweet. She and her family had stopped at the Holy Trinity Church in Penn, Buckinghamshire, for tea, and found this banner displayed on a wall inside.

At the right of the banner is the name “Sir William Howe.” The recently made label nearby says that Gen. Sir William Howe had this personal emblem carried at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Naturally, that caught my interest.

However, the label also states that battle took place in New York, so it’s not fully reliable. At least it's more on target than some tourist guides to the church, which say that Sir William Howe won the Glorious First of June in 1794. That was his older brother, Adm. Lord Richard Howe.

The label describes the Howe coat of arms as featuring “Three black dogs’ heads with red tongues.” I’m sure the College of Heralds would prefer those animals to be identified as wolves. But that’s definitely the Howe family arms, and the Howes (a later series of earls) built this church in Penn in 1849 and supported it since.

What piqued my curiosity about this banner was that Gen. Howe wasn’t knighted until late in 1776, a year after the Battle of Bunker Hill. So his troops definitely didn’t carry the banner in this form, with “Sir William Howe” sewn into it, in Charlestown. Did they display it in 1777 and 1778 as Howe served as commander-in-chief in Philadelphia and New York?

I haven’t found any printed mention of Sir William Howe’s banner besides what’s connected with this church. I’m hoping that some people who study flags of the Revolutionary era might know about this emblem or similar ones.

According to that tradition (and again, our sources aren't flawless), Gen. Howe’s banner “hung for many years in Westminster Abbey.” I suspect it was part of the memorial to his older brother George, a beloved army commander killed in the French and Indian War. The statue anchoring that memorial was actually funded in 1759 by the grateful province of Massachusetts.

Up until 1884 there were “military trophies and flags behind” Viscount George Howe’s monument in a “window embrasure,” as shown in a sketch on the abbey’s website. But in that year the statue was moved “so that American visitors could see it more easily.” Sir William’s banner might then have been sent off to the church in Penn.


Don Carleton said...

This sounds like one for Don Hagist!

Personally, I'm skeptical that any senior British officers in the American War went into battle with their "personal emblems" fluttering above--this sounds like the sort of thing quasi-independent barons in medieval armed forces, not (early)-modern British Army leaders, would have done.

Also, if it's true that the Howe brothers were reluctant warriors when it came to prosecuting the military suppression of the rebellion, it seems even less likely that Sir William would have been beating his metaphorical chest by waving his banner around as he went into action against his American cousins....

J. L. Bell said...

I suspect that if it was common for eighteenth-century British army generals to have personal standards carried into battle or used to designate headquarters, then Howe would have had one regardless of his political beliefs. But in that case, there should be mentions of them and other surviving examples.

Joseph McMillan said...

No. armorial banners were not used on the battlefield in the 18th century British Army. This banner was most likely produced either in connection with the conferral of Sir William's knighthood (see the similar banners that hang today in the chapels of the various orders of knighthood, such as those of the Knights of the Garter at St. George's Chapel, Windsor), or as part of the heraldic display at his funeral.

Joseph McMillan said...

A British friend just advised me of this account from the London Gazette of General Howe's installation as a Knight of the Bath in 1779, including mention of the banners of the deceased knights, current knights, and knights-elect, Howe falling into the latter category. I think this supports my theory that this is the origin of the banner in the picture. (Not, as I first suggested, at Howe's funeral, since by then he was no longer "Sir William" but "Viscount Howe.") https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/11980/page/1?fbclid=IwAR2V1SuTtx9domeqF5NBVaKuEXU0pyvkSM1JGXKKYEH9RHtif6kX5KpOyRM

Unknown said...

Howe was made a KB on 13 October 1776 but did not return to Britain until May 1778 so he cannot have been installed before then. Indeed it was not until a year later - 19 May 1779 - that he was installed in the Chapel of the Order of the Bath - Henry VII's Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey. The details of the ceremony - including the banners - are worth reading in the London Gazette here:

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for all the additional information! The link does indeed fit with a banner like this much better than Bunker Hill or other battles.