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Church Pennant (Britain)

Last modified: 2022-10-14 by rob raeside
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[Church Pennant]

image by Jarig Bakker, 19 August 2005
based on an images in Visser (1990)

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Description of the flag

The Church Pennant has a field divided horizontally red over white over blue, bearing the red cross of St. George on a white background at the hoist. it is hoisted at the peak of the gaff (or in the most suitable position along the centre line of the ship, if there is no gaff) as a signal indicating that the ship's company is engaged in Divine Service.

The earliest known use of the Church Pennant is to be found in Article 10 of the Additional Instructions of 1778. There is, however, a tradition, a picturesque one, that its use dates from the days of the Dutch Wars, when services were held in ships of both sides before battle. In order that these services should not be interrupted, a pennant, composed of the St. George's Cross and the Dutch tricolour sewn together, was hoisted in all ships; it was not until it had been hauled down in all ships that the battle would commence.
from Carr (1961)
Jarig Bakker, 14 July 2000

Use of the flag

The Church Pennant is the only pennant in a Warship's flag locker that has one single meaning when hoisted. The Ship's Company is at Divine Service, reduce speed, pass with caution. It is flown from the Starboard outer yardarm and if there are other hoists they should be hauled down for the duration. When a Warship is flying the Church Pennant at sea or in harbour it is an accepted routine that other Warships do not send signals except in emergency and that applies to marks of respect and saluting other Warships. The Church Pennant may also be flown by a vessel or craft when carrying a body or ashes from shore to a ship for a committal at sea or by a vessel or craft carrying out a funeral. It is also flown from the Main Mast by Shore Establishments when Church Services are being conducted.

The Church Pennant is derived from the English Flag (the Red Cross of St George on a White background) and the Dutch Flag (Red, White and Blue stripes laid horizontally). During the Dutch Wars, (1652-54, 1665-67, 1672-74) Admiral Tromp and Admiral Blake, both devoutly religious, came to an agreement that when it was necessary to carry out the burial of the dead, or conduct Divine Service, the ship concerned, would let fly and hoist the flags of both countries, flown together at the outer yard where they could be seen by the other. It was not until 1790, when Admiral Kempenfelt devised a system of signalling with flags, consisting of numerical flags and a small number of special flags and pennants that the Church Pennant as we know it today came into being.

A Church Pennant is always hoisted and never unfurled at the commencement of prayers.

Source: Section 504 Church Pennant, of Sea Cadet Corps, Chaplains' Manual, Short Title (CM) ASCR20, 2004 Edition, published August 2004. Note that the Sea Cadet Corps is not an arm of the Royal Navy.
Colin Dobson, 16 August 2005

The custodian of St Bartholomews Church, Yeovilton, England, the Fleet Air Arm memorial church inquired that he had the occasion to fly the church pennant shown above from the tower, to mark a visit by retired Dutch naval aviators. He speculated it was flown to signify a cease fire during campaigns of the Anglo-Dutch wars.

In response, what is now the Church Pennant seems to have been introduced in 1661 as the Union or Common Pennant, which was the masthead pennant of private ships not under the orders of a Flag Officer. It was similar to the Church Pennant, but very much longer, and often with a split fly. By 1778 a short version was in use as the Church Pennant, and the Union Pennant was later phased out.

When the Chaplain of the Royal Canadian Navy asked for an explanation of the origin of the Church Pennant he was told by the office of the naval historian in Ottawa that it had shared a common function with commissioning pennants until 1816, and that from then until the introduction of the NATO Signal Book in the early 1950's, when the distinction between signal flags and other pieces was more clearly drawn, it was a general signal flag used in combination with other flags to form the three signals, "working the cable", "man overboard", and "recall for ship's boats", as well as being the Church Pennant. (Customs and Traditions of the Canadian Navy, by Graeme Arbuckle).

I have not seen anything to substantiate the story that connects it to the Anglo-Dutch Wars, but it would be interesting to discover why a similar flag is the Church Pennant in the Royal Netherlands Navy.

Arbuckle's "Customs and Traditions of the Canadian Navy" notes "Today the Church Pennant is hoisted in harbour at the peak if fitted and not occupied, or at the yardarm when ship's companies are holding divine service and are at prayers."
David Prothero, 17 July 2000

Wilson (Flags at Sea, 1986) notes the church pennant is a special pennant hoisted to show that a ship's company are at religious service. The British church pennant has St. George's cross at the hoist and the fly striped red over white over blue. See Mariner's Mirror 16 (1940), p. 244, A. R. McCracken, 'The Church pennant', United States Naval Institute Proceedings 56 (No. 330, 1930), pp. 717-9.

Wilson's book has also a pennant, named 'COMMON PENDANT' on p. 68 (a flag chart of William Downman, 1685-6), which fits the description of the Church Pennant.
Jarig Bakker, 24 June 2000

Purves wrote:- "A confusing Act of 1784 prescribes certain signals of chase, by which a naval vessel was to hoist 'the proper pendant and ensign of HM Ships', usually the Red Ensign and Common Pendant, the latter having St George's Cross in the hoist and a red, white, and blue striped split fly."
David Prothero, 29 July 2000

The traditional explanation for the origin of this pennant is that during the time of the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the seventeenth century (the time of Oliver Cromwell and Charles II in Britain), the people of both countries held strong religious views. It was consequently tacitly agreed among them that the ships of the two fleets would not engage in combat during religious services. To indicate that divine services were in progress, the national flags of the two countries were joined together in the form shown and the resulting pennant hoisted prominently. The Cross of St George and the Dutch horizontal Tricolour were thus joined together to form the Church Pennant.

This tale has, however, in more recent times been placed in the category of myth. In a book published in 1908 by the Navy Records Society, Signal and Instructions 1776-1794, the editor, Sir Julian Corbett observed: "St George Cross and Dutch fly may have been regarded as appropriate for Divine Service as symbolizing the Protestant Coalition in the time of William III". But even this speculation, although more plausible than the story about the Anglo-Dutch Wars, is perhaps also not the true story of the origin of this pennant, which is one of the oldest unchanged flags in the Naval flag signal locker.

This common pendant was the masthead pennant worn by all British private war vessels until the middle 1800s. It was a narrow pennant with a St George Cross at the hoist and a long tapering fly in the colours red, white and blue, and common to all three the red, white and blue squadrons of the Royal Navy. As all the other signal flags had been assigned a meaning in the signal books of the time, the only flag remaining, which did not have a special meaning, was this 'common pendant'. When these squadrons were abolished in 1864, the 'common pendant' also fell into disuse when the present masthead pennant of the Royal Navy, a St George Cross at the hoist and a completely white long tapering fly, was adopted.

David Prothero is of the opinion that the most likely explanation of the origin of the Church pennant stems from the use of this 'common pendant' to indicate that Divine Service was in progress. It was flown at the mizzen peak above the quarterdeck where Divine Services were usually held in sailing vessels. It was too long and unhandy to be comfortably hoisted and worn at the mizzen peak in accordance with the Admiralty Instructions. It is thought that it was therefore shortened for purely practical reasons until it assumed the proportions of the modern church pennant. After the 'common pendant' was discontinued as a masthead pennant, it thus came to be called the Church Pennant in this form and its one remaining usage.

Another possibility on the use of the common pennant, which was introduced into the British fleet in 1661 and remained in use until about 1850, as a church pennant has come to light through the recent publication of the book Admiralty House Simon's Town by Boet Dommissie. Among the treasures of the House is the Christie- bequest of marine paintings. This bequest of some 19 marine paintings contains three paintings by Peter Monamy of which the image of one is reproduced in the book. This painting shows a 17th century warship, a two decker, under way in a slight breeze flying a red ensign with the cross of St George in the canton and also a large long common pennant at the main mast head. The painting is, however, entitled: Ship flying the church pennant. Monamy was born in 1681 and died in 1749. He started his painting apprenticeship in 1696 and commenced his independent painting career in 1703, becoming one of the best known marine painters of his generation. The chances are slim that he painted this ship from life as the cross of St George in the canton for the red ensign was replaced with the old Union Jack in 1707 after the union of the English and Scottish parliaments. It is thought that he must have painted it from the example of previous masters - he was much influenced by the work of the Willem van de Veldes, father and son, who were both court painters of Charles II from 1667 to 1679. Whether Monamy entitled the painting himself or whether it was done by later cataloguers of his work, is not known, but it is clear that the Admiralty's Additional Instructions referred to above, might have been simply the confirmation of a long standing custom in the fleet. The use of the common pennant as the church pennant must thus be regarded as predating 1778 by a considerable length of time. How long before it is not possible to say, but it might even have its origins shortly after 1661.

Andries Burgers, 17 August 2005

The drawing of William of Orange's expeditionary flag by C. Allard, 1694, shows flying over the flag a pennant with a red cross on a white field, with a fly or red white and blue, forked for most of its length.

Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 22 October 2005

In the Anglican cathedral in Gibraltar are several flags laid up. There was also a small frame on the wall containing the pennant mentioned above and the following description, which I quote verbatim.

The church pennant is hoisted when divine service is held on board H.M. ships. Its origins are thought to be in the English-Dutch wars of the 17th century. On at least one occasion, the combattants are said to have agreed to cease hostilities so that church services could be held in their ships. The pennant, therefore, combines the English cross of St. George with the Dutch tricolour. It remains in use in both the Royal Navy and the Royal Netherlands Navy to this day."
Peter Johnson, 22 October 2005

Article 10

Article 10 of the Additional Instructions 1778 - 1781 reads:
"In order that the performance of Divine Service may meet with as little interruption as possible the ships are to hoist a common pendant at the mizzen peak before beginning the same and keep it flying until they have finished."

In the Naval Records Society's book 'Signal and Instructions', the editor, Sir Julian Corbett, added:
"St George cross and Dutch fly may have been regarded as appropriate for Divine Service as symbolising the Protestant Coalition in the time of William III", which is more plausible than the idea that it dated back to the Anglo-Dutch wars and was used to indicate a truce while services were being held.

However it is possible that there was no Dutch connection, and that the common pennant was used because there were few alternatives. The Signals and Instructions Book of 1776 shows that the mizzen peak was one of twelve hoist points for flags, and each of the 22 flags used in signalling had a particular meaning if hoisted there. Divine Service could be indicated only by hoisting something, such as a masthead pennant, that was not normally used for signalling. For use by the whole fleet, the common pennant was more appropriate than the pennant of the red, white, or blue squadron.

David Prothero, 20 August 2003

Common Pennant

[Common Pennant]

image by Jarig Bakker, 19 August 2005

The Common Pennant was the masthead pennant of private ships not under the orders of a Flag Officer. It was similar to the Church Pennant, but very much longer, and often with a split fly. By 1778 a short version was in use as the Church Pennant, and the Union Pennant was later phased out.
David Prothero, 17 July 2000

One interesting side issue with regard to the British 'common' pennant concerns the split fly shown in the image above. Again according to Wilson (and at least one authoritative painting of 1672) the fly of the common pennant (unlike the red, white and blue) was split in the 17th Century, but had begun to be made triangular by the War of 1812 (although he quotes another source with still gives it a split fly in 1830). From this I can tentatively suggest that the common pennant was consciously made differently from the other (or standard) pennants (for reasons which are now unknown), but that this difference (whatever it was) had been forgotten sometime in the intervening 100 or so years?
Christopher Southworth, 19 August 2005