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Church Pennant (Britain)

Last modified: 2004-01-03 by
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[Church Pennant] by Rob Raeside, 22 August 2000
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 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 flagchart 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

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

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