Admiral Sir William Penn
April 23, 1621 - September 16, 1670


Admiral Sir William Penn


With the expert advice of the Norroy and Ulster King of Arms at the College of Arms in London, two new banners now hang beside the monument to Admiral Sir William Penn in St Mary Redcliffe. Grafted by the outstanding makers of the embroidered banners of the Knights of the Garter in St George's Chapel, Windsor, the colorful 'standard' and 'pennon' draw attention to a fine monument to a most remarkable man.

Admiral Sir William Penn, 'the famous father of an even more famous son', wrote the code of naval tactics, which formed the basis of the Duke of York's Sailing and Fighting Instructions, the standard book on tactics for the Royal Navy for much of the next two centuries. Samuel Pepys, the diarist, was his subordinate as Secretary to the Navy Board. Together, they reformed the structure and administration of the navy, laying the foundations for Britain's later dominance of the seas and, arguably, of the British Empire itself.

Under Cromwell during the Civil war, Penn had risen to the rank of Vice-Admiral when still in his twenties. In 1655 he led the assault on the capital of Jamaica, which was to become the first British colony taken in war. Knighted by Charles II and appointed a Commissioner of the Navy, Penn went again to sea in 1665 when he was in effective command at the crucial battle of Lowestoft against the Dutch. Dogged by ill health and finally by impeachment for the corrupt handling of prize-goods, Penn died in 1670 at the age of forty-nine.

William Penn's elder son, William, was born in London in 1644. He became a leading and most troublesome Quaker. In 1681 Charles II granted him a province in America as redemption of the debts owed by the King to his late father. William had chosen the name "Sylvania" but the King insisted that it be prefaced by "Penn" in honor of the Admiral. Penn was both the founder and first governor of Pennsylvania.

His commitment to religious freedom and his enlightened concepts of democratic government ensured that the state later took a leading role in the country's independence and in the creation of the Constitution of the United States of America.

Admiral Sir William Perm was buried in the city of his birth in St Mary Redcliffe, where his parents had been married and where his beloved mother was buried. He was interred in the south transept, a spot now marked by a large black stone. His monument was first erected nearby on the first pier of the south transept. The funeral achievements - that is the items carried in the spectacular funeral procession - were placed, still more prominently, on the southeast crossing-pier of the transept. Besides the 'streamers' and 'flags' as a contemporary letter called them, these surviving achievements consisted of the helmet with a wooden funerary crest, funerary gauntlets, a wooden funerary escutcheon painted with Penn's arms and the 16th century cuirass or breast plate. The banners, which were probably painted by a 'herald painter' and were not the pennants flown from his flag ship as was later to be suggested, were placed above the achievements and hung far out into the transept.

There they remained until at least 1854. A drawing made in that year (Frances M. Gresley, pen and ink drawing, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery Mb 6474) shows that the banners were now in tatters. The epic but drastic Victorian restoration of St Mary Redcliffe was already in progress and the monument and all the achievements were soon to be moved and reassembled together as a single unit very, very high on the north wall at the far west end of the nave.

The monument and the funerary achievements were conserved with the help of the Canynges Society in 1996. The blackened remnants of the banners were carefully taken down. Their condition was worse than anticipated. Very little colour or clear design was distinguishable and there were doubts that the remnants had been reassembled correctly, when they were netted nearly a century earlier. As little as 10% of one banner and at best 60% of another remained. After conservation and re-sandwiching between two layers of nylon net fabric, the painted silk was inevitably still extremely fragile. Rehanging was not an option. The conserved remnants were carefully boxed and returned to the church.

Prior to conservation, which was completed in 1998, it was hoped that well-researched replicas might be commissioned. However careful examination during and after conservation proved to be extremely disappointing and the evidence gained, even with infrared spectrometry, added little to the existing information provided by nineteenth century watercolors and drawings of the interior of the church. The making of exact replicas was not possible. Informed reconstructions would depend on considerable armorial knowledge and familiarity with funerary achievements.

The designs for the two new banners, the standard to the left and pennon to the right, are based on both the sound but fragmentary evidence of the originals and on early nineteenth century drawings of the church's interior (Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, Braikenridge Collection) as well as on the expert advice of Thomas Woodcock, Norroy and Ulster King of Arms at the College of Arms. The sizes of the original banners are unknown and the sizes of replicas are marginally different from the netted remnants in order that they complement each other to better effect. The original pennants were of painted silk. For reasons of durability, cost and evenness of hanging, the new banners were handmade by Turtle and Pearce Ltd in a double thickness heavy polyester/cotton material with embroidery stitching.

Author - Francis Greenacre - July 2006

Our grateful thanks to Francis Greenacre for all his hard work on this project and to the Canynges Society for its generous support in funding the banners.

Admiral Sir William Penn's Armour.
















This page last updated on September 09, 2011 .