The choice of the ‘HOPE ON HOPE EVER’ sledge flag as the signature image for the exhibition 'Death In The Ice: The Shocking Story Of Franklin’s Final Expedition', currently on at the National Maritime Museum, is a masterstroke in my opinion.
This flag, sewn by Jane Lady Franklin in 1852 for the final goverment searching expedition, neatly summarises the last desperate hopes of the families and loved ones of the 129 men who by that date had been missing for nearly seven years.
The use of embroidered banners inspired by medieval heraldry had an interesting origin and would have a remarkable future.
Sir Walter Scott, whose novel Ivanhoe, set in 12th-century England and first published in 1820 has been credited as the influence which "first turned men's minds in the direction of the Middle Ages".
An earlier work by Scott, the narrative poem 'The Lady of the Lake' includes the character James Fitz-James who provided the name for the First Officer of HMS Erebus.
At length his rank the stranger names,
The Knight of Snowdoun, James Fitz-James;
Lord of a barren heritage,
The illegitimate son of Sir James Gambier, Commander FitzJames was known by some in that family as "Our Lord of Snoudoun". The late William Battersby suggested that this was also a clue to the name of Fitzjames' Mother.
The sphere of romantic medievalism was greatly boosted in 1839 by the Eglinton Tournament which involved forty knights in armour plus their entourages and drew a crowd of 100,000. The spectacle was unfortunately marred by torrential rain.
Five weeks later Erebus and Terror, commanded by of James Clark Ross and Francis Crozier, set sail for the Antarctic regions.
The sledges of the various Franklin search expeditions usually carried flags with an ecclectic collection of inspiring phrases or family mottoes. They also served a practical purpose in that they enabled individual sledges to be identified at telescope distance.
Clement Markham, who, as a Naval Midshipman, had participated in the search for Franklin in the 1850's, elevated the art of sledge flags to a new height for the 1870 Nares Arctic expedition. Markham's banners were closely modelled on medieval standards, each carrying the family crest and colours of the officer who carried them. Decades later, as the driving force behind Robert Falcon Scott's Antarctic expeditions, Markham would ensure that his medieval banners were carried to the South Pole.
It has been suggested that the nostalgic sentiments with which Markham imbued Scott's expeditions played a part in making that saga a tragedy rather than the intended triumph.
The spirit of Medievalism, a defining characteristic of the long Victorian age, remains strong to this day.
Barbara Tomlinson, 2001, Chivalry at the Poles: British Sledge Flags.