I received an email yesterday from Peter Combs of Gloucester, Mass, with what I think is a very exciting piece of 18th century heraldry and asking for help in understanding it.
Mr. Combs’s wife is a descendant of Thomas Hancock (John Hancock’s uncle) who died in 1764. This piece, which he described as painted on silk or fine cotton, about 14 x 16 inches (36 x 41 cm), has been passed down through the family and traditionally identified as a "funeral flag." He asked if I knew anything about such things and how it would have been used.
Here’s an abbreviated version of my response, with some of the elementary heraldry removed:
I think this is probably what was known as a funeral escutcheon (or scutcheon). It is rather small to be a flag, although it might have been. If so, I’d think it would be painted on both sides.
But in any case its connection with the funeral of Thomas Hancock makes perfect sense. The shield shows the arms of Hancock impaling Henchman indicating a Hancock husband and a Henchman wife. [Note: Thomas Hancock’s wife was Lydia Henchman.] The black background behind the Hancock side of the shield signifies that it is the husband who has died, the white background on the Henchman side that the wife has survived. [As Lydia did.]
In the colonies in the 17th century-early 18th century, the funerals of especially prominent and well-to-do people were often patterned—in a somewhat scaled-down version—on those given for the nobility and high gentry in England, with extensive display of the family heraldry on hatchments, banners, small “funeral escutcheons” like this one displayed on the bier, and even smaller ones above the browband on the harnesses of the horses pulling the cortege. In 17th century England, this was all regulated by the king’s heralds—how many flags of what size and so on for an earl, how many for a knight, how many for an esquire’s widow, and so on. In America, of course, there were no heralds, but there also wasn’t as big an infrastructure to produce large numbers of flags, escutcheons, and so on, so the scale of the display was controlled by the size of the deceased’s purse and a sense of what the community would consider excessively ostentatious for the deceased’s station. Several such funerals are well documented, such as Governor John Leverett’s in 1679 and Wait Winthrop’s in 1717. The heraldry-related expenses for Winthrop’s funeral included eight silk escutcheons (at 12 shillings apiece). I think what you have is such an escutcheon, and that 6-10 of them are likely to have been made for Thomas Hancock’s funeral based on the numbers used in these earlier ones.
Now my first reaction on seeing this and Googling “Thomas Hancock” was that Thomas’s death in 1764 was a few decades too late for this scale of display. The General Court tried to suppress such extravagant funerals in the early 1700s because they offended the clergy and were depriving heirs of too large a share of the deceased’s estate—not so much the heraldry as the rings, scarves, etc., etc., given as gifts to the mourners. But I see after some more Googling that Thomas Hancock’s funeral was said to have been a throwback to the old ways, the last of the old-style funerals with all the trimmings. So a significant heraldic display would have been quite in keeping with that. There was almost certainly a hatchment painted for the occasion, partly because it still would have been the thing for a prominent family to do up until 1800 or so, and partly because a painting of Boston Common made in 1768 shows a large hatchment above the door of the Hancock house (but the online images of this painting are too small to make out the heraldry on the hatchment).
Now I see looking at our roll of early American arms that we have the arms of Henchman with the chevron sable and the lionsi in chief argent. But this blazon is based on tinctures speculatively assigned by Bolton to engravings of the Henchman arms on a seal and pieces of silver. I will go back and correct the roll to reflect this new source. I’ve suggested that Mr. Combs have a textile specialist examine the piece to verify the dating.
Edited to add: Roll corrected/amended.
What an amazing find!!
Very exciting indeed.
Mr. Combs advises me that the piece was examined by experts from Historic New England and dated to the correct period.
Wow - a great find and a correction for our roll. Nice twofer.
Slight correction: I see that Mr Combs said his wife is a descendant of the Thomas Hancock family, not of Thomas himself, who was childless.
Exciting discovery, thanks for sharing this Joe!
A nice find!!—and a possible model for those of us old enough to ponder our own mortality to consider along with which Psalms and hymns we might want included when our turn comes.
An exciting discovery! Thanks for the update and ... "the rest of the story."
Very cool find and great artwork, too!
Here is the auction result from back in 2013: http://northeastauctions.com/product/rare-and-important-mourning-escutcheon-bearing-the-hancock-henchman-family-coat-of-arms-from-the-funeral-of-thomas-hancock-boston-august-1764/