In the summer months the wide sandy expanse of Filey Bay in Yorkshire is a magnet for holidaymakers. However, the vast majority of those splashing in the water and building sand castles are blissfully unaware that the bay was the location of one of the most famous sea fights in history, the 1779 Battle of Flamborough Head.
Beneath the waves of the North Sea lies one of the most famous ship wrecks in history, the Bonhomme Richard. For it was beneath the high chalk cliffs of Flamborough Head that the final act of the Battle of Flamborough Head took place; HMS Serapis and the Bonhomme Richard, embraced in their death dance, the latter ablaze, destined to slip under the waves and into the history books.
In 2019 the British company Merlin Burrows caused controversy when they claimed to have located the wreck of the Bonhomme Richard close to the shore. The received wisdom had been that the wreck was six miles out at sea. American investigators had invested time, money and emotional effort into that theory. Therefore, it is perhaps unsurprising that Merlin Burrows revelation was received in a lukewarm manner. The story of John Paul Jones and the Bonhomme Richard is so central to the self-image of the United States, and particularly the US Navy, that the wreck has become something of a holy grail. Perhaps it needed to be discovered by an American?
For the people of Filey, the town overlooking Filey Bay, the actual location of the wreck is in some ways immaterial. Whether it is six miles out, or in the shallows of the bay, the consensus is that the Battle of Flamborough Head reached its denouement within sight of the town. Whatever the location, the claimed discovery of the wreck of the Bonhomme Richard has reinvigorated efforts to highlight the Battle of Flamborough Head and attract visitors, both domestic and international, to Filey.
In 2019, in the beautiful White Lodge Hotel that overlooks the waters of Filey Bay, Merlin Burrows gave a presentation on the discovery of the wreck. The then owners of the hotel, James and Kim Hodgson, made an impassioned plea to begin putting together a series of events that would build towards the 250th anniversary of the battle in 2029. It is particularly resonant to American-born Kim Hodgson, as she, like countless US school children, was taught about John Paul Jones and the Bonhomme Richard in her classroom.
The story of the Bonhomme Richard has also haunted the local imagination. For decades Filey-born Tony Green has been researching the battle and its aftermath. Tony was instrumental in the signing of an accord of friendship between Filey and Calvert County in Maryland. He has agreed to become the chairman of the recently formed Filey Bay Bonhomme Richard Group. Tony’s experience and links are invaluable as the group begins to build a programme of annual events.
Although the global coronavirus pandemic has slowed the group’s work, on the evening of 23 September 2020, the Serapis flag was raised on the flag pole of the White Lodge Hotel and a rocket fired to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Flamborough Head. The flag was flown for the remainder of the month and proved to be a huge talking point among locals and visitors. The hotel staff found themselves being bombarded with questions about the flag. They quickly became acquainted with the Battle of Flamborough Head and the significance of the Serapis flag. It was, of course, fashioned when the captured HMS Serapis was sailed into the neutral Dutch port of Texel. The British ambassador claimed that John Paul Jones was little more than a pirate, so to avoid arrest the crew made the ‘Serapis’ flag and flew it from the mast. The Dutch recognised the flag and it passed into American folklore as one of the first flags of the US Navy.
Another flag will be flown in Filey during July, that of Kirkcudbrightshire, this will be a nod to the birthplace of John Paul Jones and the museum at Kirkbean. The flag also has a symbolism to the deep history of both Kirkbean and Filey, as it includes the cross of St Cuthbert. The Saint’s body rested at Kirkcudbright for seven years after it was removed from Lindisfarne during the Viking Raids of the 990s. Both Kirkcudbright and Filey were part of the Dark Age Kingdom of Northumbria that predated the establishment of England and Scotland.
Filey-based historian Dr David Pendleton has agreed to become the Filey Bay Bonhomme Richard Group’s head of research and is currently probing the story of HMS Countess of Scarborough. An often overlooked participant in the Battle of Flamborough Head, the diminutive ship was built and manned in Yorkshire and thus has a particular resonance with the local population. The Countess of Scarborough made such a nuisance of herself that it took two French frigates to subdue her, an action that went a long way to facilitating the escape of the valuable convoy the Serapis and Countess of Scarborough were escorting.
Many other initiatives are being explored, including the possibility of an Obelisk to commemorate the Battle of Flamborough Head and annual events surrounding the anniversary of the battle. In September a dinner is being held at the White Lodge Hotel and invitations are being sent to high-ranking naval officials from the Royal Navy and the United States Navy. There are hopes of a visit from ships from both navies and once again the Serapis flag will fly from the White Lodge Hotel’s flagpole.
Perhaps most importantly, the establishment of links between the John Paul Jones Birthplace Museum, the town of Whitehaven and Filey can develop a John Paul Jones Trail across South West Scotland and Northern England. As the pandemic begins to release its grip, the foundations are being laid to commemorate and celebrate, not only a battle between two nations, but also one of the World’s great alliances, between the peoples of Britain and America.
Dr David Pendleton