Why did ships have figureheads?
Figureheads are magnificent things. Stroll along the ranks of huge, colourfully painted ones in the naval museums at Greenwich or Portsmouth, and you cannot help but be impressed by the skill and effort that went into carving them. All of which begs the question why ship builders went to the effort and expense of commissioning such elaborate works of art to adorn the front of their vessels? They have no apparent function for the ship other than decoration. With the rise of modernity and corporate accountancy in the late nineteenth century, the figurehead quickly disappeared. The recently launched aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth may be the latest and largest ship in the Royal Navy’s history, but no colossal grey-haired monarch in a fuchsia dress, handbag raised aloft, glares down on the world from her bows.
The origin of the figurehead is ancient. The Greeks and Egyptians painted large eyes on the front of their earliest ships, supposedly to reassure their seaman, ever a superstitious breed, that the ship would then be able to see its way home. From this simple beginning more elaborate carved figures developed, often symbolising something about the warship. Phoenicians favoured horses, to indicate their vessels swiftness. Greeks liked the wild boar for its stubborn ferocity, while Roman ships often had the figure of a wooden centurion, symbol of military order and discipline. A thousand years later Norse raiders were terrorising the coast of Europe in ships bearing fierce dragon heads before them, with lolling red tongues and blazing eyes. The weavers of the Bayeux tapestry chose a more noble figurehead for the vessel that took William the Conqueror across the Channel in 1066. His ship had a lion on its prow.
The lion remained a popular figurehead amongst vessels of all nations during the early modern period, along with other heraldic animals such as unicorns and dragons. As the golden age of sail dawned, ships grew ever larger, and their figureheads became much more impressive. Now they could be used to convey a powerful message about the ship and those who built her. Take the Naseby, one of the great ships of Oliver Cromwell’s commonwealth navy. The figurehead showed the great man himself in full armour and on horseback, trampling over six little figures dressed to represent a Scot, an Irishman, a Dutchman, a Frenchman, a Spaniard and for good measure, an Englishman too.
The figurehead was not just the preserve of the military. The merchant marine too commissioned them for their ships. They can tell you much about the ship’s owner. We can deduce that Jock Willis, whose favourite tea clipper was the Cutty Sark, had a considerable love of the Robert Burn’s poem Tam O’ Shanter. The poem has a scene in which the main character is chased home by witches, one of whom catches the tail of his horse. The figurehead shows the witch, arm outstretched, with the horse’s tail dangling from her grasp.
So what connects all these figureheads, back to the very birth of the ship in the ancient world? Surely it is the superstitions of the mariners that sailed in them. From the war galleys of the Greeks to Nannie, the witch on the prow of the Cutty Sark, the form of decoration may have changed, but one feature has remained the same. They all have eyes, so that their ship can see its way home.
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Philip K Allan is an author of historical naval fiction. His debut novel, The Captain’s Nephew is available to order now from all good online retailers. Click here to learn more.