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A flag1 is a piece of material fixed to a staff which represents a person or a group of people with a common interest or purpose (mainly country representation or military usage). Flags may come in any size and shape, but the most common is square or rectangular. Flags are also known as 'colours' or ensigns.
It is important to note that the significance of the colours used on the flags is based upon European ideals. To what degree this influence extended to the rest of the world (as it undoubtedly did) is not within the scope of this Entry.
The History of Flags
In military terms the flag or colour is the emblem that represents the life of a regiment, especially battle honours. The pride in the regimental flag was such that, if it was captured, the regiment would be disbanded.
As far back as 9AD, Emperor Augustus disbanded legions which lost their Eagle2 in the Teutoburger Wald. Arminius was a Germanic chief who had been raised in Rome and trained in the Roman army. His people were oppressed by the Roman governor Publius Quinctilius Varus, so he organised a rebellion, destroying eight legions in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest (Teutoburger Wald) and forcing the Romans back to the Rhine. The legions' Eagles were captured and the Roman officers (except for Varus who had killed himself with his own sword when faced with defeat) sacrificed on pagan altars. The defeat was effectively the end of the expansion of the Roman Empire north of the Rhine. Only three Eagles were ever recovered: Legion XIX; a second Eagle of an unknown legion; and a third Eagle was discovered 30 years later and returned to Rome.
The Middle Ages
Flags came to prominence with the demise of the armoured knight around 1490, when firearms began to be used. Hitherto the personal arms and colours of a knight enabled his peers to monitor his conduct during a battle, and were of little relevance to the common soldier.
When Coats of Arms were no longer worn, the identification of the leader and his company commanders had to be displayed in some other way, so the men in a regiment could then follow the action and have a rallying point. Common soldiers were easier controlled by their officers and more complex tactics could be used in battles. As time went on, the commander's personal colour was succeeded by the regimental or national colour or flag.
From about 1540, the flag or colour was carried by a commissioned officer known as an ensign who took his rank from the fact that he carried the ensign. Although this rank was abolished in 1871, nowadays, the status of the flag is celebrated in the UK in the annual ceremony of 'Trooping the Colour' on the monarch's official birthday. This practice started when a regiment's colours were used as rallying points for soldiers engaged in battle. Commanders would have the ensigns, carrying the regimental colours, march between the ranks during parades so that the soldiers would become accustomed to the appearance of their regimental colours.
The 17th Century
In the 17th Century military flags underwent a proliferation due to the English Civil War, as various new regiments were created on both sides. A regimental commander would need his own flag, the purpose being to tell everyone who you were, and who you supported. However, there was a secondary message in the colours chosen for one's flag. These could refer to what you stood for, if your family had a Coat of Arms, for example, this would normally form the basis of your flag.
Basic Rules for 17th Century Flags
The flags were hand-painted on material (including silk) and measured about six feet square. The colours and devices (another name for an emblem or a badge) that were used are somewhat speculative, as unfortunately most of the records for the regimental flags of the period have been lost. Fortunately, a few which still exist make the basics clear.
The flag of the Colonel3 who was given the task of recruiting and equipping a regiment at his own expense4, was reported to have been a plain ground - that is a flag of one colour with no other markings. The company colours were the same background as the Colonel's colour, however, they commonly had a St George's Cross in the top corner nearest the flag staff, which was visible from both sides (a Canton), and a device. Almost anything could be used for the device: stars, orbs, lions, dogs, swords, dragons - the list is almost endless5. The devices on the company flags were laid out as on playing cards for example: Ace (or 1), 2, 3, 4, 5; and were carried by an officer (the ensign) who lived with the flag and would protect it with his life. One to five of the devices were used depending upon the seniority of the Captain commanding the company. The more devices on the flag, the lower the seniority.
Records show that there were other systems used. The Venn design, named after the English logician John Venn, is where an area of overlap between two shapes (sets) contains elements that are common to both sets, representing a third set. Nevertheless, the colour rules remained the same on both sides.
The gyronny system was a popular flag-type with the Royalist army. To get an idea of how this looked try the following exercise:
Take a sheet of paper and draw a cross ( + ) on it, dividing the sheet into even quarters.
Next draw another cross over the top from corner to corner ( X ): that is the basic pattern.
Now choose two colours and fill the shapes formed, the first shape with one colour, then the next with the other, until you get back to the start.
That's it, now you have drawn a flag in the style of the gyronny system!
The Basic Colours
- Represents: Courage and/or gallantry, military strength together with determination and dignity, upheaval, hardiness, Royal blood.
- Heraldic term: Gules.
- Represents: Hope, joy, loyalty to a cause or leader, the country, land, fruitfulness.
- Heraldic term: Vert.
- Represents: Love of liberty, loyalty to a cause, peace and prosperity, vigilance, determination, certainty in a cause.
- Heraldic term: Azure.
- Represents: Generosity, the Sun, material riches, a cause, justice for all men.
- Heraldic term: Gold or Or.
- Represents: Freedom from strife, honesty, spotlessness, innocence, piety, holiness.
- Heraldic term: Argent, also lune, pearl or silver.
- Represents: Determination, defeat and destruction of enemies, dependability.
- Heraldic term: Sable.
- Represents: Royal majesty; sovereignty and justice.
- Heraldic term: Purpure.
- Represents: Worthy ambition, selfless zeal.
- Heraldic term: Tawny or tenne.
- Represents: Patient on the field of battle, and yet ultimately triumphant in the fray.
- Heraldic term: Sanguine.
Take the flag of St George (a white flag with a red cross). One interpretation of the meaning could be that the white background represented peace and purity, whilst the red cross represented courage and military strength.
A Quarter Or Canton
Often a St George Cross, top corner nearest the flag staff, sometimes with special symbols of regimental honour or service.
It is probable that the colour rules of the flags could be reflected in the uniform coats of the regiments chosen by their commanders in the English Civil War, three of the Parliament regiments are given for example:
- The Earl Of Essex: Orange coat: Ambition. White Lining: Purity.
- The Earl Of Stamford: Light blue coat: Freedom. White Lining: Purity.
- Lord Brooks: Purple coat: Justice. White Lining: Purity.
The combinations used, appear to give a clear and definite message. This could also have been calculated to have an effect upon the morale of the men.