FLAGS IN THE ENGLISH CIVIL WARS

Back to history files main page By Dr Lesely Prince INTRODUCTION

As in all conflicts prior to the twentieth century flags played an important role in the English Civil Wars both to signify a unit’s identity and, especially towards the end of the Civil Wars, their allegiance. That said we know remarkably little about the flags carried, and, in many cases, how they were used. Most of our knowledge is disproportionately influenced by a handful of manuscripts and printed sources from the early part of the wars, and most especially by records of the flags carried by the London Trained Bands who are in all respects a special case. In what follows I will give a rudimentary overview of what we know about the flags carried in the Civil Wars beginning with national flags, next what I call the ‘Flags of State’, then moving onto infantry colours, flags of the cavalry and those of the dragoons.

NATIONAL FLAGS AND THE FLAGS OF STATE

The whole period of the Civil Wars can easily be summarised in terms of three flags each denoting political governance of the Kingdom at different stages of the conflict. These flags I call ‘Flags of State’ in order to distinguish them from the purely national flags. During the Civil Wars the national flags of the Kingdoms were as now, the St. George for England and the St. Andrew for Scotland. Although James I had attempted to introduce a ‘Union Flag’ to symbolise his rule of both Kingdoms, this attempt did not take hold, except on the sea, and even then with considerable

This may have been the flag raised at Nottingham to herald the start of the Civil Wars. But then as now people who were not heraldic anoraks did not make such a fine distinction. There is. would only have appeared if the sovereign were present on the field. Ireland was a special case. no direct evidence to support this contention. and the Royal Stuart banner. could have carried the George. The ‘red dragon ramping in a green field’ is actually a personal banner of the Tudor monarchs (who were of Welsh origin) and its only appearance in the national ensigns was as a supporter of the Tudor arms. The Royal Stuart Banner was the personal ensign of the reigning monarch. In the early stages of the Civil Wars (1642 – 1649) both Scotland and England were monarchies ‘united’ under the rule of the Stuart kings. The most important thing about this flag is that until 1649 it denoted the head of state as a Stuart sovereign recognised as such by both sides. both Parliamentarian and Royalist Armies. George in the ‘canton’ (the upper corner of the flag next to the flag pole).reluctance. Staying with England and Scotland. nor is its modern equivalent. in heraldic terms. The flag raised there was called the ‘Royal Standard’. however. In any case. at least in the sense that most of their infantry colours seemed to be based on the St. as a principality rather than a kingdom has never figured in any of the national colours beyond its own borders. who had been in negotiation with Charles since his surrender to the Scots at Newark (who promptly sold him to Parliament) and his eventual capture by the New Model Army at . denoted at the time by a golden harp on a blue field and although it was regarded as a separate kingdom in its own right. and the Royalist Armies carried the Royal Stuart Banner. People who are unaware of the political subtleties of the period are often perplexed by the fact that Parliamentarians during the early Civil Wars still regarded Charles I as their King. but it is very unclear. Andrew. Technically speaking a standard is a long swallow tailed flag which. Distinct from the national flags were those flags denoting patterns of governance. had it ever been carried at all. had the practice of carrying the George continued from the Middle Ages. It is not known if this flag ever appeared on the field of battle. It wasn’t then. but if practice continued from earlier periods then it may well have appeared wherever the sovereign (Charles I) was personally present (as at Marston Moor and Naseby). In 1649 the Parliamentarian victors of the First Civil War. nevertheless since the time of Elizabeth I it was also regarded as a vassal state of England. a national colour except in the sense that it indicates the Head of State to be a monarch allied to the Stuart dynasty. In England it is not known if the practice was continued. during the Middle Ages armies from these countries habitually carried their national flag. but this is a very loose description that can mean practically anything. except in the sense that most infantry colours of both the Royalist and Parliamentarian armies carried a small St. During the Civil Wars the Scottish Armies continued this practice. George as a plain colour to denote the army. Wales. displays the various badges of its owner. Since the beginning of re-enactment the idea has gained currency that Parliamentarian Armies carried the St. Both England and Scotland remained independent countries. and their programme of Constitutional Monarchy (the system of governance we allegedly have today). The slogan ‘For King and Parliament’ indicated their desire to separate the King from what they regarded as ‘evil’ advisors. as English armies.

and the discovery of his plotting with both Scots and Irish armies to invade England. George for England in the first and fourth quarters. they took great exception to the execution of ‘a Scottish King’. known as the English Commonwealth. as at the beginning of the Civil Wars the flag of state once more became the Royal Stuart Banner. There is no reason to suppose that these negotiations had been carried out in bad faith by the Army. St. As such. Following the execution England became a Republic. and the Golden Harp of Ireland in the third quarter. although it was used as a naval command flag. these are in the form of Royal ensigns. despite changes in the governance of England. and the accession of his son Richard (Tumble Down Dick) to the Protectorate. with the veteran Parliamentarians the victors. The battle apparently lasted about 10 minutes. Through a complex series of political stages he was eventually declared Lord Protector. and eventually to his execution.Holdenby House. it was flying from the masthead of the Naseby when it sailed to pick up Charles Stuart at the beginning of the Restoration. and promptly embarked on the most ironic period of the Civil Wars. They were eventually defeated at Dunbar. Again its precise use is not known. Following Cromwell’s death in 1659. lost patience with the venality of the sitting Parliamentarians who seemed intent on feathering their own nests at the expense of the country as a whole. finally lost patience. This flag did make its appearance on the field of battle at least once. At the same time the Scots (whom Cromwell disliked anyway) were also causing considerable nuisance. a period of personal rule much like that of Charles I at the beginning of the Civil Wars. . Although they had earlier sold the captive Charles to the English Parliament. This was at the only ECW battle to take place on American soil between the Catholic colonists under the command of the Earl of Baltimore and a group of New Model Army veterans. It is worth noting that with the exception of the Cromwell shield this is the same distribution of symbols found on the current Royal Banner although. of course. Surmounting all this was a black shield bearing a white lion rampant for Cromwell. This is sometimes called the flag of the Two Kingdoms (England and Ireland). first Lord General of the New Model Army) to return to England and accede to the English throne as Charles II. Thus the Civil Wars turned full circle and. and to indicate this defeat the St. comprising a divided field with the St. Around 1651 Cromwell. Andrew was incorporated into the flag of the Protectorate. George next to the sleeve (or hoist) and the Golden Harp of Ireland in the fly. England once again seemed poised on the brink of Civil War. This was eventually averted by the invitation to Charles Stuart made by many old Parliamentarians (including Sir Thomas Fairfax. who had hoped for the founding of a New Jerusalem in the shape of the Commonwealth. Andrew for Scotland in the second quarter. finally led to the decision first to put him on trial as a traitor to his people. This comprises four quarters: St. but Charles’s intransigence. and immediately declared his son to be Charles II. and the Commonwealth regressed to a monarchical system of government. It was at this time that the second flag of state was adopted. and apparently this led to the founding of Annapolis.

the Lieutenant Colonel. The company commanded by next most senior officer of the regiment. in which the more senior a branch of a family the plainer their coat of arms. The patterns for these different sets of flags varied. military planners had introduced the new-fangled ‘regiment’ as the basis of an army’s organisation. we need to be cautious because the historical record is very incomplete. made of silk or taffeta. particularly towards the end of the First Civil War and especially amongst Royalist regiments. In Dragoon units. roughly one third of the length of the whole flag. although it also seems that the basic social organisation of a unit remained the Company rather than the regiment as a whole. in the upper corner next to the flag staff (technically . roughly the same size as cavalry cornets. but we also know of units who appeared to carry a rag tag of unrelated flags. Following the experiences and innovations of the Thirty Years War. small square banners. Nevertheless it seems that colours for infantry units of both sides during the Civil Wars were conceived in terms of sets of related colours rather than as single flags. but the most common versions fall into two systems. INFANTRY ENSIGNS The Civil Wars took place during a time of transition in military organisation. called guidons or cornets. and carried by dragoon units. Thus in the infantry the flag was carried by an Ensign. individual senior officers and possibly by some dragoon units. the flag carried by the Colonel’s company of a regiment comprised a plain field with no device or distinction. called ensigns. This innovation was particularly applied to the infantry. comprised a plain flag with a small square. and carried by the infantry. Their rank took the same name as the flag they carried. called cornets. it might be surprising to realise that this included plain white flags where the regiment’s colour was white. Again caution needs to be exercised because the most complete references for these systems record flags of the London Trained Bands. The practice of using a plain unadorned flag for the most senior officer of a regiment may have been a continuation of heraldic practice. Given that we are used to the idea of a white flag as a symbol for surrender. These flags were carried by the most junior commissioned officers of particular units. they appear to have been called Cornets. which overlapped the English Civil Wars. however. swallow tailed flags. and carried by cavalry units. In the first system. especially field units of the main armies are much scarcer and patchier. roughly 6’ square. We know of units who did carry integrated sets. roughly 2’ square. That said.MILITARY COLOURS Military flags of the Civil Wars were essentially of three kinds: large square banners. mostly fringed. in the cavalry by a Cornet. records for other units.

The Major’s Company bore the same as the Lt. In this system the companies commanded by the more junior captains were arranged systematically such that the senior captain (the First Captain) bore a flag similar to the Major’s but with two of the distinguishing devices. As in the previous system the Colonel bore a plain coloured flag and the Lt. as might be expected. there is the evidence of flags being issued randomly. Some. lozenges or crescents. and so on). and so on. But during the Civil Wars it seems unlikely that the flags were regarded in the same way. An account might refer to Lord Whimsy’s Red Regiment. have defied all attempts at reconstructing their pattern. Other systems. Colonel’s. bore a device called a wavy pile. One thing needs to be remembered here. and other more exotic systems. The flags of the King’s Lifeguard of Foot. In the first case. It is for these kinds of reasons that a ‘trooping . including the curious heraldic device known as the gyron. George’s Cross. stars. their relationship to heraldic arms. with a fair amount of confidence.called the canton). were also in use. the Second Captain bore three of the devices. piles. and those carried by Prince Rupert’s Regiment of Foot. This does sometimes present problems. These tended to be simple geometric devices such as balls (technically called roundels if white. gunstones or bullets if black. In some cases the device might be a more complex one. The Major’s company. and not apparently systematised. We are used to the idea of Infantry Regiments bearing a flag with the same design throughout its history. such as Lord Saye and Sele’s Regiment and Sir Jacob Astley’s Regiment but on the whole the evidence suggests that this was not common practice. if they had one. the evidence is very mixed. which descended from the canton towards the outer corner of the flag. and their relationship to coat colours. Third there are the exigencies of war – is it likely that units maintained a strict continuity in their flags when they had more important things to do? And finally there was the succession of officers as senior officers died. and from what little evidence we have probably the one adopted later and more widely than that described above. both wavy and straight. Second. Two questions always appear in relation to these flags. but these tended to be the exception rather than the rule. The second most common system. and we have no idea whether this was a coat colour or a flag colour (for what’s it’s worth I incline towards the view that it is the latter). and so on. known mainly from sketches of scraps. circles. however. To the second question we can offer. or at least patterns. such as an heraldic lion. Thus the First Captain bore one device. whether the distinguishing devices were drawn from the arms of the Colonel. that there was little if any correspondence between the coat colours of a regiment and the field colour of its flags. Colonel a plain flag bearing a canton of St. except an accidental one. flags made of silk do not last very long – my guess is a season at the most before they become little more than rags. carried flags with a distinctly more heraldic flavour. were based on the arms of the Colonel. but was distinguished by a single simple device or symbol. First. it seems. were sacked or executed. The junior captains were then denoted by a systematic increase in the numbers of a simple device as before. In the main English field armies of both sides this canton bore a St. Indeed there are accounts of regiments being furnished with colours captured from the other side and it hardly seems possible in such cases that there could be any correspondence at all. George. was similar to the first but with one difference. a flag hallowed by use and danger. the Second Captain bore two.

although this was by no means the absolute norm. But on the whole the cavalry was organised into troops. Where different troops were brigaded into a regimental structure their cornets may have shared a common field colour. and most. The ones held by the Museum of London were made from the valance of a bedspread. each 2’ square and sewn together. The design may have been identical on both sides. thus . and to lose a flag was considered deeply shameful. From what evidence we have it seems that the norm was for the fringe to be composed of two colours. The quality of the painting on these cornets is very fine indeed. CAVALRY CORNETS AND PERSONAL CORNETS Unlike the infantry. flag manufacture seems to have continued throughout the Civil Wars (possibly by members of the Painters Stainers Company although we have no evidence for this). Their flags reflected this independence. There were exceptions. or the designs might have been entirely different. It should be clear from the foregoing. and obviously painted by a professional artist. ostensibly Parliamentarian. so that the sides can be distinguished. Like infantry colours they were probably made from silk or taffeta. All the records we have of cavalry cornets are designated to a particular named officer. On the whole individual cavalry officers used their cornets to make personal statements about themselves or their opponents. treated with the utmost respect. and from accounts recorded by Sir Samuel Luke these included flags. one may have been the mirror of the other. The London merchants. once a flag had been issued to a unit. and Cromwell’s double sized regiment of Ironsides is a case in point. One other note of interest. of course. We are used to the idea of flags carried by opposing sides being of a strikingly different form. make Biblical allusions. Apparently so. which had a more or less independent identity. seem to have been fringed. that such was not the case in the Civil Wars. Indeed there are documented cases of soldiers (usually officers for some reason) who. These flags were roughly 2’ square. so that the soldiers could recognise their own flags. the cavalry was only loosely organised into regiments. But from the evidence of Second Civil War cornets held by the Museum of London they were made of two pieces of cloth. or quote directly from the Bible. As the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition put it: Peace is good for business. especially at the beginning of the civil wars. Regiments on each side could conceivably have carried strikingly similar flags. usually an heraldic colour and an heraldic metal (gold or silver. however. if not all. with the design painted separately on each side. How they were made is an interesting question not yet fully answered. war is good for business. having become isolated from their own units make towards the flags of what they take to be their own side only to find themselves captured by their enemies.of the colour’ was so important. were known to send supplies to the Royalists at Oxford. primarily on the Parliamentarian side. Apart from that there was no real systematisation amongst cavalry colours. although some of the more interesting ones are not. it was. Many of the cornets. as now. and it seems the design was probably one of purely personal preference. That said. Each option seems to have been used by at least one officer. black or white). Many are allegorical.

were they carried by the troop of horse nominally commanded by the officer in question as part of his own regiment of horse. Quite what these personal cornets were used for is a matter of doubt. This would suggest. is that the personal cornet accompanied the officer wherever he went so that people would know him. There is a fair smattering of arms or hands descending from Heaven. so there was no doubting his loyalties! The funniest. The records also contain information about the personal cornets of senior officers. Amongst Royalists (including the turncoat Sir John Cary) there was a penchant for making rude comments about their opponents. but it is only a guess. it seems. misleading. One sometimes wonders about Royalist preoccupations in this war. A favourite jibe was directed against the Earl of Essex who was widely thought to have been cuckolded. and that borne by his friend and opponent Sir William Waller. The more interesting cornets take the form of political comment – indeed some of them really count as political cartoons painted on silk. and fringed. DRAGOON CORNETS The dragoons are an interesting topic in their own right. Nor. some armoured some not. such as that borne by Sir Ralph Hopton when serving as Lt. Independent or Radical Anglican. and probably not much smaller in dimension. importantly. They certainly were not carried by the particular officers’ lifeguards because we have separate evidence for some of these colours. and not a version of the troop cornet. and a few with anchors. The best guess. denoting the figure of Christ. apart from issuing orders by trumpet call might also have to approach the enemy for a parlay or similar activity. which reinforces the image of troops of horse as independently minded.reflecting the overwhelmingly Puritan nature of the Parliamentary armies. General of Artillery. which has never yet been illustrated. eschews allegory for direct comment – it shows the King’s head being lopped off by a bloody axe. bearing the motto ‘Ready with either weapon’. was the personal representative of the captain of the troop and not the representative of the troop as a whole. was apparently adopted by an unnamed Royalist officer. They are sometimes called mounted infantry. Parliamentarians tended to be more serious minded. But the striking thing about them. but this misses the point and is. One final note. The trumpet banners carried by troops of horse. as far as the little evidence we have suggests. that the trumpeter who. but all bearing some form of threat of punishment. As might be expected. both bore striking devices. particularly given the extreme youth of some of the combatants. furthermore. and can be quite hilarious. There are accounts of infantry having been . before moving onto the dragoons. whether Presbyterian. seemed to have been square like the cornets. in my opinion. is that the banner seems to have borne the coat of arms of the troop captain. On the whole these seem to be plain damask. there is a lot of boringly macho posturing – Death or Glory imagery and similar motifs. The cornet adopted by William Rainsborough in 1649. It depicted a naked man with a sword in one hand and an erect penis in the other. falling as they do in between infantry and cavalry. for example. but even amongst them can be found interesting political comment. although some.

There was a profusion of patterns for the guidon. although some may have carried cavalry pattern cornets. on the other hand were horse soldiers who habitually moved on horseback. distinguished the troops by an increase in the number of gunstones (black balls). Some followed the cavalry pattern of distinctive and unique designs for each troop. in order to move them rapidly over terrain. others. George in the canton. That this was the accepted practice is evidenced by the excitement caused by the cavalry charge of Okey’s Dragoons at Naseby (the first such recorded charge by dragoons in history). But such examples are rare and notable and infantry so moved remained infantry. . The cornets of the dragoons were usually the swallow tailed guidon. Distinctions on dragoon cornets reflected their position as intermediate to cavalry and infantry. although they usually fought on foot. Some bore a St. Those carried by Waller’s dragoons were parallel rectangles with rounded tails and there is another in the records that looks for all the world like the guidon of the US 7th Cavalry. but other patterns existed too. Dragoons. some did not.mounted on horseback. Whatever the pattern. Perhaps their nearest modern equivalent is mechanised infantry or even. Overall dragoons seem to have operated as a sort of flying column. however. Most had an odd shape that tapered to the swallow tails. like Waller’s Dragoons. perhaps. including pikemen. airborne infantry. moving rapidly across the battlefield to where they were needed and dismounting to fight on foot. most dragoon units seem to have been distinguished by the swallow tail pattern.