Flags in the Civil War Period

From FFX Learning
(Redirected from Flags)
Jump to: navigation, search

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.


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 reluctance. Both England and Scotland remained independent countries. Ireland was a special case, 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, nevertheless since the time of Elizabeth I it was also regarded as a vassal state of England. Wales, as a principality rather than a kingdom has never figured in any of the national colours beyond its own borders. 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.

Staying with England and Scotland, during the Middle Ages armies from these countries habitually carried their national flag. During the Civil Wars the Scottish Armies continued this practice, at least in the sense that most of their infantry colours seemed to be based on the St. Andrew. In England it is not known if the practice was continued, except in the sense that most infantry colours of both the Royalist and Parliamentarian armies carried a small St. George in the ‘canton’ (the upper corner of the flag next to the flag pole). Since the beginning of re-enactment the idea has gained currency that Parliamentarian Armies carried the St. George as a plain colour to denote the army, and the Royalist Armies carried the Royal Stuart Banner. There is, however, no direct evidence to support this contention. In any case, had the practice of carrying the George continued from the Middle Ages, both Parliamentarian and Royalist Armies, as English armies, could have carried the George, and the Royal Stuart banner, had it ever been carried at all, would only have appeared if the sovereign were present on the field.

Distinct from the national flags were those flags denoting patterns of governance. 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 Royal Stuart Banner was the personal ensign of the reigning monarch. It wasn’t then, nor is its modern equivalent, a national colour except in the sense that it indicates the Head of State to be a monarch allied to the Stuart dynasty. It is not known if this flag ever appeared on the field of battle, 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). This may have been the flag raised at Nottingham to herald the start of the Civil Wars, but it is very unclear. The flag raised there was called the ‘Royal Standard’, but this is a very loose description that can mean practically anything. Technically speaking a standard is a long swallow tailed flag which, in heraldic terms, displays the various badges of its owner. But then as now people who were not heraldic anoraks did not make such a fine distinction.

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. 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. The slogan ‘For King and Parliament’ indicated their desire to separate the King from what they regarded as ‘evil’ advisors, and their programme of Constitutional Monarchy (the system of governance we allegedly have today).

In 1649 the Parliamentarian victors of the First Civil War, 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 Holdenby House, finally lost patience. There is no reason to suppose that these negotiations had been carried out in bad faith by the Army, but Charles’s intransigence, and the discovery of his plotting with both Scots and Irish armies to invade England, finally led to the decision first to put him on trial as a traitor to his people, and eventually to his execution. Following the execution England became a Republic, known as the English Commonwealth. It was at this time that the second flag of state was adopted, comprising a divided field with the St. George next to the sleeve (or hoist) and the Golden Harp of Ireland in the fly. This is sometimes called the flag of the Two Kingdoms (England and Ireland). Again its precise use is not known, although it was used as a naval command flag. As such, despite changes in the governance of England, it was flying from the masthead of the Naseby when it sailed to pick up Charles Stuart at the beginning of the Restoration. This flag did make its appearance on the field of battle at least once. 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. The battle apparently lasted about 10 minutes, with the veteran Parliamentarians the victors, and apparently this led to the founding of Annapolis.

Around 1651 Cromwell, who had hoped for the founding of a New Jerusalem in the shape of the Commonwealth, 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. Through a complex series of political stages he was eventually declared Lord Protector, and promptly embarked on the most ironic period of the Civil Wars, a period of personal rule much like that of Charles I at the beginning of the Civil Wars. At the same time the Scots (whom Cromwell disliked anyway) were also causing considerable nuisance. Although they had earlier sold the captive Charles to the English Parliament, they took great exception to the execution of ‘a Scottish King’, and immediately declared his son to be Charles II. They were eventually defeated at Dunbar, and to indicate this defeat the St. Andrew was incorporated into the flag of the Protectorate. This comprises four quarters: St. George for England in the first and fourth quarters; St. Andrew for Scotland in the second quarter; and the Golden Harp of Ireland in the third quarter. Surmounting all this was a black shield bearing a white lion rampant for Cromwell. 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, these are in the form of Royal ensigns.

Following Cromwell’s death in 1659, and the accession of his son Richard (Tumble Down Dick) to the Protectorate, 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, 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, as at the beginning of the Civil Wars the flag of state once more became the Royal Stuart Banner, and the Commonwealth regressed to a monarchical system of government.


Military flags of the Civil Wars were essentially of three kinds: large square banners, called ensigns, roughly 6’ square, made of silk or taffeta, and carried by the infantry; small square banners, called cornets, roughly 2’ square, mostly fringed, and carried by cavalry units, individual senior officers and possibly by some dragoon units; swallow tailed flags, called guidons or cornets, roughly the same size as cavalry cornets, and carried by dragoon units. These flags were carried by the most junior commissioned officers of particular units. Their rank took the same name as the flag they carried. Thus in the infantry the flag was carried by an Ensign; in the cavalry by a Cornet. In Dragoon units, however, they appear to have been called Cornets.


The Civil Wars took place during a time of transition in military organisation. Following the experiences and innovations of the Thirty Years War, which overlapped the English Civil Wars, military planners had introduced the new-fangled ‘regiment’ as the basis of an army’s organisation. This innovation was particularly applied to the infantry, although it also seems that the basic social organisation of a unit remained the Company rather than the regiment as a whole. 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. That said, we need to be cautious because the historical record is very incomplete. We know of units who did carry integrated sets, but we also know of units who appeared to carry a rag tag of unrelated flags, particularly towards the end of the First Civil War and especially amongst Royalist regiments.

The patterns for these different sets of flags varied, but the most common versions fall into two systems. Again caution needs to be exercised because the most complete references for these systems record flags of the London Trained Bands; records for other units, especially field units of the main armies are much scarcer and patchier.

In the first system, the flag carried by the Colonel’s company of a regiment comprised a plain field with no device or distinction. Given that we are used to the idea of a white flag as a symbol for surrender, it might be surprising to realise that this included plain white flags where the regiment’s colour was white. The practice of using a plain unadorned flag for the most senior officer of a regiment may have been a continuation of heraldic practice, in which the more senior a branch of a family the plainer their coat of arms. The company commanded by next most senior officer of the regiment, the Lieutenant Colonel, comprised a plain flag with a small square, roughly one third of the length of the whole flag, in the upper corner next to the flag staff (technically called the canton). In the main English field armies of both sides this canton bore a St. George’s Cross. The Major’s Company bore the same as the Lt. Colonel’s, but was distinguished by a single simple device or symbol. These tended to be simple geometric devices such as balls (technically called roundels if white; gunstones or bullets if black, and so on), stars, circles, lozenges or crescents. In some cases the device might be a more complex one, such as an heraldic lion, but these tended to be the exception rather than the rule. 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; the Second Captain bore three of the devices, and so on.

The second most common system, and from what little evidence we have probably the one adopted later and more widely than that described above, was similar to the first but with one difference. As in the previous system the Colonel bore a plain coloured flag and the Lt. Colonel a plain flag bearing a canton of St. George. The Major’s company, however, bore a device called a wavy pile, which descended from the canton towards the outer corner of the flag. The junior captains were then denoted by a systematic increase in the numbers of a simple device as before. Thus the First Captain bore one device; the Second Captain bore two, and so on.

Other systems, or at least patterns, were also in use, including the curious heraldic device known as the gyron; piles, both wavy and straight; and other more exotic systems. The flags of the King’s Lifeguard of Foot, as might be expected, carried flags with a distinctly more heraldic flavour, and not apparently systematised, and those carried by Prince Rupert’s Regiment of Foot, known mainly from sketches of scraps, have defied all attempts at reconstructing their pattern, if they had one.

Two questions always appear in relation to these flags; their relationship to heraldic arms; and their relationship to coat colours. In the first case, whether the distinguishing devices were drawn from the arms of the Colonel, the evidence is very mixed. Some, it seems, were based on the arms of the Colonel, 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. 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, except an accidental one. To the second question we can offer, with a fair amount of confidence, that there was little if any correspondence between the coat colours of a regiment and the field colour of its flags. This does sometimes present problems. An account might refer to Lord Whimsy’s Red Regiment, 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).

One thing needs to be remembered here. We are used to the idea of Infantry Regiments bearing a flag with the same design throughout its history, a flag hallowed by use and danger. But during the Civil Wars it seems unlikely that the flags were regarded in the same way. First, flags made of silk do not last very long – my guess is a season at the most before they become little more than rags. Second, there is the evidence of flags being issued randomly. 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, were sacked or executed. It is for these kinds of reasons that a ‘trooping of the colour’ was so important, so that the soldiers could recognise their own flags. That said, once a flag had been issued to a unit, it was, as now, treated with the utmost respect, and to lose a flag was considered deeply shameful.

We are used to the idea of flags carried by opposing sides being of a strikingly different form, so that the sides can be distinguished. It should be clear from the foregoing, however, that such was not the case in the Civil Wars. Regiments on each side could conceivably have carried strikingly similar flags. Indeed there are documented cases of soldiers (usually officers for some reason) who, 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.

One other note of interest, 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). The London merchants, ostensibly Parliamentarian, were known to send supplies to the Royalists at Oxford, and from accounts recorded by Sir Samuel Luke these included flags. As the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition put it: Peace is good for business; war is good for business. Apparently so.


Unlike the infantry, the cavalry was only loosely organised into regiments, especially at the beginning of the civil wars. There were exceptions, of course, and Cromwell’s double sized regiment of Ironsides is a case in point. But on the whole the cavalry was organised into troops, which had a more or less independent identity. Their flags reflected this independence. All the records we have of cavalry cornets are designated to a particular named officer, and it seems the design was probably one of purely personal preference. Where different troops were brigaded into a regimental structure their cornets may have shared a common field colour, although this was by no means the absolute norm. Apart from that there was no real systematisation amongst cavalry colours.

These flags were roughly 2’ square, and most, if not all, seem to have been fringed. From what evidence we have it seems that the norm was for the fringe to be composed of two colours, usually an heraldic colour and an heraldic metal (gold or silver; black or white). How they were made is an interesting question not yet fully answered. But from the evidence of Second Civil War cornets held by the Museum of London they were made of two pieces of cloth, each 2’ square and sewn together, with the design painted separately on each side. The quality of the painting on these cornets is very fine indeed, and obviously painted by a professional artist. The design may have been identical on both sides, one may have been the mirror of the other, or the designs might have been entirely different. Each option seems to have been used by at least one officer. Like infantry colours they were probably made from silk or taffeta. The ones held by the Museum of London were made from the valance of a bedspread.

On the whole individual cavalry officers used their cornets to make personal statements about themselves or their opponents. Many are allegorical, although some of the more interesting ones are not. Many of the cornets, primarily on the Parliamentarian side, make Biblical allusions, or quote directly from the Bible, thus reflecting the overwhelmingly Puritan nature of the Parliamentary armies, whether Presbyterian, Independent or Radical Anglican. There is a fair smattering of arms or hands descending from Heaven, some armoured some not, but all bearing some form of threat of punishment, and a few with anchors, denoting the figure of Christ. As might be expected, particularly given the extreme youth of some of the combatants, there is a lot of boringly macho posturing – Death or Glory imagery and similar motifs.

The more interesting cornets take the form of political comment – indeed some of them really count as political cartoons painted on silk, and can be quite hilarious. Amongst Royalists (including the turncoat Sir John Cary) there was a penchant for making rude comments about their opponents. A favourite jibe was directed against the Earl of Essex who was widely thought to have been cuckolded.

Parliamentarians tended to be more serious minded, but even amongst them can be found interesting political comment. The cornet adopted by William Rainsborough in 1649, for example, eschews allegory for direct comment – it shows the King’s head being lopped off by a bloody axe, so there was no doubting his loyalties!

The funniest, in my opinion, which has never yet been illustrated, was apparently adopted by an unnamed Royalist officer. It depicted a naked man with a sword in one hand and an erect penis in the other, bearing the motto ‘Ready with either weapon’. One sometimes wonders about Royalist preoccupations in this war.

The records also contain information about the personal cornets of senior officers. On the whole these seem to be plain damask, and fringed, although some, such as that borne by Sir Ralph Hopton when serving as Lt. General of Artillery, and that borne by his friend and opponent Sir William Waller, both bore striking devices. Quite what these personal cornets were used for is a matter of doubt. They certainly were not carried by the particular officers’ lifeguards because we have separate evidence for some of these colours. Nor, it seems, were they carried by the troop of horse nominally commanded by the officer in question as part of his own regiment of horse. The best guess, but it is only a guess, is that the personal cornet accompanied the officer wherever he went so that people would know him.

One final note, before moving onto the dragoons. The trumpet banners carried by troops of horse, as far as the little evidence we have suggests, seemed to have been square like the cornets, and probably not much smaller in dimension. But the striking thing about them, which reinforces the image of troops of horse as independently minded, is that the banner seems to have borne the coat of arms of the troop captain, and not a version of the troop cornet. This would suggest, importantly, that the trumpeter who, apart from issuing orders by trumpet call might also have to approach the enemy for a parlay or similar activity, was the personal representative of the captain of the troop and not the representative of the troop as a whole.


The dragoons are an interesting topic in their own right, falling as they do in between infantry and cavalry. They are sometimes called mounted infantry, but this misses the point and is, furthermore, misleading. There are accounts of infantry having been mounted on horseback, including pikemen, in order to move them rapidly over terrain. But such examples are rare and notable and infantry so moved remained infantry. Dragoons, on the other hand were horse soldiers who habitually moved on horseback, although they usually fought on foot. 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). Overall dragoons seem to have operated as a sort of flying column, moving rapidly across the battlefield to where they were needed and dismounting to fight on foot. Perhaps their nearest modern equivalent is mechanised infantry or even, perhaps, airborne infantry.

The cornets of the dragoons were usually the swallow tailed guidon, although some may have carried cavalry pattern cornets. There was a profusion of patterns for the guidon. Most had an odd shape that tapered to the swallow tails, but other patterns existed too. 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.

Distinctions on dragoon cornets reflected their position as intermediate to cavalry and infantry. Some followed the cavalry pattern of distinctive and unique designs for each troop, others, like Waller’s Dragoons, distinguished the troops by an increase in the number of gunstones (black balls). Some bore a St. George in the canton, some did not. Whatever the pattern, however, most dragoon units seem to have been distinguished by the swallow tail pattern.

(c) 2011 Dr Lesley Prince