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England (United Kingdom)

Last modified: 2006-01-07 by rob raeside
Keywords: england | united kingdom | cross: saint george | leopards: 3 | lions: 3 |
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[Flag of England] 3:5; image by Vincent Morley

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Description of the flag

The cross of St George is the flag of England, not the Union Jack. It is a red cross on a white field. The Church of England uses the cross of Saint George with the shield of arms of its diocese in the canton, although in practice many, when they fly the flag at all, fly the plain cross.

Roy Stilling, 21 November 1995

As far as I know, the St George's Cross flag as the national flag of England has no official proportions, as it is not used officially by government bodies etc. Public buildings in England are supposed to fly the Union Jack on St George's Day (April 23rd) and can only fly St George if they have more than one flagpole. I presume the St. George's Cross as a Royal Navy rank flag has official proportions though, which I'd guess as being 2:3. Most flag books show the English flag as being 2:3 or 3:5 - certainly shorter than 1:2. I personally would regard a 1:2 St George's Cross as "wrong". I have no real reason for saying this - it just wouldn't look right to me.

Roy Stilling, 20 February 1998

The official proportions for the national flag of England is 3:5, with the cross being 1/5 of the height of the flag wide. The same ratio is used for Scotland and Wales. The saltire on Scotland's flag is also 1/5 of the height of the flag wide. It was chosen as being the closest 'standard' shape to the golden rectangle.

Rectangular naval rank flags are actually 2:3, with the cross being 1/6 of the height of the flag.

Graham Bartram, 5 April 1999

Earliest Use of the Flag

Although St. George was known in England in the 5th Century and his legend was brought back to England by stories from the 1st crusade, there is no mention of the 'Cross of St. George'. If, as I am led to believe, Richard the Lionheart (1189-1199) saw a vision of St. George with a red cross banner, I can only assume that Richard brought back the red cross. This seems to be at odds with the history of the Genoa flag where Filipo Nocetti gives information that English ships bore the cross so as to have safe passage into the port of Genoa, subsequently paying the King for this safe passage.  Filipo gives the year 1190 some 9 years before Richard returned, so if our Italian correspondent is correct then the 'Cross of St. George' would have been seen in England before the second

Barry Hamblin, 1 July 2002

There is a chapter on this subject in British Flags by W.G.Perrin (1922) who was Admiralty Librarian in the early 1900's. He wrote that although St George was popular among crusaders there was no particular connection with England at that time. St George was a foreign saint and it was many years before he came to be regarded as similar in importance to the English saints Edward and Edmund.

Briefly he wrote that;

England as a nation state did not exist until the reign of Edward I (1272), all previous kings having been Norman or Anglo-Norman.

The earliest reference to the cross of St George as an English emblem (not flag) was in a roll of account relating to the Welsh War of 1277.

Although the banner of St George was flown when the castle of Caerlaverock was taken in 1300, it was in company with those of St Edward and St Edmund.

Edward the Confessor was "patron saint" of England until 1348 when the greater importance of St George was promoted by the establishment of the Chapel of St George at Windsor. It was not until 1415 that the festival of St George was raised to the position of a "double major feast" and ordered to be observed throughout the Province of the Archbishop of Canterbury with as much solemnity as Christmas Day.

St George's cross did not achieve any sort of status as the national flag until the 16th century, when all other saints' banners were abandoned during the Reformation. The earliest record of St George's flag at sea, as an English flag in conjunction with royal banners but no other saintly flags, was 1545.

David Prothero, 1 July 2002

Were there other saints' banners in the 16th Century?

Željko Heimer, 2 July 2002

To quote Perrin, page 40.
"When the Prayer Book was revised under Edward VI (1547-1553), the festival of St George was abolished, with many others. Under the influence of the
Reformation the banners of his former rivals, St Edward and St Edmund, together with all other religious flags in public use, except that of St George, entirely disappeared, and their place was taken by banners containing royal badges."

In connection with flags ordered for ships in the 15th century he mentions, the gittons of Holy Trinity, Holy Ghost, St Mary, St Edward, St George; the streamers of Holy Ghost, St Katherine, St Nicholas; banners of St Peter, St Katherine, St George, St Edward, St Anne; standards of St Mary, St George, Holy Ghost, St Edward; plus non-religious flags in various forms bearing, royal arms, ostrich feather, swan, antelope, pomegranate and rose, rose of white and green, dragon, lion, greyhound, portcullis and red lion.

David Prothero, 3 July 2002

Flag-flying days

From the House of Lords Hansard, dated 4 October 2001:

Flag Flying: English and Scottish Heritage Buildings

Lord Inglewood asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are the rules relating to the flying of flags on buildings managed by English and Scottish Heritage; and whether those buildings in England can fly the St George's Cross in the way that those in Scotland fly the St Andrew's Saltire.

The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Baroness Blackstone): In England there are currently 21 appointed days each year when it is required, by command of Her Majesty the Queen, that government buildings fly the Union Flag. The St George's Cross may be flown in conjunction with the Union flag on 23 April each year. English Heritage sites fall outside the definition of government buildings and they can fly flags whenever they wish. However, they choose to follow the government rules on flag flying and fly flags on the appointed days.

In Scotland the Scottish Executive issues a list of flag flying days that closely mirror the English guidelines. These rules apply to buildings of the Scottish Executive and its agencies. Historic Scotland choose to follow the Scottish Executive guidelines but with a special dispensation to fly both its own house flag and the Saltire on other days.

Joe McMillan, 29 October 2001

Use of the flag in the Church of England

The St. George's Cross flag is the proper flag for use by Anglican churches in England. I read (I think in Boutell's Heraldry) that Church of England parish churches are frequently seen flying the Union Jack. The author points out that this is incorrect, and that the proper flag for the Church of England is St George's cross. The cross is also the basis for a good many Anglican diocesan coats of arms, some of which also appear as flags. The same book gives an example of the flag of, if I recall correctly, the Diocese of Rochester.
Mike Oettle, 14 January 2002

The question of the correct flag to fly from a flag staff on an English church was raised in February 1907, when Sir A.Scott-Gatty, Garter King of Arms, wrote that, "churches should not fly the national flag. It should be the cross of St. George impaling the arms of the See (arms in the hoist and cross in the fly ?), but until the sovereign has spoken on this matter by a Royal Warrant, there is no flag that can be flown with propriety." [HO 45/10287/109071]

The matter came up again after the coronation of George VI when according to a letter published in The Times newspaper on 18 January 1938; "Herald's College referred to this in 1911 at Coronation of George V. Cross of St George impaled with the arms of the diocese is the flag." A note in the file added that the flag did not exist and that the plain St.George's Flag was correct. [HO 144/22962]

Later in 1938 the Earl Marshall issued a warrant declaring the proper flag on churches to be St George's cross with the arms of the See in the canton. Some English churches fly, or have flown, the White Ensign of the Royal Navy. Details in a separate page
David Prothero
, 17 January 2002

By a warrant dated 9th February 1938 the Earl Marshal laid down that the flag to be flown upon any church within the Provinces of Canterbury and York was "The Cross of St George and in the first quarter the escutcheon of the Arms of the See in which the church is ecclesiastically situated". In simple words, the flag of St George with the diocesan arms in the top corner nearest to the mast. Questions have been asked about certain details and the Garter Principal King of Arms gave the following directions:-

  • The Arms of the diocese are to be placed in the first quarter only (as in the preceding paragraph).
  • The shield of the Arms should fill the space and should not be ensigned with a mitre.
  • New flags should be made to an approximate ratio of 5 x 3 which is larger than, or more square than, ordinary flags to enable the Arms to be included.
  • Shields may be added to existing flags of St George without altering their shape.
  • The shield of Arms should be of the same material as the flag and inserted. The larger charges on the shield are also to be inserted but smaller charges and shading can be applied in oil paint. All heraldry is read from the flagstaff and charges on the shield must face the same way in relation to the staff on both sides of the flag.
The Earl Marshal's Warrant had the approval of the Archbishops of the day but it does not make it compulsory for the flag to be flown. "

Source: The Archbishops' Council of the Church of England, September 2001

Colin Dobson, 18 August 2005

An example of the use of the St. George's cross flag: the proper flag to be flown in the diocese of Rochester is the flag of St George with, in the canton, a shield of the arms: Argent on a saltire gules an escallop or."
Mike Oettle, 17 January 2002

Banner of England

[Royal banner of England] image by Vincent Morley

In the book by Crampton Crampton (1990), there is shown at the beginning a banner of England. Is this still in use or an historical banner? The arms of England are gules three leopards or.

Pascal Vagnat, 7 May 1996

I suspect it remains a royal flag, like the Scots one, and can only be used by the Queen.

Originally the arms were supported by two gold lions rampant guardant, the sinister was changed by the Tudors to a gold dragon rampant to symbolise the union of England and Wales (the Tudors were a Welsh dynasty).

Roy Stilling, 7 May 1996

Henry VII's supporters were a greyhound and a red dragon (to be seen above the entrance to Brasenose College in Oxford). I suspect it was Henry VIII who showed the greyhound the door and it was definitely Elizabeth I who turned the dragon gold. The dragon vanished with the arrival of the Stuarts. I've always lamented its passing as it would be nice to have a Welsh aspect to the royal arms, though I'm aware that as a principality it has no right to be there.

Andy T. Fear, 7 May 1996

Heraldry hit Europe during a thirty-year period in the mid-12th century. How the rules became so rapidly codified and so widely accepted still has historians baffled. Lions were among the earliest and most frequent charges - probably due to their Christian allegorical significance. Lions passant guardant (the most common pose) were originally called leopards (lupars in early Norman English), and the lions of England are still occasionally called leopards. In early iconography they lack manes and look a lot more like leopards. By the 14th century the leopards had definitely evolved into lions (at least in art if not in heraldic terminology). A two-lion shield was retrospectively (during the 13th century) assigned to the early Norman kings of England, but there is no evidence that William I and his immediate heirs knew anything about this.

The earliest solid evidence for the English heraldic lion is both textual and iconographic. Henry I knighted his son-in-law Geoffrey of Anjou in 1127 on the occasion of the latter's wedding, and bestowed on him a blue shield painted with gold lions (according to the chronicler Jean de Marmentier). The shield can be seen on Geoffrey's tomb (now in a museum in Le Mans), and the lions are also found on the shield of Geoffrey's grandson William Longespee - one of the earliest evidences that these heraldic devices had become hereditary. The earliest known example of a heraldic shield depicted on a seal is 1136, and there is some speculation that battlefield heraldry evolved from seals (rather than the conventional wisdom that heraldry was a military invention).

Henry I (1100-1135) was known as the 'Lion of Justice' and started a royal menagerie at Woodstock, which included lions (allegedly the first seen in England - at least since Roman times). His seal had no lions, but his shield may have borne one and later two. Some have conjectured that the second lion came from his marriage to the daughter of Godfrey of Louvaine, whose seal had a lion. The theory that the third lion came from Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II (1154-1189) is now somewhat discredited, but her seal certainly is known to have had three lions on a shield. (The joining of devices through marriage is called 'marshalling'.) Matthew Paris, the earliest chronicler of a Roll of Arms, credits Henry II's eldest son Henry with three lions on his shield. Henry II's son John had two lions, and the three lions as royal arms first definitely appear in the second royal seal of Richard I late in his reign (1198). That this redesign of the seal came after Richard's crusading escapades may be significant. (Richard's shield during the crusades is conjectured to have been red with two gold lions, like his father's. All artistic portrayals of Richard with three lions are derived from the royal seal at the end of his reign, but there is no solid evidence of Richard's lions prior to the second royal seal.) The lions remained thereafter a symbol of England (soon quartered with the French fleur de lis, 1340-1801, to represent England's claim to the French throne).

Sources: Stephen Friar and John Ferguson, Basic Heraldry (1993), Thomas Woodcock and John Martin Robinson, The Oxford Guide to Heraldry (1988), Heather Child, Heraldic Design (1965), C.W. Scott-Giles, Boutell's Heraldry (1966).

T.F. Mills, 3 August 1998

Within heraldic circles (on the Net at any rate) there is considerable debate on the subject, and François Velde's site Heraldica (regarded as authoritative on many aspects of heraldry) takes the view that there can be no debate on this subject: suddenly, over a 30-year period between the First and Second Crusades, all the knights across Western Europe suddenly became armigerous (my abstraction of his argument, not his words).

On the other hand there has been considerable attention devoted in recent years to the theory that it is in fact much older  – some two centuries older, in fact. The theory is clearly stated in The Oxford Guide to Heraldry by Thomas Woodcock, Somerset Herald, and John Martin Robinson, Maltravers Herald Extraordinary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990). It is also referred to frequently in The Baronage Press, and I make mention of it on my site.

The theory, broadly stated, is that heraldic devices – probably in origin banners rather than shield devices – were in use among a group of families in Flanders for some two centuries before the First Crusade. (The reference to banners could in fact bring this debate back to vexillology, but that's another matter.) Most of these families, it seems, were descended from Charlemagne, but no direct claim is made for Charlemagne himself having borne arms.

The use of such devices spread initially as aristocratic Flemings spread into other areas, particularly in the role of castle builders. William of Normandy's invading army of 1066 included many knights from other parts of France than simply Normandy, and certainly included some Flemings – some from Flanders, but also at least two from families that had settled (as castle-builders) in Normandy. The use of heraldic devices among the "Normans" of England and the parts of Wales, Scotland and Ireland that fell under Norman influence spread gradually as the usefulness of these devices became apparent, and also became associated with the new ruling class in the British Isles. Contacts with family on the Continent were maintained, and heraldic usage re-crossed the Channel in this fashion.

The phenomenon of the Crusades may or may not have originated among armigerous families, but service in the Holy Land appears to have been an incentive towards the adoption of coat-armour. The preponderance of heraldic lions in countries far from the natural range of these beasts is almost certainly a product of personal experience (or at least the telling of tales about) real lions, which were still to be found in certain parts of the Levant. Their symbolic significance no doubt hastened their adoption in heraldic devices.

A number of changes in European society seem to have accompanied the Crusades, and styles of artistic expression conducive to the preservation of heraldic evidence appear to have coincided with these. Thus it is seen that seals incorporating coat-armour become common, and many experts have argued from this premiss that because coats of arms only appear on seals from this period, they did not exist before.

Mike Oettle, 13 January 2002

Are the lions armed or not?

Heraldic lions are usually armed -- whether the blazon specifies it or not, whether of a distinct tincture or not. What must be specified is the *lack* of claws, "a lion disarmed":
Santiago Dotor, 16 January, 2001

The British convention regarding the colouring of animals' claws, especially those of lions, uses the rule that the colouring of the claws need not be mentioned unless it is different from the conventional. The convention is that the claws are usually red, but that when either the lion or the field is red, the claws then become blue. Since you have red in both the field of the arms of England and the Scottish lion rampant, the claws of the three English lions passant gardant and of the Scottish lion are all blue. Because this follows the convention, the colour of the claws is not usually mentioned. This convention is generally unknown outside Britain, but it is the reason you will rarely find the colour of the claws mentioned in English-language blazon.
Mike Oettle, 6 January 2004

Supporters in the Royal Arms

From a booklet by J P Brooke-Little, Norroy and Ulster King of Arms (1981) entitled "Royal Heraldry: Beasts and Badges of Britain", and published by Pilgrim Press.

"During the second half of the 15th century artists and seal engravers began to augment coats of arms by placing two  creatures on either side of the shield. At first these seem to have been chosen capriciously and were not regarded as an integral part of the coat of arms. However, as they increased in popularity and as they literally supported the shield, the heralds began to take notice of them and eventually formulated rules for their control and inheritance.
"It is both difficult and dangerous to make sweeping generalisations about the use of supporters, but it is fair to say that during the 15th century they were sometimes used but not taken too seriously. They consisted of favourite beasts and badges put to a new and attractive use. It was left to the Tudor heralds, emancipated from the blood bath of civil strife, peacefully to rationalise their use and bring them within the confines of strict armorial practice.
"It must here be appreciated that quite apart from formal armorial bearings, that is shield of arms, crest and later supporters, the greater nobility freely used armorial devices as motifs in decoration and as badges with which they marked their property and retainers. Such use was often free and fantastical, but it was as much part of the mediæval scene as the masque, miracle play, fair or tournament. It is therefore difficult to draw the line between an artistic embellishment and a truly armorial supporter.
"An heraldic antelope and a swan have been attributed to Henry IV and an antelope and a lion to him and his son Henry V. Antelopes, lions and panthers have all been associated with Henry VI. To Edward IV are accorded two white lions, a lion and a hart and a lion and a black bull. Richard III has two white boars, and a lion and a boar. It is not until the reign of Henry VII that there is good contemporary evidence for the more or less consistent use of supporters by the sovereign, although the actual beasts vary. Henry VII's grandfather, Owen Tudor, used a red dragon garnished with gold as a badge, claiming descent from Cadwalader, the last native ruler of Britain, to whom a dragon was attributed. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that Henry greatly favoured this beast. He used it as a badge and also as a supporter to his arms: he even created a new pursuivant (the junior rank of herald) whom he named Rouge Dragon. Henry used the dragon as his dexter supporter in conjunction with a greyhound. He also used two greyhounds, witness the representation of his arms at the Bishop's Palace, Exeter.
"The greyhound was a popular badge of the Lancastrian kings and when Henry VI created his half-brother Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, he also assigned him a white greyhound badge as a supporter. It is not surprising that Henry should have attached especial importance to this royal beast, which he would have inherited from his father, for it symbolised, and perhaps in his eyes made more substantial, his tenuous links with the house of Lancaster.
"King Henry VIII, like his father, did not just use two supporters. He rang the changes but generally favoured the crowned golden lion as his dexter and the red dragon as his sinister supporter, which is probably why King Edward VI, Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I, who made the dragon gold, all used these supporters: except that Mary, when her arms conjoined to those of King Philip gave her husband his black eagle in place of her dragon.
"In 1603 James VI of Scotland came to the throne as James I of England. As king of Scots his arms were supported by two silver unicorns with golden horns, manes, beards, tufts and hooves. About the neck of each was a golden circlet like that in the royal crown and attached to this was a gold chain reflexed over the monster's back. King James kept the English lion supporter but banished the red dragon in favour of one of his Scottish unicorns. The lion and the unicorn have been the royal supporters ever since."

Mike Oettle, 29 June 2002