Flags and Colours Part 1: Heraldry

This is the first of three KeepYourPowderDry guides to Civil War flags. This part looks at the rationale and rules why Civil War flags looked like they did. Not often I get to channel my inner Dr Sheldon Cooper, I doubt it will ever happen again.

To understand Civil War flags we need to know some nomenclature, some heraldic conventions, and the regimental flag systems used.

Regiments of foot carried ensigns, which were about six feet square, sometimes  a little bigger at six feet six inches square. These were carried on short staffs and on occasion twirled enthusiastically. Ensigns were rallying points during the chaos of battle. We know that some were made of silk, and others taffeta. Looking at Sir John Gell's colour on display at the National Army Museum we can see that the designs were stitched on. There is some evidence that designs were sometimes painted on to flags.

Regiments of horse carried cornets which were small (about two feet square) square flags attached to what can only be described as lances. The intricate designs were embroidered.

Regiments of dragoons carried guidons, small swallow tailed flags which were most likely a similar size to cornets.

Then we have banners. Every lord worth his salt in medieval times had a personal standard or banner. By the time of the Civil Wars this was no longer fashionable, unless you were a member of the Royal family. So the king had a royal banner, as did Princes Rupert and Maurice. Rupert's was described as being fourteen feet long, it was captured at Edgehill.

Heraldry: the tricky bit.

As we will see many flags carried a cross of St George in the upper canton (upper corner next to the flag staff), some Scots flags a cross of St Andrew. Then we have piles, which are a sort of straight comet shape radiating from the cross of St George, and piles wavy (wiggly piles). Next we need to know about devices which were symbols which denoted different companies, these took on many different shapes including lozenges (diamonds), billets (rectangles), feon (arrow heads), mullets (sadly not a hairstyle, in this case mullets were stars), crosses (strangely these were crosses) and circles which have a number of fancy names depending upon their colour.

Colours also have terribly fancy names. some colours are classified as metals (gold and yellow - or, silver and white - argent). There is a convention that you shouldn't put a a metal device on a metal coloured flag, or a coloured device on a coloured flag;  so a metal device on a colour, or a coloured device on a metal are good.


There were a number of flag systems in use. The most popular being the Venn system, named after Colonel Thomas Venn who described it. There are two (and a bit) variations of the system.

System A: The colonel's colour would be a plain flag, or in some cases bear the colonel's coat of arms. The lieutenant colonel would have a plain coloured flag with a cross of St George in the upper canton. The major would be the same as the lieutenant colonel but have a piles wavy emanating from the cross of St George canton. The first captain would have the same flag as the lieutenant colonel but with one device in the body of the flag, the second captain two devices, the third would have three and so on. (Peachey, Prince and Turton call this the LTB, or London Trained Bands system*.)

From Fahnen und Standarten 

System B was very similar, the only difference was the major had one device (instead of a piles wavy), the first captain two, the second three devices and so on. There was a variation on System B called the Piley System - the System B devices were replaced with piles or piles wavey.

Piley system

Both from English Civil War Flags: English and Scottish Foot Regiments

Finally we have the gyronny system system which only appeared in a handful of Royalist units, and is thought to be related to the Irish campaigns. The colonel, lieutenant colonel and major follow the Venn system A, but then the captains' colours used an increasing number of slices of an alternative colour.

From  English Civil War Flags: English and Scottish Foot Regiments

It is believed that there was also a stripey system, as a small number of ensigns with horizontal bands of colour have been described, but as no regimental name was recorded or numbers of flags from a single regiment were described, we can not fully understand the system. Some historians argue these were earlier flags brought out of retirement for use by new regiments. It is also believed that the stripey system may have a connection to the old county trained bands and their organisation on hundreds (an ancient system of local government/organisation ).

Of course there are some oddities which followed no system and had  no common colour for a regiment. These units were possibly issued with captured colours, or colours from disbanded units (in other words we don't really know). Amongst the oddities are a few regiments which just liked to be different - Prince Rupert's blew coats  and the King's Lifeguard, and Tower Hamlets trained band (a tradition of being 'unique' in Tower Hamlets has carried on through to the present day).

Cavalry cornets usually had an inspirational religious slogan or the colonel's coat of arms emblazoned upon them. Where we know of a number of cornets from different squadrons from a single regiment there is often no unifying theme.

Dragoon guidons sometimes followed the Venn system, but we don't really have enough information to base any assumptions for how they worked.

Then there's the Scots (!). The Scot's cavalry pretty much followed the design of English cavalry cornets - either a good stirring Biblical message or the colonel's coat of arms. Their regiments of foot seem to follow a system of the colonel's ensign having an argent (white) background with the colonel's coat of arms, often complete with a good rousing Biblical message for good measure. The rest of the flags are usually a variation on the St Andrew's flag, with different coloured backgrounds, and saltaires. They do seem to all have a variant of the motto 'covenant for religion, king and kingdoms'. Some ensigns also have devices indicating company -  some have a device and a number.

Part 2
Part 3

*"Old Robin's Foot: The Army of The Earl of Essex 1642-1645" by Peachey and Turton, referencing Peachey and Prince  "English Civil War Flags and Colours Volume 1"


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