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. There are very specific instructions as to how the ensign was to be carried: it must only be held by one hand, if conditions dictated the end of the staff could be positioned at the waist to aid stability, otherwise it was to be held in the right hand "close under the hose". The staff should never be held in two hands except when twirling. Take note figure sculptors!

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 that were most likely a similar size to cornets. (Although at the time they weren't called guidons, they were called cornets of dragoons. But we'll stick with guidons as nobody will have a clue what you are talking about if you start calling them cornets of dragoons, whereas guidon is a widely understood shape and size of cavalry flag.)

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 probably Maurice. Rupert's was described as being fourteen feet long, it was captured at Edgehill.

(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 metal device upon 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 are a small number of known exceptions to this which will no doubt have heraldry scholars running for their comfort blankets - Sir Bernard Astley's Regiment of Foot has a green background with a red hawk lure device. Shudders!

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 (as the known examples are from regiments that went to Ireland). 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. The gyronny system is problematical as there is no contemporary description of the system, the illustration below is a 'best guess'.

From  English Civil War Flags: English and Scottish Foot Regiments

Please note: a number of commercial flag manufacturers list Tillier's with green and white gyronny flags in their inventory. There is no evidence for this: pure conjecture based upon the belief that the regiments that served in Ireland might all have had ensigns that follow the gyronny system. Unfortunately what was originally conjecture appears to have been copied, and copied, and over time 'conjecture' has become wargamer fact™.

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). I discuss the 'stripey' system in my post about the Trained Bands.

Of course there are some oddities which followed no system or 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 (if you can't be different when you are the King when can you be?), and Tower Hamlets trained band (a tradition of being 'unique' in Tower Hamlets has carried on through to the present day). 

A note on flags and regiments of foot: with the exception of the London Trained Bands, we only have a few known illustrations and descriptions. We don't actually know exactly which system they followed (this is particularly true of Venn A and Venn B), so despite having a little bit of fact on which to base regimental colours, they will almost always have an element of conjecture about them.

Cavalry cornets usually had an inspirational religious slogan/political cartoon 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 they usually share a common background colour (although Colonel's troop cornets were a law unto themselves and were often completely different!)

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. Scots regiments were raised by local committees of war so there was some standardisation. Nearly all flags were variations of the cross of St Andrew. They invariably bear a motto, a message which varied over time: "For Christs Croun and Couenant' would have graced flags in 1639 as did 'For Religion The Covenant and The Country'; by 1644 this became 'For The Covenant Religion The Crown and The Kingdom' or 'For Religion Country King and Covenant'. By 1650 all colours were ordered to bear the words 'Covenant for Religion King and Kingdomes'.

Some regiments carried the  saltaire in national colours, but most opted for a variation of colours. White saltaires on red were popular in Aberdeenshire, the Means and Forfarshire. Black saltaires on yellow were popular in Fife. Some used colours from their colonel's coats of arms (Argyle's and Home's), others seem to have no pattern to the colours they used.

Some colours also have devices indicating company -  some have a device and a number. In 1649 standardised heraldic symbols were introduced to denote seniority of captains - but there seems to have been considerable confusion around these symbols. Numerals appear on colours which bear no relationship to the heraldic symbol. Reid argues this may relate to the purging of 'unreliable officers' and reallocation of flags.

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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