© Duane A. Cline 2001
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The English Flags of 1620
Prior to the reign of King James I the banners, ensigns and flags seen on the battlefields most likely would have carried the heraldic emblem of the leader around which the soldiers rallied. Prior to the time of Edward III, there are references to the use of the cross of St. George as an identification of combatants on the battlefields. However, it was Edward III who made St. George the patron of the Order of the Garter in 1348. The emblem of St. George was enhanced in 1415 when the troops of Henry V were victorious in the Battle of Agincourt. In 1419 Henry V ordered that "every man of what estate, condition, or nation that he be, of our party, bear a band of St. George, sufficient large, upon the peril if he be wounded or dead in the fault thereof, he that him wounded or slayeth shall bear no pain for him: and that none enemy bear the said sign of St. George. . .upon pain of death therefor."
In Scotland, the saltire [cross] of St. Andrew became predominant even earlier. In 1385 it was ordered that every soldier of a combined French and Scottish army wear "a white St. Andrew's cross, and if his jack is white or his coat white, he shall bear the said cross in a piece of black cloth round or square." Gradually, a blue background became the standard background for the white cross.
When a sovereign called upon noblemen for support and to rally troops on the battlefield, heraldic flags symbolizing the leaders would have been displayed on the battlefields. Since sea-going vessels sailed under the protection of the sovereign, even private merchant vessels hoisted the royal banner. By the time of the peasant revolts of the late fourteenth century, both sides were carrying two flags--the cross of St. George and the royal banner.
When James VI of Scotland ascended to the throne as King James I of England, a new era of British flags was begun. It was James I of England who played the decisive role in establishing the basis of the British flag. In a proclamation dated 12 April 1606 he stated: "Whereas some difference has arisen between our Subjects of South and North Britain, Travelling by Sea, about the bearing of their flags, for the avoiding of all such contentions hereafter, We have with the advice of our Council ordered That from henceforth all our subjects of this Isle and kingdom of Great Britain and the Members thereof shall bear in their maintop the Red Cross, commonly called St. George's Cross, and the White Cross, and sent to us by our Admiral to be published to said Subjects; and in their foretops our Subjects of South Britain shall wear the red cross only, as they are wont and or Subjects of North Britain in their foretop the white cross only, as they were accustomed…"
After he had seen proposals for designs in which one or the other appeared on top, the Earl of Nottingham approved a flag design in which the two crosses were set side by side.
However, the final design approved by James I set the red cross of the larger kingdom (with a narrow border of white which represented the original white field of the Cross of St. George) on top of the white saltire [cross] of the older realm with its original field of blue. From time to time this arrangement of the two crosses has been referred to as the "double cross flag." Although many Scots disliked this arrangement and designed flags with the white cross dominant, it must be remembered the Mayflower sailed under the auspices of James I and would have carried the flag arrangement which he approved.
The basis of the flag which we now recognize as the Union Jack of Britain had taken its place in history. The flag remained unchanged from 12 April 1606 until 5 May 1660, when it was altered during the years of the Commonwealth, but returned again to its original form during the reign of Charles II. That design continued until 1801, when Ireland joined the union and the red saltire [cross] of St. Patrick was added to the King's Colors to become the British Union Jack as we know it.
For further information concerning the history of English flags, see Flags Through the Ages & Across the World, by Dr. Whitney Smith, Flag Research Center, Winchester, Mass., 1975
Last modified January 26, 2001
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