The historic and defacto Flag of England is the St George's Cross. A red latin cross of a white field. Before we look at this flag it might be a good idea to quickly look at it's namesake.
There is much said and resaid about St George as well as many claims regarding his origins. What is probably safe to say is that he was not English he was probably of Greek origin. What we do know is that he was an officer in the Roman army possibly even in the Emperor's Guard and that he was executed by the Emperor Diocletian for his Christian faith on 23rd April 303AD, and this day is celebrated as St George's Day. Myth credits St George with many great deeds including healing the sick and slaying a dragon. Due to his military background St George is seen as the Warrior Saint and thus particularly patronised by soldiers as well as the scouting movement and sufferers of certain skin diseases.
It is important to note that the St George cross was not always the banner of England, there were many flags often associated with a variety of saints that were used by English kings, English ships and English armies since the kingdom was formed in the 10th Century . Dragon standards were used by the Anglo-Saxons and continued to be used post Norman conquest and throughout the middle ages.
|St George depicted on the Great War memorial|
windows in the Guildhall, Londonderry, N.Ireland
Of the English Crusades the one organised by Henry II and Philip II of France is interesting as in this the English and French distinguished themselves by the colour of their crosses. However it was the French who wore a red cross on white whereas the English wore a white cross on red. Popular belief is that English use of St George's Cross originates from when Richard I the Lionheart, adopted the flag of the Italian state of Genoa and Saint George as his patron saint in 1191 during the Third Crusade. 13th Century English ships in the Mediterranean may have also flew the Genoa flag as a deterrent to pirates (Genoa was a powerful naval power), for this England payed a fee to Genoa. In fact this resurfaced in 2018 when Mayor of Genoa Marco Bucci was reported stating that the last payment was in 1746, and Her Majesty’s Government owed Genoa over 250 years back payments! He further said that he was considering writing to HM the Queen and suggested that payment could be in the form of a large charity donation or the restoration of historic buildings. Buckingham Palace responded by saying it would consider a royal visit to Genoa, and indeed representatives of the UK's Flag Institute were present in Genoa this St George's Day to celebrate Genoa and England's shared use of the flag.
|Badge of the Order of the Garter|
As already mentioned there were other symbols associated with other Saints used before St George and these didn't disappear but continued to be used alongside St George's Cross. . St George’s dominant position as patron saint may stem from Edward III who founded the Chapel of St George in Windsor, and the founding of the Most Noble Order of the Garter on St Georges’ Day in 1348.
There are decrees describe how English soldiers should dress throughout the Middle Ages, which often include the wearing of St George's Cross on their Jackets.
In regard to use on flags in 1370 the Clerk of the armour and artillery of the King’s ships acknowledged receipt of a number of flags which did include “Banners of Saint George” amongst others.
A roll of ship’s flags from the reign of Henry VI describes flags of various saints including St George, St Edward and St Katherine. This type of practice continued until the reformation, put saintly banners out of favour.
St George was well truly and unquestionably the patron of England by the time of the reformation, as all saintly banners except that of St George disappeared.
|Detail from the Anthony Roll depicting |
English Warships flying the St George Cross. Public Domain
Henry VIII commissioned many ships during his reign. Although in the early years of his reign ships displayed all sorts of emblems on flags including portcullises, roses, dragons and even greyhounds, later on it appears that the St George’s Cross is the dominant flag. The Anthony Roll records the ships of Henry’s fleet and shows them depicted in great detail. From the rolls we see a more uniform approach to the flags of the fleet. Although royal banners, green and white striped flags (Tudor colours), and flags bearing Henry’s cypher are used, the cross of St George is clearly the ‘national’ flag. The Cross of St George flies prominently from the masts.
During the reign of Elizabeth I we see the appearance of ensigns for the first time. A portrait of the Queen painted to commemorate the victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588, shows not only the Spanish ships foundering off the stormy coast of the British Isles, but the triumphant English ships identified by the flag of the St George’s Cross.
It is clear that by the 16th Century the Cross of St George had become the lead flag for identifying English ships both merchant and naval. Through this use at sea it was therefore well established as the national flag by 1606 when the Union Flag was first introduced. This flag was introduced by James I who was also King of Scotland to demonstrate his reign over both kingdoms. It combined the Cross of St George representing England with the Cross of St Andrew representing Scotland.
However this new flag did not replace the Cross of St George for James ordered that British ships fly it alongside their pre existing flags (Cross of St George for the English and St Andrew's Cross from the Scottish). The Union Jack would later be restricted an an ornament for the King's ships (which is still the case today) leaving the St George Cross free reign on land and sea.
St George's Cross was a prominent symbol in the flags of both sides of the English Civil Wars although it was not featured in all flags.
The Navy was at this time colour coded into red, white and blue fleets, with each fleet flying flags corresponding with that colour. Each ship would fly the appropriate coloured ensign with St George's Cross in the Canton, and Admirals flew a flag of the said colour from their flagship. In 1702 the white flags of the Royal Navy emblazoned with the red cross for easier identification. Merchant ships also fell into this scheme being permitted to use the red ensign.In 1702 the white flags of the Royal Navy emblazoned with the red cross for easier identification. This has ramifications to this day as this meant at sea the Cross of St George was the distinct flag of an Admiral and this is still the case today, meaning private craft that display the flag are technically breaking the law. This is also why the modern British naval ensign features a large St George Cross, the Royal Navy dropping the red and blue ensigns and flags in 1864.
|Flag of England flying from Leeds Town Hall|
Mtaylor848 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
It continued to be used in the Company flags of English regiments and in the canton of English maritime ensigns until the Treaty of Union in 1707 when England & Scotland united to form Great Britain. After this the Union Jack replaced the St George Cross in these flags. Although the symbol was still in use for most of the three centuries of Union the St George Cross was a minor flag in the shadow of the Union Jack. However that is not the case today with the flag in resurgence possibly being more popular with private English citizens than the Union Flag and even flying form many public buildings of local authorities either alongside the Union Jack or in place of it on non designated days.
This is probably at least in part mirroring the use of Scottish and Welsh flags in those parts of the United Kingdom which have regained popularity in the late 20th Century particularly through sport where the British Home Nations compete separately, although by the 21st Century the popularity of these flags have spread beyond sport to the general public sport fan and non sport fan alike.
By and large the English flag is not seen as a political emblem and is used by members of the public in England for many reasons chief of which is an expression of national identity even if it is not a unique symbol of England.