County flags

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County flags are attributed to a number of Counties of the United Kingdom.

Unlike American states or German Länder, the counties of the United Kingdom have not uniformly, borne distinctive flags. A few such as Kent and Essex, have been associated with specific emblems for centuries which in the modern era have also appeared as flags. The constituent divisions of federal or confederal states such as Germany and Switzerland readily adopt or are ascribed flags, as indications of their authority. The constituent divisions of the United Kingdom, the counties, never having exercised such powers as wielded by territories like the state of California or the Republic of Kalmykia, have not required such expression.

Motivation for early flags

Cornwall
Shetland
Pembrokeshire

Certain territories of the United Kingdom however, with differing historical, cultural and linguistic legacies have raised flags, to mark themselves out as distinct and different. A Cornish flag has existed since the nineteenth century for instance and is considered to be a “national” flag reflecting a status of the territory and its people as an assimilated Celtic land, rather than just one amongst many English counties. Similarly flags for the North Atlantic archipelagos of the Shetland and Orkney islands, with strong Scandinavian heritages, were created in the twentieth century. In recent years such enthusiasm has spread and a number of British counties have marked their presence as distinct entities with a county flag. In much the same manner that one may wave a national flag to demonstrate pride in one’s nation or support for a national sports team, so people wanting to demonstrate their local pride or indicate their origins amongst a concert crowd or similar gathering, have turned to flags as a natural means of doing so.

The complication with this trend however is that for England and Wales at least, there being no “UK Flag Act” that might “authorise” such county flags, there is no official method or process of establishing them. The College of Arms is commissioned to design flags for government offices and departments and of course designs and registers the arms of individuals and corporations but has never been required to do the same for any of the shires, it does not supply county flags.

The UK Flag Register

Middlesex
Devon
Lancashire
Yorkshire

In an effort to regularise the situation, a registry has been established by the Flag Institute. Founded in 1971 the Institute is one of the world's leading research and documentation centres for flags and flag information and an adviser to the British government on flag related matters.

The UK Flag Registry exists as a definitive record of the flags which exist in the UK both nationally and locally. There is no other similar formal national listing, so whilst ostensibly it operates as a record book of county flags, it effectively serves also as the de facto authority which endorses them.

The criteria laid down for inclusion in the Register emphasise the authoritativeness of the record; designs are not accepted without question but have to demonstrate a definite usage or acceptance.

  • The design must be unique within the UK (i.e. no other UK area or organisation is using the design);
  • The design must be in the public domain (i.e. not subject to copyright);
  • In the case of county flags the flag must normally apply to a historical county rather than a modern administrative area ;
  • The flag must be registered with the College of Arms, registered with the Office of the Lord Lyon, traditional, selected by a public vote or selected by an appropriate county or city organization.

For county flags this in practice generally means being endorsed by a venerable county organisation which can be a county council or an active local pressure group; a flag for Hertfordshire for instance was registered after its sanction by Hertfordshire County Council, while the flag of Lancashire appeared as a result of a request from the Friends of Real Lancashire. In Scotland however, all flags must be authorised by Lord Lyon (the chief heraldic authority) and recorded in the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland.

Types of flag

Hertfordshire
Northumberland
Kent
Lincolnshire

County flags fall broadly into three categories, “banners of arms” of local authorities released for public use; flags derived from or utilising elements from, banners of arms in a simplified pattern; entirely new and ground breaking designs. A “banner of arms” refers to the practice of extending the design from the shield found in a coat of arms, to a rectangular piece of cloth to be deployed as a flag. All bodies or individuals who have been granted coats of arms by the College of Arms, may display them in this fashion including county councils.

Since their establishment in the late nineteenth century a confusion has arisen between the counties and these local administrative bodies, the councils, set up to administer them, a confusion particularly evident in the area of arms and banners. It is often generally assumed that arms granted to a county council also represent the county it administers as an entity in its own right and that a banner of such arms is therefore the county flag; this is not the case. Coats of Arms and banners derived from them may be legally used only by the body to whom they have been granted and individual citizens have no right to display or fly such banners without specific permission.

Such confusion can be attributable to the fact that council arms frequently include symbols or devices that are locally familiar or used traditionally to represent the county and its people. Symbols of this kind may derive from local legend such as the Stafford Knot for Staffordshire or may originate from the arms used by families of local renown over several centuries. Often the same or similar versions of symbols found on Council arms will be seen on the badges of county sporting bodies or fire and rescue services so there is a clear association of symbol and county.

For several counties the situation differs slightly. The modern counties of Kent, Essex, and Sussex originated as kingdoms in the Anglo-Saxon period. As such they were anachronistically ascribed arms by mediaeval heralds several hundred years later with arms based on local traditions. Thus three white seaxes (short Saxon swords) on a red field were the arms of the ancient kingdom of Essex and were also used in Middlesex which originally formed part of that early kingdom. A white horse on a red field was ascribed to Kent and six gold martlets (swallows) on a blue field to Sussex. Such emblems were associated with the respective counties for centuries before the establishment of local government and the county councils in these counties were accordingly granted arms incorporating these ancient emblems but having thus existed before the origin of the county councils, such arms could not be restricted to their use alone and citizens of these counties have always been free to bear flags with these ancient devices.

Design criteria

Dorset
Monmouthshire
Caernarfonshire
Shropshire

Aside from the legal restrictions on their use there are also stylistic objections to the use of council arms as county flags. As heraldic contrivances the designs are often complicated or “fussy” – replete with motifs and colours that might serve well on a town hall wall but do not work too well on a piece of cloth flying from a lofty perch. The complex heraldic patterns generally contravene the tenets of good flag design highlighted by the Flag Institute which state:

1.  Keep it simple

The flag should be simple enough that a child can draw it from memory.

2.  Use meaningful symbolism

The flag's elements, colours, or patterns should relate to what it symbolises.

3.  Use two to three basic colours

Limit the number of colours on the flag to three, which contrast well and come from the standard colour set: red, orange, yellow, green, light blue, dark blue, purple, black and white. Yellow and white work well on any of the other colours and vice versa.

4.  No lettering or seals

Avoid the use of writing of any kind or an organisation’s badge, seal or coat of arms. It is better to use elements from an appropriate coat of arms as symbols on the flag.

5.  Be distinctive or be related

Avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections.

6.  How will it fly in the wind?

Remember, the design must be distinctive when flying on a high pole in a strong wind, and when hanging in windless conditions too. Also remember that it will almost always have ripples caused by the wind.

Establishing new flags

In the modern era with the practice of flag flying gaining ever greater popularity, several campaigns to establish county flags have appeared and successfully achieved registration with the Flag Institute. Such recent successes include Yorkshire, Devon, Lincolnshire, Derbyshire, Orkney, Dorset, Huntingdonshire, Lancashire, Gloucestershire, Nottinghamshire and Monmouthshire.

See also