March 26, 2021 - 7:00am

Government minister Robert Jenrick chucked another culture war hand grenade this week, making it clear to local councils that they should routinely fly the Union Flag from their buildings. The reaction in some quarters was much as you might expect, with a good deal of leaden attempted humour at the expense of the poor benighted fools who’ve been tricked by the dastardly Tories into liking the symbols of the free, peaceful and prosperous country in which they live.

Somewhat neglected amid the kerfuffle was the second part of Jenrick’s announcement, namely that the Tories intend to “cut red tape” to allow councils to fly the flags of the historic English counties. It’s not entirely clear what regulations currently prevent local governments from getting someone to run a flag up a pole, but I’m quite ready to believe that they exist.

Speaking for myself, I’d be delighted to see more county flags flying from town halls. Here in Kent we have the white horse rampant on a red background, whose provenance is sometimes traced back as far as the legendary brothers Hengest and Horsa. They are traditionally considered the founders of the Kingdom of Kent, which enjoyed a short spell of importance in early Anglo-Saxon England, before its eclipse by first Mercia and later Wessex, and is notable as the first of the kingdoms of the Heptarchy to adopt Christianity.


The emblem of our neighbours Essex similarly harks back to early English history, with its three fearsome Saxon swords.


Almost identical weapons appear on the flag of Middlesex, now sadly almost entirely consumed by Greater London, which had close connections to Essex.


East Anglia as a whole has a coat of arms with three gold crowns which is thought to date back to the seventh century. It seems to have inspired the MR James ghost story A Warning To The Curious, in which an amateur archaeologist courts disaster by digging up an Anglian crown.

East Anglia

Other county flags’ origins may lie even further back than the Anglo-Saxons. The Cornish cross, white on black, is usually associated with St Piran, a near-contemporary of St Patrick. Piran was a real person, a hermit and later an abbot, but real information about his life and work is scarce, clouded by folk tales and medieval hagiography.


Not all county flags have such long lineages. The one used by Cornwall’s old rival Devon was only conceived and adopted in the early years of this century, although it is dedicated to an aristocratic sixth-century British saint, St Petroc, and uses colours that have a long association with the county.


Durham also uses a new design, incorporating the cross of St Cuthbert, that was finalised less than a decade ago. For a long time the coat of arms of the Bishop of Durham had been used for official purposes. This was an indication of the long period during which the holder of that office enjoyed considerable secular power in northern England, in his capacity as the Prince-bishops of the County Palatine of Durham. Many of the county palatinate’s distinctive legal arrangements survived into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


In recent years, many of the historic counties of England have declined in administrative importance, or been abolished altogether. But the adoptions of new flags, rooted in the history of particular places, suggest that people’s attachment to those places might be more persistent than we thought.

Niall Gooch is a public sector worker and occasional writer who lives in Kent.