by Niall Gooch
Friday, 26
March 2021
Explainer
07:00

County flags, coming to a government building near you

Tories intend to cut red tape to allow councils to fly their historic flags
by Niall Gooch
Councils could soon be free to fly their own flag.

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.

Kent

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

Essex

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

Middlesex

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.

Cornwall

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.

Devon

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.

Durham

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.

Join the discussion


  • I think the idea of county flags is brilliant. The Union Jack and the flag of England have all sorts of political issues building around them, hidden meanings if you like. Flags would brighten everything up in the gloom of winter.
    Also, wherever I go I have to look at the Welsh flag in the gardens of houses, especially now we have a pending election. Why can’t we all have flags?

  • I am not particularly nationalistic and usually, for instance, want the England football team to lose. However, with the mass immigration of all manner of different cultures comes the need to unite them around something. And that something should probably be the country in which they live, otherwise you will have Balkanisation and societal collapse etc.
    County flags seem to be a delightful and historic thing.

  • In particular, I love Siena where – as one wonders around that beautiful city – one can see which contrada one is in by the flags flying from – pretty much – every house/building.

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