Sunday, 19 October 2008

Flags of South-West England

I read this week that the county of Dorset had selected a flag for the county. Apparently before this it simply had a design of three lions in a row that looked very like that used by the England cricket and football teams rather than being distinctive. I sometimes drive through Dorset, which is where the South-West region of England begins, though of course the capital of what in the early Medieval period was the Kingdom of Wessex was at Winchester in Hampshire, the next county East, which now falls in the South-East region of England. The impetus for Dorset, which apart from the Poole-Bournemouth-Christchurch conurbation is primarily rural to get its own flag, comes quite clearly from Cornwall.

The St. Pirn Flag of Cornwall

A few years back, probably encouraged by steps towards greater establishment of a Welsh identity with the increase of learning the Welsh language from the late 1970s onwards and the Welsh Assembly more recently, the Cornish began to rediscover their identity and to promote the Cornish language. Cornish, like Welsh, is a Celtic language and its popularity has now reached an extent that there is now a Cornish language Wikipedia. Anyway, the flag of the white cross on the black background often accompanied by the Cornish word for Cornwall, 'Kernow' began appearing on cars right across the South of England. Even when you are two or three counties away from Cornwall you will see it emblazoned in numerous places. Partly I think this stems from the English love of tiny states, a sense of wanting your locale to be independent and of esoteric languages. The Cornish flag is the negative of the medieval flag of the kingdom later duchy of Brittany, another state with Celtic people many of whom came from Cornwall to settle. However, Brittany part of France from the 14th century remodelled their flag in the 1930s to resemble the US flag though keeping the black and white colours.

Not to be outdone by Cornwall, the next county East along the peninsula, Devon, which is often lumped together with Cornwall (for example the Devon & Cornwall Constabulary of police) though the Cornish often dislike the people of Devon, well, in 2003 Devon developed a similar flag but with dark green in the place of black. I have seen this on some cars but not to the extent of the Cornish ones which I feel sell to tourists as well as locals. Devon also lacks that historic identity of being a separate state that Cornwall was until the 10th century and also does not have its own language.

The St. Petroc Flag of Devon

In online discussions there was a debate that with Devon ,which borders Dorset to the West adopting even unofficially such a flag, Dorset should have one too. In a vote ran by the county council, the winning design won 2,086 votes (54% of the share) with the next nearest of the four designs put forward, winning only 856 votes (22% of the share). This is a small proportion of the county's population (145,000 people live in Poole alone) but it follows the theme established by Cornwall and Devon, so I guess it is not going to cause offence. The gold and red were in Dorset's coat of arms and in the badge of the county regiment and it was the colour of the Wessex dragon too, plus, as people have pointed out, local landmarks like Gold Hill and Golden Cap. One of the two designers lives in Sweden and as with the Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish flags which all share the cross of St. Olaf as their basis, you can see a developing shape with the South-West flags, though attributed to different saints.

The St. Wite flag of Dorset

It is certainly bright and colourful. I know the red lines are in keeping with the black ones of Devon's flag but they are sensible, as from the numerous examples of this flag that I have seen flying this weekend, the gold becomes very pale in sunlight and it would be difficult to distingush this from the white cross if the red did not mark it out.

Are we going to see a sweep of flags across England now, all associated with local saints, as I suggested for local replacements for St. George's Day? Possibly. A lot of this has to do with the branding of counties and their corporate identity. This may be a challenge now especially in those counties broken up by unitary authorities such as Berkshire (North of Hampshire) and Somerset. Somerset which borders Devon and and Dorset, is in a similar situation to how Dorset was until recently, with a heraldic badge but no flag per se.
The Badge of Somerset

Though parts of Somerset were in Wessex, its dragon is different. A red dragon does appear on the Welsh flag to the North-West of Somerset. I can imagine now, Somerset will come up with its own flag, there are already online discussions about this. Maybe it could adopt something along the lines of 'Land of the Setting Sun', I could envisage that, with a nice blue sky and green base. However, it might also go with the same kind of cross as Cornwall, Devon and Dorset perhaps with the red and blue on white, probably a blue cross, outlined in white, so it does not appear too close to the flag of England as a whole.

The flag of Wessex

Wiltshire, the other county in the South-West (it borders Dorset, Somerset and Hampshire) seems to have gone for something entirely more exotic and which looks more like a flag of some Caribbean island. It was introduced in 2007. The golden bird is a Great Bustard extinct in the UK since 1832 but has been re-introduced in the county. The green and white represent grass on chalk hills of Wiltshire. The circle apparently represents the standing stones at Stone Henge and Avebury in the county and the three white and three green refer to the six counties that currently border Wiltshire. So lots of references in there. However, it does not look that English.

The flag of Wiltshire

Like many people I prefer Chrys Fear's 2006 alternative which was stimulated by chalk horse carvings on hillsides in Wiltshire and seems to sum up the prehistoric culture of the region. The green also echoes that of the Devon flag, a nearby county.

Chrys Fear's flag for Wiltshire

Just to wrap up, I looked at the flag of the main component of Wessex, which is Hampshire, though it falls into the South-East region rather than the South-West. There is a rather dull flag which looks like something that was created by the council in 1977, though it was adopted in 1992 to celebrate the centenary of the county council which had been established in 1889. It had to have special permission due to the inclusion of the crown.

Current flag of Hampshire

The 'Daily Echo' newspaper has launched a campaign for a better Hampshire flag and of the designs on show I like the two from Michael Jacobs:
Designs by Michael Jacobs for flags of Hampshire
These would seem to keep with the style which is gathering momentum along the South coast counties. The rose is an important symbol in the county, which has the Rose Bowl as a key sports venue too. The Tudor rose shown here does appear on Hampshire county badges already. The green and gold of the first design are reminiscent of the flags of Devon and Dorset which seems sensible. The latter references the Wiltshire green but also the naval traditions which are very strong in Hampshire due to Portsmouth and Southampton.

I like the fact that there is cross-referencing between these newly appearing county flags and I hope that Hampshire, unlike Wiltshire, adopts something sensible and that people of the county can be proud of. To show how different things can be when you move to a new region, I include the flag of Mercia which covers what is primarily today the West Midlands of England. This has a Cross of St. Andrew, also known as the saltaire, best known from the flag of Scotland. This could far too easily be mixed with the Scottish flag or even just iconography of the SNP (Scottish Nationalist Party).
The flag of Mercia

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