The Grammar of Heraldry/Chapter 13

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The custom of depicting heraldic devices upon flags has been practised from the earliest period, and is still in use amongst all nations. The same rules are to be observed in blazoning a flag as in blazoning a shield, observing that the former is always supposed to be transparent; if, therefore, the material of which it is composed be so thick as to be opaque, the charges on the other side must be drawn in reverse, so that the several devices exactly cover each other. The depth of a flag is called the dip, and the width the fly.

Several varieties of flags were formerly in use, indicating, by their form and size, the rank of the bearer. Many of these, however, have now become obsolete; but, as frequent allusion is made to them in history and ancient ballads, it is necessary that we should possess some knowledge of this interesting subject.

In the following passage from ‘Marmion,’ mention is made of several of the various flags which were carried in mediaeval times:—

‘Nor marked they less, where in the air
A thousand streamers flaunted fair;
    Various in shape, device, and hue,
    Green, sanguine, purple, red, and blue,
Broad, narrow, swallow-tailed, and square,
Scroll, pennon, pensil, bandrol, there
    O’er the pavilions flew.
Highest and midmost was descried
The royal banner, floating wide;
The staff, a pine-tree strong and straight.
    Pitched deeply in a massive stone,
    Which still in memory is shown,
Yet bent beneath the standard’s weight,
Whene’er the western wind unrolled.
With toil, the huge and cumbrous fold.
    And gave to view the dazzling field,
    Where, in proud Scotland’s royal shield.
The ruddy lion ramped in gold.’

The Pennon

Was a small narrow flag, separating at the fly into two points, resembling the modern burgee. It was affixed to the end of a lance, from which, when in actual use, it depended, and the charge is always Fig. 194.
so blazoned, as to. appear correctly when the lance is thus held.[1] Fig. 194.

Penoncels, or Pensils, were small pennons, usually borne to ensign the helmet, or to form part of the caparisons of the knight’s charger.

The Pendant, as carried by vessels of the Royal Navy, is a variety of the pennon, but narrower, and of much greater length, being sometimes 20 or 30 yards long. In the upper portion is blazoned the cross of St. George.

The Banner

Was a small flag nearly square, or a pennon, with the points torn off. It was the custom for a sovereign to reward a knight on the field of battle, for any particular act of gallantry, by tearing the points off his pennon, thus converting it into a banner. Henceforth the knight was entitled to blazon his arms on a square shield, and was styled a knight-banneret. The banner (which contained all the quaterings of him who bore it) was carried either on a pole or lance, or more frequently depending from a trumpet, which custom is still retained by the trumpeters of the Household Brigade. We read in Shakespeare, ‘I will a banner from a trumpet take, and use it for my haste.’ And again, in Chaucer:—

‘On every trump hanging a brode bannere
Of fine tartarine full richly bete;
Every trumpet his lordis armes bere.’

The flags carried by cavalry regiments, though usually called Standards, ought properly to be styled Banners. The flags of foot regiments are entitled Colours.

The Banner-roll, or Bandrol, and Guydhomme, or Guidon, were small banners, the latter rounded at the fly, on which were separately emblazoned the various quaterings of a knight; and were usually carried at funeral processions.

The Ancient

Was a small pennon, or banner. The bearer of it, who was called by the name of the flag, held a similar position in the army to that of the modern ensign. This explains that passage in Othello, where Cassio, in speaking to Iago, says, ‘The lieutenant is to be saved before the ancient.

Fig. 195.

The Gonfannon

Was a pennon or guidon supported as shown in the illustration, Fig. 195.

The Standard and Ensign.

The Standard, on account of its size, was not carried in the hand like the pennon and banner, but the staff to which it was attached was fixed in the ground; hence its name.

Fig. 196.
On the Royal Banner, or, as it is commonly though erroneously styled, the Standard (Fig. 196), are displayed the arms of the United Kingdom; and on the Ensign, or Union Jack, the emblematical crosses of England, Scotland, and Ireland, blazoned as follows:—Az.; the saltires of St. Patrick and St. Andrew, quaterly per saltire, countercharged ar. and gu.; the latter fimbriated of the second; surmounted by the cross of St. George, of the third, fimbriated as the last.

It is a curious fact, illustrating the amount of heraldic knowledge possessed by the designers of the bronze currency, that the shield on which the hand of Britannia rests is incorrectly blazoned. The ensign is there made to appear as a single saltire, surmounted by a cross, and both fimbriated.

In the case of the Exhibition medal of 1862, the inaccuracy is still more flagrant, The Union is there typified by a plain saltire, surmounted by a fimbriated cross.

  1.         ‘The trustiest of the four
    On high his forky pennon bore;
        Like swallow’s tail in shape and hue.
        Fluttered the streamer glossy blue,
    Where, blazoned sable, as before,
    The towering falcon seemed to soar.’—Marmion