Wessex Flag

The modern design of the flag of Wessex gained official government approval in 2012.

Until 2012 any county or regional flag in England – unless it was also a saint’s flag – was unofficial and regarded as advertising material that needed planning permission to be flown. But in October 2012 it was announced that the Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, had reviewed the regulations on flags and decided that “The flag of any island, county, district, borough, burgh, parish, city, town or village within the United Kingdom; and the flag of the Black Country, East Anglia, Wessex, any Part of Lincolnshire, any Riding of Yorkshire or any historic county within the United Kingdom” should be allowed to fly legally.

The change was referred to by Eric Pickles in a press release on 25th May 2013 (St Ealdhelm’s Day) when he said:

Recent events remind us that we are stronger as a society when we celebrate the ties that bind us together. Whatever one’s class, colour or creed, let’s have pride in Britain’s local and national identities. It’s right to celebrate the kingdom that paved the way for a united England: for today, the only way is Wessex.

And, on that day, the Wessex flag was duly raised over the Eland House Headquarters of the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) in London.

The Wessex Flag flying at Eland House, DCLG HQ on 25th May 2013.

The Campaign for Recognition

In 1969 the Redcliffe-Maud Commission had recommended the reform of local government in England to bring in a regional tier.  In 1974 William Crampton, the Director of The Flag Institute put forward a proposal for the flag for the South West (Wessex) Region.  This was a gold wyvern on a red background, based on a range of historic references.  He illustrated his proposal with a design, drawn by Jack Verhoeven, that is the basis of the one used today.

But as with regional government, nothing much happened to promote the flag until the early 1990s, when Jim Gunter, a former member of the Flag Institute, created a large-scale copy of the design and shared this with colleagues in the embryonic Wessex Society, which aims to promote all aspects of Wessex life – cider and beer; food; literature; music and more.

In 1997 David Robins, also involved in the formation of Wessex Society, commissioned the production of probably the first actual Wessex flag, utilising the Crampton/ Verhoeven design.  This had its first public unfurling at Wells Cathedral that year.  Then in 1999 Wessex Society had its official launch and society member Nick Xylas created a digitised copy of the flag that spread across the Internet.

In the following years the society encountered some difficulty flying the flag, hampered by bureaucracy and the reluctance of local officials. In 2010, Wessex Society sought to raise the flag on the 1,111th anniversary of the death of Alfred the Great, the renowned king of Wessex. The society approached the Winchester Guildhall to mark the occasion by flying, for just one day, the flag of Alfred’s Kingdom. The proposal was initially turned down. After considerable negotiation, and assistance from the locally based SLS Group events company, a compromise was reached and permission was granted to fly the flag in the grounds adjacent to the guildhall. Thanks to the generosity of SLS Group, four flagpoles, symbolising the four figure “1”s of the 1,111th anniversary were erected, each bearing a Wessex wyvern.

At this time Flag Institute member Jason Saber contacted Wessex Society, to suggest seeking registration of the Wyvern with the Flag Institute as the regional flag of Wessex, to gain some official recognition and thus hopefully help to avoid future problems. The society duly requested registration a few months later, which was completed in 2011.  This change was influential in gaining legal recognition two years later, as it provides a pattern for what is now officially the flag of Wessex.

The History of the Wyvern Flag

The golden Wyvern has a long history; possibly it is the oldest flag still in current use anywhere in Europe, if not worldwide. Like all things with a long history, its origin is shrouded in mist and myth.

The Saxon historian Widukind of Corvey, writing in the 10th century (Res Gestae Saxonica), mentions the dragon among a number of battle signs sacred to the Saxons.  The hard evidence for the Wessex emblem rests on 3 sources: Henry of Huntingdon; the Bayeux Tapestry, and an episode in Geoffrey of Monmouth. 

Henry of Huntingdon, writing in the 12th century, mentions the creature twice.  Firstly at the Battle of Burford between the West Saxons and the Mercians in 752 AD.  The victorious Army of Wessex was led by eolderman Ædelhun “who bore the king’s ensign of a golden dragon”.  Secondly, at the battle of Ashingdon between Edmund Ironside and Cnut in 1016, “the valour of King Edmund was conspicuous, who, seeing the Danes fighting with more than usual vigour, left his royal station, which was according to custom between the Dragon and the Standard, and hastened into the front line”. 

The Bayeux Tapestry, embroidered by English seamstresses about 1077, gives an almost contemporary picture of the scenes around the command post at the death of King Harold where the artists showed 2 dragon ensigns.  These have two legs rather than four, so are technically ‘wyverns’ although still part of the dragon family.

The third piece of evidence for the dragon of Wessex is a fictitious but enormously influential passage from Geoffrey of Monmouth.  Geoffrey was a grand creator of history and is generally not to be believed but even deception relies on sources.  He introduces a dragon at the accession of Uther as king. After Merlin has interpreted the celestial marvel to him, Uther “ordered 2 dragons to be fashioned in gold, in the likeness of the one which he had seen in the ray which shone from that star.”  As soon as the dragons had been completed he made a present of one of them to the congregation of the cathedral church of the See of Winchester.  The second one he kept for himself so that he could carry it round to his wars.  From that moment onwards he was called Uther Pendragon, which in Welsh means “chief dragon”.  It can also be interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as “dragon’s head” and this could signify both the standard – which on the Bayeux Tapestry is a windsock with a pole through the animal’s jaws – and a helmet.  The dragon, inherited by Arthur, appears twice later in Geoffrey’s account.  Arthur wears “a golden helmet with a crest carved in the shape of a dragon”; and in the battle against the Saxons “he set up the Golden Dragon which he had set up as his personal standard.

Where did Geoffrey get the idea of this dragon standard?   There is a strong likelihood that Geoffrey’s dragon is based on the historical banner of the English kings.  Naturally such a banner would be hung up in the cathedral of the capital of Wessex at Winchester, and with the continuity of church life under the Normans, might survive to interest a tourist, like Geoffrey, in the 1130’s.

One possible source is that the symbol was adopted by the kings of Wessex from Byzantine images which were being resurrected by Charlemagne. Principal amongst these Wessex kings was King Ecgberht, who took the throne in AD802, after 16 years of exile at the court of Charlemagne, returning with a wife of Frankish origin.

After the Norman Conquest the dragon continued to be held in high regard, remaining “the customary standard of the English kings”.  It was used by Richard I, Henry III, Edward I, and Henry V.  When King John was invaded by the French in 1216, his enemy Louis VIII heard that he “had raised the dragon,” the signal of war, at Winchester.  The orders of Henry III for making of a dragon in 1244 have been preserved: “Have a dragon made, in the form of a banner, out of red samite.  I want it embroidered all over with gold, with a tongue that looks like burning fire and seems always to be flickering, and with eyes made out of sapphires or whatever other gems be convenient.”  In 1245 and 1257 this dragon came into use in the wars against the Welsh.  In 1264 the dragon was borne in the civil war at Lewes; and it was heard of at Crecy in 1346, when King Edward raised “his unconquered standard of the Dragon”. It appeared again at Agincourt. There is a tradition that a golden wyvern on a red standard was carried into battle by the English up to the 15th century.

The first author to treat the beast as a national badge was the Jacobean antiquary, John Speed, who included “gules, a dragon or” as the arms of the Heathen West Saxons in his early British heraldry in 1611.  In heraldic notation “gules” is red and “or” is gold.   

Froissart’s Chronicle also shows two dragons in the scene where Wat Tyler is killed at Smithfield in 1381:

The context is that the dragons are being flown by the rebels.  King Richard then rides over to pacify them with promises (soon broken).  Froissart was in France but had good local sources, even if he tended to elaborate fancifully.  One rebel demand was “that there should be no law within the realm save the law of Winchester”.  What is meant by the “law of Winchester” has been much debated.  One theory is that it was another term for the Domesday Book, believed to provide protection for particular groups of tenants.  Another is that it refers to the Statute of Winchester 1285, which allowed for the enforcement of local law through armed village communities, and which had been cited in more recent legislation on the criminal law.  The creation of special justices and royal officials during the 14th century was seen as eroding these principles.