Here’s a fun thought experiment for you. What if we took England’s nine separate regions, and designed them each their own flags?
As it is, they don’t have flags – in fact, these regions only barely exist in the public consciousness as statistical areas and electoral constituencies for the European Parliament. But, if we imagined transforming the UK into a federation (stay with me, people) with sub-national provinces made out of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the Nine Regions of England, then wouldn’t that be interesting? Especially for flag lovers?
As a lover of a good, old flag, I’ve clearly given this some thought. And now I’ve put those thoughts onto paper – fly with me now, nerds! Fly like the flag-filled wind!
It’s Flag Time
For each of the flags I’ve mocked up here, you’ll see a couple of features in common. First, there’s a quarter-width vertical band along the hoist featuring St. George’s Cross – this is to acknowledge that the regions are not being created despite England, but as a conscious part of it. Second, depending on perspective, the outer fly is either edged with five little protruding squares (technical term) or four little intruding blank squares. These five extruding and four intruding areas add up to nine frilly features – nine, of course, being the total number of English regions.
For London, we have a white field emblazoned with a red lion rampant in the centre. The colours are taken from the existing flag of the City of London Corporation, which features a St. George’s Cross with a red sword in the canton. In the new flag, the cross is represented instead along the hoist, and the sword emblem is omitted – opting instead to incorporate a lion as a symbol of the city-region. This can make sense as London is a seat of royalty, as the capital of the UK, and as a generally quite tough and intriguing creature in its own right.
Next! Here’s the flag for the East of England, which combines the principal elements of two ancient Saxon kingdoms, Essex and East Anglia, which comprise most of the contemporary territory of the region. The field is splayed into six equal rectangular sections – three horizontally on the upper field, and three horizontally below, in alternating red and blue. The red sections with white scimitars represent Essex, while the blue sections with golden crowns represent East Anglia. This is all meant to reflect both the two principal kingdoms that put down early roots in the modern region, as well as a forward-looking spirit of working together.
For the South East of England, we also look towards the good old Saxon days for our imagery and our colours – in this case, the ancient kingdoms of Kent and of Sussex, which together oversaw the majority of the territory found in the modern region. The Kentish flag, still used today, features a white horse* rampant on a red field, while the flag for Sussex features six golden martlets on a blue field. These equine and avian elements combine here to form a white and gold pegasus on a field of nine horizontal red and blue alternating stripes, representing both these old kingdoms and also (in numbering nine) the region’s kinship with the nine new regions that make up England as a whole.
The flag of the South West of England is comprised of four diagonal quadrants of blue and black, crossed horizontally with a white stripe, and emblazoned in the centre with a stylised golden wyvern – the mythical dragon-like beast long associated with the ancient Saxon kingdom of Wessex. The black in the left and right quadrants (and the white stripe across the centre) is taken from St. Piran’s Flag, and represents the people of Cornwall – the only English community with its own Brythonic language, and officially recognised as a national minority by the EU. Blue quadrants in the top and bottom of the field represent the northern and southern coastlines that flank the region, and reflect the region’s obvious connection to the sea. Additionally, the wyvern’s eye is formed of a star, further representing navigation and seafaring.
The West Midlands flag features a square central field in black, emblazoned diagonally with three white compasses, and a vertical quarter-width band of three smaller flags on the outer fly. The black field represents the Black Country, the heartland of early British industry and the Industrial Revolution, generally agreed to have began here – the compasses further symbolise the explosion of innovation, invention and craftsmanship that defined the era. On the upper and lower fly, we have gold saltires on blue fields – these are the Flags of St. Alban, flown by the kings of Mercia, one of the largest Saxon kingdoms of the late first millennium, with the modern West Midlands at its heart. In the middle of the fly there’s a black cross on a golden field – this is an inverted St. David’s Cross, representing the West Midlands’ place along the Welsh border.
The flag of the East Midlands features a violet field emblazoned with a white oak tree, ringed by a white crown round its trunk and five white stars arching over its top. The violet field represents majesty, reinforced by the symbol of the “Major Oak” – the 1,000-year-old tree found in Sherwood Forest, and long associated with Robin Hood as a place where he and his band of Merry Men would find shelter – the crown overlaid with the tree represents harmony between nature and those responsible for taking care of it. The five stars above and the five distinct roots below represent the five historical counties which comprise the East Midlands today (Lincolnshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Northamptonshire), and the Five Boroughs of the Danelaw – the five main towns established in what was once Danish Mercia (Lincoln, Derby, Nottingham, Leicester and Stamford). *
Yorkshire and the Humber is represented by a slate blue field with an undulating white border, and emblazoned with three white roses. The slate blue represents clarity and purity of nature, and also evokes both the sky (and the region’s high westerly altitudes) and its long coastline. The white roses will be recognisable as a longstanding symbol of Yorkshire – here, it’s represented three times, for the three historical constituent ridings of the ceremonial county (East, West and North). The white undulating border line represents the River Humber.
The North West of England flag features a field of diagonal quadrants, with blue quadrants on the upper and lower field, and gold quadrants on the left and right. Each blue quadrant features an inverted white chevron, representing Cumbria and the Peak District, as well as reminding us of the region’s northerly position. The gold quadrants, representing generosity, each feature a stylised red rose, a longstanding symbol of Lancashire – the second largest county in the modern region.
The flag for Northumbria is drawn directly from the banner of the eponymous Saxon kingdom that ruled over much of this territory. Nine vertical bands alternate red and gold, representing generosity and strength of spirit, and brightness of character (even during the worst of the northeast’s weather!)
And that, folks, is that! In advance of this week’s elections to the European Parliament, I hope these little mock-ups help to spur our imaginations a little bit – looking at the various bits of England not just as electoral districts with highly uninspiring names, but as distinct areas with their own dynamics, legacies and interesting personalities. Which require flags, obviously.
Really, now. Why do this?
Britain is a funny old country. Funny-ha-ha, for sure, but also funny-peculiar – in a ha ha kind of peculiar way.
First of all, it’s a country. But it’s also comprised of four distinct countries within it (a tradition reinforced by history and, in no small measure, by FIFA). These countries are themselves a bit funny. One of them (the funniest) is England, with 85% of the UK’s population. But England has no legislative assembly, or parliament – the big stuff is decided at Westminster, and the small stuff is broken across hundreds of unitary council authorities, metropolitan borough councils, parishes and county councils – unless you’re in London, which has its very own type of councils that don’t exist anywhere else. In the countryside, you’ve got shire counties (which have some powers) overlapping with ceremonial counties (which exist mostly for fun). People post things to my wife’s work by putting Middlesex in the address – despite the fact Middlesex hasn’t existed for forty years.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland work differently again, and it’s all obviously terribly confusing – and, whenever I’m confused, I daydream. Not the most practical response to every confusing problem, but it’s led me into imagining the UK as a constitutional federation. Oh, the daydreams I dream!
The thing is, although England considers itself to be a country within the UK, it’s just too big to devolve power to, a la Scotland. As one gigantic sub-national unit among four, it just wouldn’t be very sensible or practical. To make the UK really work as a federation, you’d be better off not devolving power to England as a single beast, but to England’s nine regions.
And that could happen! Although powerless shells of things at the moment, these nine regions do formally exist, and the idea of turning them into provinces is not new – even Churchill talked about it. The idea’s never really obtained, though – in part because designing a constitution is a lot of work, apparently, and in part because, as England’s regions aren’t nations, it seems they don’t automatically command a natural authority or gravitas as sub-national units. That’s one of the things that makes the UK funny.
Of course, it’s hard to imagine people really identifying themselves as “South East Englanders,” but why not? Whatever it is people mean by nation, it can always be redrawn into any number of compositional sub-national identities that operate beneath the mythological skin of the nation more broadly. A general “Britishness” overlaps with a general “Englishness,” which then overlaps with being from Yorkshire, or Cornwall, or London – all identities that can happily co-exist, and do. But, it’s in these non-national regions today where an absence of devolved, coherent, symmetrical democratic structures is really notable. And that is sad.
Turning regions into provinces with their own parliaments would be a lot of work, involving a lot of argument (never a reason not to do something, of course!). In the meantime, I’m afraid the thought experiment extends mostly to the level of, errr, drawing flags 🙂 I mean, where would you start?
* Full disclosure – for these two designs, you might think I’ve borrowed unashamedly from flags depicted in the Lord of the Rings. Well, you would, in fact, be right (well done you!). The horse motif in the South East is taken from the flag of Rohan, and the tree used for the East Midlands is, indeed, rather Gondor-like. So, no money-making reproductions, please 🙂