Buckinghamshire’s flag was registered on May 20th 2011. It is described as a “traditional flag” on the Flag Registry with references to the swan emblem dating back to Anglo-Saxon times when Buckinghamshire was known for breeding swans for the king – at this time the bird was considered a delicious meal! As a county bounded by the River Thames, water fowl are obviously endemic to the locality and swans are common, so the emblem is certainly a meaningful and representative one. The specific design of the flag however, derives from heraldic badges and arms, variously borne by local nobility, in the post Anglo-Saxon era and later incorporated into the arms awarded to Buckinghamshire County Council.
Swans on arms often appear without any further adornment but one particular style includes a ducal coronet about the neck and a gold chain “reflexed” over its back, which is termed “a cygnet (i.e. a young swan) royal”. This is the form used on the Buckinghamshire flag. The collar of a ducal coronet may be a reference to the Duke of Buckingham, as the swan on the Bucks flag was certainly his badge but a swan of this type had been used as a badge previously by earlier nobility and possibly might just have been a mark of high rank.
The swan emblem appears to have originated with a man bearing the Danish name of Sweyn, grandfather of one Henry of Essex, a 12th century Sheriff of Buckingham. Sweyn, was assigned a badge showing a swan, in typical punning fashion, as a play on the similarity of the the word ‘swan’ and the name ‘Sweyn’. Such “canting arms“, where the devices on a shield are visual references to the names of the people who bear them, are a common heraldic practice. While this is an early linkage of the swan emblem with the county town, it was a family badge, a similar heraldic device to a coat of arms and was used wherever the family was resident or active. The swan badge came to the Mandeville family through marriage and inheritance and then when the last male Mandeville died in 1227 passed to the de Bohun family through the same process. The de Bohuns made good use of the badge, perhaps because they claimed descent from the mythical ‘Knight of the Swan’ who figures in French Medieval romance.
The swan is shown here
atop the De Bohun coat of arms on a seal (used to secure documents by being stamped into melted wax) although it appears not to have a coronet and chain in this depiction.
A century later Eleanor (Alianora) de Bohun and her sister Mary, children of the last male member of the de Bohuns, continued to use the swan badge. Here
it is as depicted on Mary’s seal clearly chained and with a coronet collar. She married Henry Bolingbroke, later to become King Henry IV and was the mother of Henry V, who in turn included the swan on his standard
Eleanor de Bohun also used the swan as her badge
and her tomb in Westminster Abbey includes decorative swans
She married Thomas of Woodstock, the youngest son of Edward III, who had received the title Earl of Buckingham in 1377 and thus definitively initiated the association between Buckinghamshire and the swan emblem.
The granddaughter of Thomas of Woodstock and Eleanor de Bohun, Anne of Gloucester, passed the swan badge to her son Humphrey Stafford, who in 1444 was created 1st Duke of Buckingham. Stafford employed the collared swan emblem as his personal badge and the association of this swan with the county of Buckinghamshire probably became established during his lifetime. Stafford’s standard
clearly displays both the swan badge
and also the red and black livery colours which have also become associated with the county of Buckinghamshire. It also, incidentally, includes the Stafford Knot, so symbolic of the county of Staffordshire whence the Duke came.
In 1521 Humphrey Stafford’s great grandson was executed and thus the title of Duke of Buckingham became extinct, however 45 years later, the herald Thomas Hervey reported that the arms of the town and borough of Buckingham’ were ‘partly per pale, sable and gules, a swan with expanded wings, argent, ducally gorged’ i.e. red and black with a white swan in a golden chain. The design from Stafford’s standard appears to have been adopted for civic use, following the extinction of the ducal title and appears on John Speed’s 1610 county map of Buckinghamshire, at the top of an inset plan of the county town
Seventeen years later, the association between the arms of the swan and the town of Buckingham was sufficiently well known to have been mentioned by the poet Michael Drayton in his 1627 work the “Ballad of Agincourt” where he wrote “The mustred men for Buckingham, are gone Under the Swan, the Armes of that olde Towne.”
At this time a swan was also recorded in the arms of High Wycombe (then known as Chepping Wycombe) where it stood on a green mount against a black background, with a gold chain about its neck. The same arms were recorded in 1915 in his “Book of Public Arms” by heraldist Arthur Fox-Davies
and again in 1953 by C.W. Scott-Giles. Although, curiously, the town appears not to use such arms today, a chained swan has appeared on the shirts of Wycombe Wanderers football club consistently since 1898
Unequivocal evidence that the ducal arms had become recognised as a general Buckinghamshire emblem is their appearance on Thomas Conder’s 18th century “British Traveller” map of the county
Fox-Davies describes Buckinghamshire Council as having no official bearings but unofficially using something akin to the arms used by Buckingham, the original county town. As in the 16th century report, these are described as red and black with a white swan
although notably he does indicate that some illustrations depict the swan unchained. A modern version of the arms is shown here
and another decorates this early twentieth century example
of Goss ware china
Just over thirty years later (1948) Buckinghamshire Council was officially awarded arms which incorporated the red and black livery colours of the Stafford Dukes of Buckingham and the famed “coroneted” Swan badge of the de Bohuns.
This is all confirmed by C .W. Scott-Giles who writes in his 1953 work on civic heraldry “The swan of the ducal house of Buckingham became a charge in the arms of the towns of Buckingham and High Wycombe…” and continues with reference to the council’s arms “The swan of the Stafford Earls and Dukes of Buckingham stands on their livery colours red and black.”
A further reference is made to the fact that a swan was also adopted as a supporter of the shield and “..has thus become the general emblem of the County…”, underlining the appropriateness of the swan emblem as the county flag. Accordingly the white collared swan and red and black colours found in these county council arms, which had a long standing association with the county, predating the council’s use, were adapted for deployment as the county flag. Interestingly the supporting swan in the council arms has no collar and chain, it is a free wild bird and as such is representative of the River Thames which forms the southern boundary of the county and defines much of its character. In fact the “Thames National Path Trail” has advised that a Swan without crown or chain was used as a symbol of “South Buckinghamshire” as depicted on seals
placed on Marlow Bridge when it was renovated in 1860. The legend “Sicil de Desbro” meaning ‘Seal of Desborough’, the town of Marlow being in the Hundred of Desborough, one of the Chiltern Hundreds. A local school of thought holds that an unchained, crownless, swan was used at the time of John Hampden, a prominent local Parliamentarian during the Civil War and its subsequent inclusion reflecting the restoration of the monarchy. Arguably such an unshackled swan, which as noted had been seen in some earlier versions of the Buckingham town arms, might have provided a more dynamic charge for the county flag.
A decorative shield bearing the swan against the red and black bicoloured background
is found above the entrance of the old County Hall in Aylesbury. Notably, the yellow chief awarded to the county council for its civic arms, is not present.
As the “general county emblem” the swan appears in the arms of several of the towns in the shire including Aylesbury,
again against a red and black background and
Marlow and Newport Pagnell.
Aylesbury football club uses a badge
that is nearly identical to the arms of Buckingham and its players also compete in red and black “livery”
The club seems to be consciously portraying itself as a Buckinghamshire team through use of such eminent county symbols. “White Swan”
is also the name of a pub in the town.
A stylised collard swan in green is the badge of Buckinghamshire County Cricket Club
and the swan appears on this military badge for a county unit
Whilst the county’s archery association’s badge seems to be an adaptation of its flag
Buckinghamshire’s swan was also incorporated into the emblem of the
Before the registration of the Buckinghamshire flag an armorial banner of the county council arms
had already been commercially available, erroneously styled “Buckinghamshire flag” or “flag of Buckinghamshire”. This is not the county flag. Although the council arms and the recently registered flag all spring from the same source this specific banner, which includes the yellow panel at the top (chief) and a depiction of Whiteleaf cross, a prehistoric feature in the county, represents only the Buckinghamshire County Council, not the wider county. Curiously since the registration, both the registered design
and a variation of this
with a less flamboyant swan, have become widely available. It is notable that this simplified variation on a theme is the flag that flew outside Eland House, the HQ of the Department for Communities and Local Government, in 2010
Even more marked is its apparent appearance outside a Buckinghamshire County Council office in Aylesbury
The flag can be seen around the county; over the old Buckingham Gaol;
raised domestically in Aylesbury;
and decorating the Buckinghamshire segment of the 2014 Tour De France.
It is seen here
with the Buckinghamshire county Airsoft team, below
over the crowd at Glastonbury and here
flown by a county resident.
A Buckinghamshire flag of proportionate size also flies over the castle at the model village of Beckonscott located in the county, at Beconsfield,
at a civic event in Aylesbury.