There are 86 counties in Great Britain: 13 are Welsh, 39 are English and 34 are Scottish. Many of these counties have existed for the best part of a thousand years and contrary to a general misunderstanding, have never been abolished. It may therefore come as something of a surprise to learn that Caernarfonshire, Middlesex, Banffshire, Westmorland and Cumberland all still exist. Such misunderstandings have arisen because of the association made between local administrations, generally termed councils and counties. It is often assumed that a council represents a county and a county is represented by a council but this is not the case.
In the late nineteenth century, the local administrations, the county councils, were set up for each county. With population changes over the following century the government redefined local administrations so that they were no longer based on the real counties. However, changing administrative arrangements did not abolish the real counties which have never gone away, a council does not a county make! To underline this fact, when the 1972 local government act came into effect, a government official was at pains to explain that
“They are administrative areas, and will not alter the traditional boundaries of counties, nor is it intended that the loyalties of people living in them will change.” .
Middlesex therefore, existed since the Anglo-Saxon era, a council was created to administer it in the 1890s, that council ceased to be in 1965 but the county was never abolished as an entity by any legislation. Ulverston and Barrow are in Lancashire, Wantage, in Berkshire, Sedbergh is in Yorkshire, Bournemouth has never ceased to be in Hampshire. The same applies to traditional county divisions such as the “Ridings” of Yorkshire and the “Parts” of Lincolnshire.
Several decades later, on Saint George’s Day 2013, Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, whose remit covered England, asserted that the nation’s historic and traditional counties still exist, and are now recognised by the government – including the likes of Cumberland, Huntingdonshire, Westmorland and Middlesex. For years and in disregard of the 1974 government statement many parts of Whitehall and municipal officialdom had shunned these counties, a practice which Mr Pickles announced would not be maintained as the government would now seek to encourage the marking and continued use of such traditional county names and encourage local residents to continue to champion such local identities, irrespective of current tiers of local administration. The Secretary of State declared,
“The tapestry of England’s counties binds our nation together. This government has binned the arbitrary Government Office euro-regions, and instead, we are championing England’s traditional local identities which continue to run deep. Administrative restructuring by previous governments has sought to suppress and undermine such local identities. Today, on St George’s Day, we commemorate our patron saint and formally acknowledge the continuing role of our traditional counties in England’s public and cultural life.”.
The following year Mr Pickles used the same Saint George’s Day date to announce a further initiative to support the ‘tapestry’ of traditional English counties. His department declared,
“England’s traditional counties date back over a thousand years of English history but many of the counties have been sidelined by Whitehall and municipal bureaucrats in recent decades, including the municipal restructuring by Edward Heath’s government in 1972. By contrast, this government is championing local communities continuing to cherish and celebrate such traditional ties and community spirit.”
A change in planning rules was presented which would allow for councils to put up boundary signs marking traditional English counties – including the likes of Cumberland, Huntingdonshire, Westmorland and Middlesex. Eric Pickles himself stated that
” the tapestry of England’s counties binds our nation together, and is interwoven with our cultural fabric – from our cricket to our ales. Previous governments have tried to wipe the counties off the map, imposing bland administrative structures or alien euro-regions. But I believe we are stronger as a nation when we cherish and champion our local and traditional ties. This government is proud to wave the flag of St George alongside our county flags. Whatever one’s class, colour or creed, we should have pride in our English identities within the United Kingdom’s Union that binds us together.”
The true status of our counties is explored further here.
EMERGENCE OF COUNTY FLAGS
Unlike American states or German Länder, the counties of the United Kingdom have not uniformly, borne distinctive flags. A few such as Kent and Essex, have been associated with specific emblems for centuries which in the modern era have also appeared as flags. The constituent divisions of federal or confederal states such as Germany and Switzerland readily adopt or are ascribed flags, as indications of their authority. The constituent divisions of the United Kingdom, the counties, never having exercised such powers as wielded by territories like the state of California or Bavaria, have not required such expression.
Certain territories of the United Kingdom however, with differing historical, cultural and linguistic legacies have raised flags, to mark themselves out as distinct and different. A Cornish flag has existed since at least the nineteenth century for instance and is considered to be a “national” flag reflecting a status of the territory and its people as an assimilated Celtic land, rather than just one amongst many English counties. Similarly flags for the North Atlantic archipelagos of the Shetland and Orkney islands, with strong Scandinavian heritages, were created in the twentieth century. In recent years such enthusiasm has spread and a number of British counties have marked their presence as distinct entities with a county flag. In much the same manner that one may wave a national flag to demonstrate pride in one’s nation or support for a national sports team, so people wanting to demonstrate their local pride or indicate their origins amongst a concert crowd or similar gathering, have turned to flags as a natural means of doing so.
The complication with this trend however is that for England and Wales at least, there being no “UK Flag Act” that might “authorise” such county flags, there is no official method or process of establishing them. The College of Arms is commissioned to design flags for government offices and departments and of course designs and registers the arms of individuals and corporations but has never been required to do the same for any of the shires, it does not supply county flags.
THE FLAG REGISTRY
In an effort to regularise the situation, a registry has been established by the Flag Institute. Founded in 1971 the Institute is one of the world’s leading research and documentation centres for flags and flag information and an adviser to the British government on flag related matters. The UK Flag Registry exists as a definitive record of the flags which exist in the UK both nationally and locally. There is no other similar formal national listing, so whilst ostensibly it operates as a record book of county flags, it effectively serves also as the de facto authority which endorses them.
The criteria laid down for inclusion in the Registry emphasise the authoritativeness of the record; designs are not accepted without question but have to demonstrate a definite usage or acceptance:
- The design must be unique within the UK (i.e. no other UK area or organisation is using the design);
- The design must be in the public domain (i.e. not subject to copyright);
- In the case of county flags the flag must normally apply to a historical county rather than a modern administrative area ;
- The flag must be registered with the College of Arms, registered with the Office of the Lord Lyon, traditional, selected by a public vote or selected by an appropriate county or city organisation.
For county flags this in practice generally means being endorsed by a venerable county organisation, which can be a county council or an active local pressure group; a flag for Hertfordshire for instance was registered after its sanction by Hertfordshire County Council, while the flag of Lancashire appeared as a result of a request from the Friends of Real Lancashire. In Scotland however, all flags must be authorised by Lord Lyon (the chief heraldic authority) and recorded in the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland.
TYPES OF FLAGS
County flags fall broadly into three categories;
- “Banners of arms” of local authorities released for public use – e.g. Hertfordshire;
- Flags derived from or utilising elements from, banners of arms in a simplified pattern; e.g. Lancashire;
- Entirely new and ground breaking designs. e.g. Dorset.
A “banner of arms” (or “armorial banner”) refers to the practice of extending the design from the shield found in a coat of arms, on a rectangular piece of cloth to be deployed as a flag. All bodies or individuals, who have been granted coats of arms by the College of Arms or Lord Lyon, may display them in this fashion including county councils.
The confusion of councils and counties is particularly evident in the area of arms and banners. It is often generally assumed that arms granted to a county council also represent the county it administers as an entity in its own right and that a banner of such arms is therefore the county flag; this is not the case. Coats of Arms and banners formed from them may be legally used only by the body to whom they have been granted and individual citizens have no right to display or fly such banners without specific permission, a fact generally ignored by commercial flag producers and vendors who often market banners of council arms as county flags. This is specified by the College of Arms in reference to the revised flag flying regulations of 2012 stating “The regulations are not intended to permit the flying of armorial flags or flags bearing coats of arms;…. It is unlawful to fly or use a flag of the arms of any local authority save on sites or premises occupied by that authority.” Given that the 2012 regulations make specific reference to flags of a “county” and “historic county” this categorical statement puts it beyond doubt that local authority banners are not county flags! Such confusion can be attributable to the fact that council arms frequently include symbols or devices that are locally familiar or used traditionally to represent the county and its people; often the same or similar versions of symbols found on council arms will be seen on the badges of county sporting bodies or fire and rescue services, so there is a clear association of symbol and county. Symbols of this kind may derive from local legend such as the Stafford Knot in Staffordshire or may originate from the arms used by families of local renown over several centuries.
It is common for council arms to feature a traditional local device or theme, as one element, within a more detailed coat of arms, the additional charges specifically distinguishing the body and often reflecting the authority it wields; whilst the basic theme or pattern represents the wider county in general. Some examples are depicted below with county flags at left and armorial banners of local councils at right
For several counties the situation differs slightly. The modern counties of Kent, Essex, and Sussex originated as kingdoms in the Anglo-Saxon period. As such they were anachronistically ascribed arms by mediaeval heralds several hundred years later with arms based on local traditions, as depicted by George Vertue in his 1745 engraved depiction of the arms of the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy.
Thus three white seaxes (short Saxon swords) on a red field were the arms of the ancient kingdom of Essex and were also used in Middlesex which originally formed part of that early kingdom. A white horse on a red field was ascribed to Kent and six gold martlets (swallows) on a blue field to Sussex. Such emblems were associated with the respective counties for centuries before the establishment of local government and the county councils in these counties were accordingly granted arms incorporating these ancient emblems but having thus existed before the origin of the county councils, such arms could not be restricted to their use alone and citizens of these counties have always been free to bear flags with these ancient devices. Incidentally the arms representing the kingdom of Northumbria in Vertue’s engraving are the cross and lions from the See of Durham, which seems to be a misapprehension, as the red and yellow striped device of ancient Northumbria was well attested by this time and clearly pre-dates the Durham arrangement.
Aside from the legal restrictions on their use there are also stylistic objections to the use of council arms as county flags. Although individual elements from such arms may be worthy of inclusion in a county flag the arms themselves in most cases do not make good flags. As heraldic contrivances the designs are often complicated or “fussy”, replete with motifs and colours that might serve well on a town hall wall but do not work too well on a piece of cloth flying from a lofty perch. The complex heraldic patterns generally contravene the tenets of good flag design highlighted by the Flag Institute which state:
- Keep it simple The flag should be simple enough that a child can draw it from memory.
- Use meaningful symbolism The flag’s elements, colours, or patterns should relate to what it symbolises.
- Use two to three basic colours Limit the number of colours on the flag to three, which contrast well and come from the standard colour set: red, orange, yellow, green, light blue, dark blue, purple, black and white. Yellow and white work well on any of the other colours and vice versa.
- No lettering or seals Avoid the use of writing of any kind or an organisation’s badge, seal or coat of arms. It is better to use elements from an appropriate coat of arms as symbols on the flag.
- Be distinctive or be related Avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections.
- How will it fly in the wind? Remember, the design must be distinctive when flying on a high pole in a strong wind, and when hanging in windless conditions too. Also remember that it will almost always have ripples caused by the wind.
You may also like to consult the Flag Institute’s more expansive guide to good flag design, which is particularly applicable to the design of British county flags and the more general flag design guide.
THE STATUS QUO
In the modern era with the practice of flag flying gaining ever greater popularity, several campaigns to establish county flags have successfully achieved registration with the Flag Institute. Of the 86 counties 47 are now “vexilliferous” or flag bearing. A map of Great Britain depicting these is shown on this site, clearly demonstrating the large swathes of territory as yet “unflagged”.
The Flag Registry includes a number of areas, islands and regions, which bear flags of their own. Regions such as East Anglia and Wessex, both former kingdoms, and islands, which by their nature are clearly separate entities, appear on the registry although they may traditionally fall within the accepted boundaries of an adjacent county. Flags for the Ridings of Yorkshire are also on the registry.
Revised regulations in 2007 and 2012, outlined here ( with links to the specific legislation included towards the end of the pages) have greatly reduced the restrictions on the raising of flags in England and made it a far easier practice.
Government quotes through the years regarding the nation’s real counties:
■ “The new county boundaries are administrative areas, and will not alter the traditional boundaries of counties, nor is it intended that the loyalties of people living in them will change despite the different names adopted by the new administrative counties.” (Government statement issued 1st April 1974 and printed in the Times newspaper (see also “
■ “I can confirm that the government still stand by this statement,…. that the local authority areas and boundaries introduced in 1974 do not alter the boundaries of traditional boundaries of counties. The 1974 arrangements are entirely administrative, and need not affect long-standing loyalties and affinities.”
Michael Portillo MP – Minister of State for Local Government – 11th July 1990
■ “The Local Government Act 1972 did not abolish traditional counties, only administrative ones. Although for local government purposes some of the historic counties have ceased to be administrative areas, they continue to exist for other purposes, organisations and local groups.”
Department of the Environment – 3rd September 1991
■ “I can confirm that these Acts (1933, 1972) did not specifically abolish traditional counties so traditional counties still exist but no longer for the administration of local government…”
Department for Communities and Local Government – 22nd August 2006
■ “The legislation that currently defines counties for the purposes of the administration of local government is the Local Government Act 1972 (as amended by various Orders in the 1990s). This legislation abolished the previous administrative counties, which were established by the Local Government Act 1933. However, these Acts did not specifically abolish traditional counties, so traditional counties still exist, but no longer for the purpose of the administration of local government.”
Parjit Dhanda MP, PUSS at the Department for Communities & Local Government – 16th April 2008
■ “The historic English counties are one of the oldest forms of local government in Western Europe. Their roots run deep. And no amount of administrative reshuffling can delete these longstanding and cherished local identities.”
Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 11th July 2011
■ “The background to the legislation relating to local government administrative areas and traditional counties is as follows: The Local Government Act 1972 defines counties for the purpose of the administration of local government. The above Act abolished the previous administrative counties, i.e. those established by the Local Government Act 1933. Neither Act specifically abolished traditional counties – these still exist but not for the purpose of the administration of local government.”
M. Duggleby, Department For Transport, Leeds. Tuesday 9 October 2012
Underlining the government’s commitment to our true counties, in 2016 the Office of National Statistics produced a user guide to its Index of Place Names in Great Britain which specifically highlights their continued existence. The publication explains “Recent moves to recognise the cultural importance of historic counties led to a change in planning policy in 2014 so that road signs for these areas may now be put up by local authorities.” … “The forthcoming 2016 IPN will offer a variety of changes and new features designed to be useful to a wide range of users. …place names will now also be assigned to historic county….”
The British County Flags blog was suggested by adventurer and campaigner Andy Strangeway ,
amongst whose achievements are five flag competitions which are detailed on these pages. The current administration thanks him for his hard work initiating the site.