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United Kingdom: Regimental Colours

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Regimental colours

[Major's colour of the 1st Foot Guards, 1705] by Tom Gregg

[Major's colour of the 1st Foot Guards, 1707] by Tom Gregg

In the early 18th century infantry colours still somewhat followed a pattern prevalent in the English Civil War and earlier. A regiment would typically deploy in three wings under the command of its three senior officers, the colonel, lieutenant colonel and major. The captains of the ten companies (four with the colonel and three each with the other field officers) also had their own flags. The colonel's colour was usually a plain flag in the facing colour of the regiment's uniform. After the 1660 restoration of the monarchy, colonels grew in power and influence to the point that they owned their regiments, and tended to put personal symbols on their flags. All the other officers added a small St George's cross in the canton. By 1707 this cross had been transformed into the whole flag, leaving only the colonel's flag in the facing colour. The various officers were distinguished as follows:

  • Lieutenant colonel: cross alone.
  • Major: cross with a flame, called heraldically a 'pile wavy'.
  • Captains: in descending order seniority, a cross with some other device like a ball, star, lozenge, etc. (e.g. first captain has one ball, second captain has two balls, etc.).
A chronicler at the coronation of James II in 1685 made a note of the colours of the 1st Guards which actually consisted of two battalions or 20 companies. The colonel's was plain crimson; lieutenant colonel's was a St George's Cross with imperial crown in gold in the center; major's was same as the lieutenant colonel's with the pile wavy emanating from the corner. The captains' device was the king's cypher and crown. The first captain had one of these in the centre of the cross; the last captain had twenty of them sprinkled on the flag. Between 1660 and 1712, the captains' devices in the guards regiments were gradually replaced by company badges, each company having a royal grant of some special badge, ending the repetition of multiple captains' devices.

In 1707, the St George's Cross was joined by the St Andrew's Cross, and at the same time the captains' colours were eliminated, leaving only three ensigns for the three field officers (one plain flag, and two Union flags). In 1747 this system was completely reversed and replaced by what pretty much prevails to this day: two colours per battalion, the first being the king's colour (Union flag), and the second being the regimental colour in the facing colour with a Union in the canton. Regiments with red or white facings carried a St George's Cross with the Union in the canton, and black facings were represented by a St George's Cross on a black field. Also in 1747, colonels were prohibited from putting personal devices on their colours.

To this day the guards regiments have pretty much failed to comply with the 1707 and 1747 reforms, and continue some semblance of the protocol of the 17th century. Every company continued to carry its own colour until they were finally abolished in 1838, but from about 1747 guards battalions carried only two of the colours in battle. These two colours are called the opposite of what the rest of the army calls them: the Union flag is the regimental colour, and a crimson flag is the king's/queen's colour. Until recently most of the guards regiments had three battalions. The 1st battalion had a plain crimson flag, 2nd batallion was distinguished with a Union in the canton (17th-century lieutenant-colonel style), and 3rd batallion was distinguished with a Union and a pile wavy (17th-century major style).

With the abolition of company colours in 1838 a system of company badge rotation on the remaining two colours was established. Battalion colours are renewed approximately every ten years, and all the battalions of the regiment receive a new stand at the same time. A hypothetical scenario: if in 1900 the 1st to 3rd battalions carried on their colours the 11th to 13th company badges respectively, then in 1910 these would be replaced by the 14th company for 1st battalion, 15th company for 2nd battalion, and 16th company for 3rd battalion. The five guards regiments now consist of one battalion each, which presumably will drag out the company badge rotation for a much longer time.

T.F. Mills, 2 February 1999

Since there are no known surviving colours of English line regiments, either as actual flags or as drawings, from the reign of Queen Anne, it is impossible to state that with any degree of certainty what they were like. Some colours are known from William III's reign, largely from French captures. Where there are sufficient numbers from a single regiment, it would seem that the captains' colours were identical - St George with a regimental device. But only two regiments are involved, the 3rd and the 12th Foot, so it is difficult to generalise. The system of one device for the 1st captain, two for the 2nd captain etc., only just predates the Civil War. It was probably in use during the Bishops' War (1639-40) but not during the 16th century. That system had fallen out of use in the guards regiments by 1700 (with the use of company badges), and in line regiments by the reign of William III.

Ian Sumner, 3 February 1999

[9th Foot regimental colour, 1757] by T.F. Mills

[9th Foot regimental colour, 1772] by T.F. Mills

[9th Foot regimental colour, 1807] by T.F. Mills

I am sending a drawing of the 9th Foot regimental colour which was presented c. 1757. This is based on an almost identical illustration in John Mollo's Uniforms of the American Revolution and the central device is identical to a black and white one in Dino Lemonifides's British Infantry Colours shown as an example of the rococo style (i.e lopsided and asymmetrical wreath) prevalent in the 1760s. This colour is erroneously portrayed as current during the 1770s, but in fact it was replaced before the American revolution (1772) by another with a different style wreath, for which I also send a drawing. This is illustrated in Terence Wise's Military Flags of the World in Colour. This style would appear to be an intermediate phase between the asymetrical rococo and the 1780s symmetrical-style wreath enclosing the regimental number on a shield. For good measure I am also sending the regimental colour of the 9th Foot c. 1807 since it also appears in the Lemonofides book. This includes the regiment's new badge of the figure of Britannia, and yet another style of wreath.

T.F. Mills 6 February 1999

The 5th Regiment of Foot had a Regimental Colours in gosling green. The Union Flag was in the canton with a Roman numeral "V" in the centre. The three other corners had a crowned rose. The central device on the Colour was St George in white armour on a brown horse lancing a green dragon. This device may have been surrounded by a baroque style Union Wreath.

T.F. Mills, 2 April 2001

78th Highlanders

The Regimental Colour of the 78th Highlanders Regiment of Foots would be almost identical to the first flag of the 9th Foot. The 78th was buff instead of yellow and had the number LXXVIII in the centre. The unit was raised by Simon Fraser in 1757 for service in the Seven Year's War. You can see a rather unclear photo of a replica of the 78th Colour at:
Todd Mills, 25 July 2000

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