Medieval Flags and Banners
An extraction from Herbert Norris's Costume & Fashion, Volume Two 1066-1485. Bibliography
"Chapter V - Heraldry" was written in collaberation with G. Ambrose Lee, Esq., C.B., C.V.O., Clarenceux King-of-Arms.
Please bear in mind that Norris was primarily interested in costume, and both he and the Clarenceux King-of-Arms were working with materials and conventions available to them in 1927. I also beg your pardon for the quality of the graphics, I am working from a photocopy.


From the Anglo-Saxon, fleogan = to fly, so called from their manner of flying or fluttering in the wind.

From pre-Christian times there are records of the use of flags -- some-times decorated with emblems. In their earliest forms they were always attached to the spear-shaft, close to the head, and later developments are all derived from this beginning.

The modern term "flag" covers a number of forms, e.g.:


The Oriflamme

From the Latin, aurea flamma = a flame of gold; a name given to a certain flag in use during the eighth century. It was square or horizontally oblong, one end being decorated with the addition of pointed tongues. Usually made of red silk, it had the effect of a golden flame when fluttering in the sunshine.

Perhaps the earliest existing representation of a flag in Europe is in the ninth-century mosaic on the façade of St. John Lateran, Rome. The figures of both Constantine the Great (in ninth-century costume) and Charlemagne hold flags in their hands. These are shaped like the oriflamme, and are of red silk, powdered with circles and other minute motifs which might represent gold flames. The staff of one flag is surmounted by a Greek cross, that of the other by a fleur-de-lys (Fig. 458).

It is said that William Duke of Normandy "allowed his oriflamme, made of simple red tissue of silk, to float in the air" at Senlac. The name "oriflamme," given to the banner which was carried before the French kings and preserved in days of peace in the Treasury of the Abbey of S. Denis, seems to have been originally the designation of any royal standard.

The oriflamme or sacred banner of the Abbat of S. Denis was of red silk, extended by three tongues or flames, having a silk tassel between each. The office of oriflamme bearer was an important and honourable one. Before receiving the oriflamme from the hand of the abbat, the bearer partook of the Sacrament and made a vow to guard his trust faithfully.

In 1119 the oriflamme of S. Denis was carried as the French national standard at the Battle of Brenneville. The oriflamme of France, made of red silk, is shown in Fig. 459, copied from a drawing by Matthew Paris which dates about 1240. It has undergone a change in shape, in accordance with the fashion of the time.

At the Battle of Cassel (1328), under Philippe VI. de Valois (1328-50), "Messire Miles de Noyers was mounted on a great destrier covered with a 'haubergerie,' and carried in his hand a lance to which was attached the oriflamme of vermilion samit in the shape of a gonfannon with three tails, and surrounded by bands of green silk."

Fig. 460 shows the oriflamme of France and S. Denis as it appeared in the fifteenth century. It has assumed the shape of a pennon with swallow-tail. It is of red silk embroidered with gold flames and the motto, "Montjoie (Footnote 1) Saint Denis". ”This oriflamme is said to have been lost at Agincourt, 1415.

The Pennon

From the Latin, penna = a wing, or a feather; a small flag either single-pointed or swallow- tailed. In the eleventh century the pennon was square, one end being decorated with the addition of pointed tongues, Fig. 461 (Footenote 10); it was used by the Normans as a distinguishing mark of knights. Many of these are represented on the Bayeux Tapestry. This one shows a Greek cross in a border embroidered on the pennon. (Footnote 2) The pennon remained for about a hundred years the ensign of the knight, and towards the end of the twelfth century it was charged with some motif from the armorial bearings of the owner -- a badge (see badges on pennons in Fig. 462 and 463). This was placed in such a position -- at right angles to the lance -- that it could be deciphered when the lance was "at charge". The pennon was frequently surrounded by a narrow gold or coloured fringe.

During the reign of Henry III., the pennon acquired the distinctive swallow-tail, Fig. 462; (badge, a Cornish chough proper, for Scrope), or the single-pointed shape shown in Fig. 463 (badge, a sickle, for Hungerford). Another version of the single-pointed pennon was introduced in the thirteenth century. In shape this was a scalene triangle, Fig. 464, obtained by cutting diagonally the vertically oblong banner (see p. 337). (Footnote 3)

The Pennoncelle

A long narrow pennon or streamer, usually single-pointed. Frequently flown from the masts of ships (Fig. 465).

The Banner

Low Latin, bandum = a standard; French, bannière. A perpendicularly oblong flag. It was the ensign of the king, barons, overlords, and "knights banneret," carried before the owner as a sign of his feudal rights.

The banner bore the complete coat of arms of the owner, and represented his shield. The charges were so arranged that the dexter side was always next to the staff, no matter which way the banner flew. (Footnote 4) This rule holds good with armorial flags and banners of all kinds. See Fig. 466, "barry of argent and sable per bend counterchanged: on a chief sable a lion rampant argent"; and Fig. 467, "argent a chief sable" ”-- the banner of the Knights Templars.

Banners were sometimes tongued; for example, see the banner of the Hospitallers (Fig. 468), "gules a cross argent". ”This latter style of banner resembles its ancestor, the oriflamme (Fig. 459). Banners were generally made up on a stiff or rigid foundation to prevent flapping; this had the advantage of displaying the coat of arms more effectively. (Footnote 5) They were frequently decorated with a gold or coloured fringe all round the edge, save at the staff.

It was usual to carry the banner fixed to a spear, and sometimes to a staff. Banners were also attached to long trumpets, and were blazoned with the arms of the lord who employed the trumpeters, and thus corresponded generally with the arms on the tabards of the heralds when the two worked in conjunction.

Some time in the seventeenth century the arms on these trumpet banners were replaced by “Full Achievements” (see p. 317 and Plate XVII. Footnote 7), with crest, helmet, mantling, supporters and motto, set out with decorative accessories and elaborately embroidered. It is interesting to note that banners used on trumpets might have their charges either parallel or at right angles to the trumpet.

Towards the end of the thirteenth century a superior rank of knight was created, it is said by Edward I. At the same time this new rank was adopted in France. When a knight distinguished himself by any deed of valour he was ordered to present his pennon on the field of battle to the king, or to the commander-in-chief, who cut off its ends -- the tongues -- thereby converting the pennon into a square banner, and returned it to the owner, who was thus created a “Knight Banneret”. On this banner he had the privilege of blazoning his armorial bearings. Henceforth the knights of inferior rank were known as “Knights Bachelor,” name derived from "bas Chevalier."

An alternative practice brought the triangular pennon into use at the end of the thirteenth century. The oblong banner was cut diagonally, converting the retained portion into a scalene triangular pennon.

In the first years of the fourteenth century the oblong banner gave place to a square one (Fig. 469, "gules three crescents argent," for Oliphant). The knights bachelors' pennon therefrom took the shape of a right-angled triangle, i.e. half the square.

Although the general rule seems to have been that the pennon was charged with the badge only, and the banner with the armorial bearings, several illustrations of the first half of the fourteenth century are to be found (Plate XVIII Footnote 6, is one of them, and this is of the old-fashioned shape) showing the pennon blazoned with the coat of arms.

The explanation of many variations to be noticed in the use of flags and other heraldic details appears to lie in the fact that the rules and practices governing their use were nearly always transmitted orally from one generation to another. When the traditional practice died out, very few records, if any, remained for the information of the curious of later days.

The Guidon (Guydon)

An enlarged edition of the pennon. Still used by cavalry regiments in the British Army.

The Standard, Auncient

(Norman French, Estendard). The original meaning is an ensign -- that which stands, such as the Roman Signa (see Vol. I., p. 80 Footnote 7). Later it signified a staff with a flag. It was a name given in the Early Middle Ages to the most imposing kind of flag.

Harold, King of England (Footnote 8), possessed one "made of gold tissue having the image of an armed man upon it." Another contemporary description of it is that it "was sumptuously embroidered with gold and precious stones, and represented the form of a man fighting." After his victory at Senlac, William I. sent this standard to Pope Alexander II. His Holiness had already presented the Duke of Normandy with a standard consecrated by himself.

The standard raised at Northallerton in 1138 ("the Battle of the Standard") was a staff surmounted by a crucifix above a silver casket (or pyx) containing the Host, fixed in a four-wheeled car. From the staff below the pyx were flown the sacred banners of S. Cuthbert of Durham, S. Peter of York, S. John of Beverley and S. Wilfrid of Ripon.

The standard in use during the reign of Edward III. was an heraldic flag of pennon shape, usually terminating in two rounded ends, and sometimes swallow-tailed. It varied in size according to the rank of the owner. A typical standard of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries is illustrated in Fig. 470. Such a standard would be decorated and charged as follows:

Next to the staff comes the red cross of S. George on a silver field, (Footnote 9) and the rest of the surface is usually divided, “per fesse,” or “per bend” or “bendy,” into the two principal tinctures of the owner’s coat of arms, or livery colours, with the badge, and sometimes also the motto, blazoned in the centre. The whole standard is surrounded by a fringe of gold, of colour, or what is called componée -- a single row of small alternating squares of two tinctures of the shield. (See also Beufort shield, Plate XIX.)

The standard shown has the red cross of S. George and the livery colours, argent and sable, charged with the badge of an oliphant proper. The fringe is componée of argent and sable.

The standard was usually carried rolled up. Not only was it too sacred to display without reason, but also its great length made it awkward to carry. It was hung from a window or high tower in the owner’s castle.

The photograph, Plate XVII.B, shows the banner of the city of Ghent, 1482, which varies from those previously described in an interesting way. It shows the lion familiar in Flmish armorial bearings.

The Gonfannon or Gonfalon

(Italian, Gonfalone, the bearer of this flag was called a "gonfalonier").

The gonfannon was a long flag, pointed, or swallow-tailed, or of several tongues, displayed from a transverse bar slung to a pole or spear. It was used for various purposes, chiefly decoration. It could be either charged with a badge or coat of arms, or ornamented with a fancy design. The gonfannon in Fig. 471 has four tongues, and is charged with a badge -- a castle. See also Plate XVI Footnote 7. showing one charged with a coat of arms. The gonfannon was much used for ecclesiastical ceremonies and processions.


Footnote 1. Norris' footnote: “Montjoie,” the war-cry of France. “Renounèd word of Pride” (Chanson de Roland).

Footnote 2. There is some dispute over whether or not the symbols displayed on the banners on the Bayeux Tapestry actually represent particular heraldic badges (and thus particular people). Also there is insufficient detail on the Bayeux Tapestry to be able to say by what method the symbols were applied to banners (i.e. it might have been embroidery, but that can't be determined from the Bayeux Tapestry).

3. I don't think that Norris meant to say that the device-carrying banner itself was cut diagonally. After all, that would remove half the device and ruin a perfectly good banner. I think he meant to say that if you cut the vertically oblong banner diagonally, you'd get the scalene triangle shape that was also used as a pennon.

4. The back of an heraldic banner is a mirror image of the front.

5. Unless a flag were made from very stiff materials indeed, it will droop in folds from the pole. I think a horizontal support rod above the flag to hold it out, or making the flag in very light materials so it would fly more readily, are more likely solutions. I'm still looking for pictures or references to support this theory.

6. Plate XVIII is from the Louterell Psalter and shows Sir Geoffrey Louterell preparing for a tournament with assistance from his wife and daughter-in-law. The Norris version of the picture is very poor and the picture is well-known. I'll find a better representation for you to look at.

7. Not included in this material.

8. Either Harold I Harefoot (1035-1040) or Harold II (January - October 1066).

9. Norris' footnote:
All standards had the S. George’s Coat, and at later dates the Union device, next [to] the Staff, to identify the owner as an Englishman or Briton. In 1606 the Cross of S. Andrew was added to that of S. George; and in 1801 that of S. Patrick was incorporated with the earlier union, to form what is now known as the Union Jack.

10. The shape of the flag shown in Fig. 461 and the way Norris has displayed it (on a vertical pole) could lead one to label it a a gonfanon rather than a pennon.

This page created: 24 June 1996
e-mail: donna(AT)kwantlen(DOT)bc(DOT)ca
Back to "Medieval Flags and Banners" home page.