Last modified: 2011-07-02 by rob raeside
Keywords: scotland | cross: saint andrew | saint andrew | saltire | athelstaneford |
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2:3 (also used in other dimensions); image by António Martins-Tuválkin, 30 May 2006
The Scottish flag traces its ancestry back to the Battle of Athelstaneford, making it possibly the oldest of national flags, although among modern independent nations that honour generally falls to the Danish flag.
One legend, (very much a story but of interest nonetheless), concerns the fact that it is believed by generations of Scotsmen that our national flag, the white saltire on a blue ground, the oldest flag in the British Commonwealth, originated in a battle fought, a little
more than a mile from present day Markle,in the Parish of Prestonkirk in East Lothian, in the Dark Ages between the Picts and Scots on one side and the Angles of Northumbria on the other. There are various versions of the tale but it is generally agreed around the time of the 8th century, an army of Picts and Scots under King Hungus found themselves surrounded by a force of Angles under their leader Athelstan. King Hungus prayed earnestly for deliverance to God and the saints and that night St Andrew appeared to the King and promised them victory. Next day, when battle was joined, the vision of the white saltire (the diagonal cross on which the Apostle had been martyred) was seen by all in the blue sky. This so encouraged the Picts and Scots and affrighted their adversaries that a victory was won. King Athelstan was slain at the crossing of the burn, still known to this day as
Athelstaneford. The story continues that this all was seen as a 'Miracle' and may have been the origin of the name "Markle"!
In the nearby East Lothian village of Athelstaneford, a flag heritage centre commemorates and discusses the development of the legendary white cross on the blue background.
Thomas Middlemass, 6 February 2000
Nick Groom in his book, The Union Jack, the story of the British Flag,
published April 2006 claims the following: page 85.
"Constant attacks from the Vikings".
"It was during the course of these raids that king Angus adopted St. Andrew as the Patron Saint...and the next day as a silver saltire shone in the bright blue sky...thereafter the Picts adopted the diagonal white cross as their national banner". He notes "Bellenden's 1536 translation of Hector Boece 1520...worked from a lost source c1165...this is erroneously given as the eve of a battle with the Saxons at East Lothian in 832".
Also on the Bristol University website, The Union Jack, Nick Groom:
"The St Andrew's cross, a silver saltire on blue...It was also the omen seen in the sky by the Pictish king Angus before he defeated a Danish invasion".
In my opinion the enemy of the Picts at the Battle of Athelstaneford, were Angles-Saxons and not Vikings-Danes. So, I e-mailed Mr. Groom. He stated that: "used the Oxford Companion to British History (1997), and then followed up original sources (as indicated in footnotes and bibliography)". All the sources I can find, show the enemy of the Picts at the Battle of Athelstaneford to be Angles-Saxons.
You are quite right to object to 'Danes' as the enemy of the Picts
as stated on the website: the enemy was reputedly a king Athelstan of England.
The story in medieval Scottish sources is chronologically impossible, however:
Athelstan and Ungus/Unust/Onuist king of the Picts were not contemporaries
(doesn't matter which of two Onuists you pick: 729-61 or 820-34). I think
'Danes' must have crept in in a misguided attempt to make the story credible for
the second Onuist.
In this case we are helped by the survival of two account of St Andrews foundation, both 12th century. One (the longer, called the 'B' account) can be dated to David I's reign (1124-53) as it stands, but it seems to have an earlier core dating from about 840. Unfortunately it is extremely difficult to show what belonged to this earlier core. The other (the shorter, called 'A') can be dated to sometime in or shortly after 1101. The exciting thing about the shorter legend of 1101+ is that it gives what looks like the earliest account of the famous battle. It does not say that a saltire was seen in the sky (that is a much much later detail) but it does describe a cross. The whole passage reads (with apologies for a translation that tries to stick closely to the Latin, and is not very elegant!) [note that the king, obviously Onuist, is called 'Ungus']:
'At that time, not by chance but by divine instigation, a king of the Picts called Ungus son of Urguist, rising up with a great army, killing with the cruelest devastation the British nations living in the south part of this island, finally reached the plain of Mercia and wintered there. Then all the peoples of nearly the whole island, coming with a united force, surrounded him, intending to destroy him and his army completely. Next day, the aforementioned king went out for a walk with his seven most intimate companions, and a divine light shone around them, and they fell forward onto their faces, unable to bear it [the light]. And lo!, a voice was heard from heaven: 'Ungus, Ungus, hear me, an apostle of Christ, Andrew by name, who am sent to defend and protect you. Get up; behold the sign of the cross of Christ which stands in the sky and will go before you against your enemies: nevertheless, offer a tenth part of your inheritance in alms to God Almighty and in honour of St Andrew His apostle'. Now on the third day, advised by the divine voice, [Ungus] divided his army into thirteen troops, and the image of the cross went in front of each division, and a divine light shone from the top of each and every sign. Thereupon they became victors.'
You'll notice that English are not specified explicitly, by the way, but Mercia is (the biggest Anglo-Saxon kingdom in the eighth century). Now, an early source (northern English annals of the 8th cent) refers to Onuist I and the king of Northumbria coming to terms with the king of Dumbarton on 1 August 756, and then talks of one of them (presumably Onuist) leading an army from Govan to 'Newburgh' where, on 10 August, it was nearly completely destroyed. Alex Woolf has pointed out to me that 'Newburgh' here could be a place in Staffordshire in Mercia, and that this could be the situation mentioned in the legend, when Onuist was facing annihilation in Mercia but managed to escape. What was Onuist doing down in Mercia, you might ask? Another early English chronicle (again from the 8th cent) refers to the king of Wessex in 750 rebelling against the king of Mercia and Onuist king of the Picts. It looks as if the king of Mercia and Onuist shared the position of preeminent ruler of Britain. Maybe in 756 Onuist was trying to establish himself as king of Britain, but was nearly destroyed. This interpretation might also explain the terms of reference in the account in the legend: it is not referred to as 'Picts v. English', but as Onuist v. nearly all peoples in the island of Britain. It is as if Onuist was trying to establish a more powerful monarchy, and everyone else feared him and wished to destroy him. But that is just a bit of a guess!
None of this really helps explain the saltire specifically. Also, although Andrew was clearly a very important saint to St Andrews itself and some Pictish kings, it is not clear that Andrew became patron saint of Scotland (or that there was any patron saint as such) until the eve of the wars of independence. It all depends what is meant by 'patron saint' of a 'country/nation'.
Dauvit Broun, 2 July 2006