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British republican flag

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[British Republican flag] by Marc Pasquin, 28 April 2002

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Discussion about the flag

On page 316 of the book "The Long Week-End: A Social History of Great Britain 1918-1939" by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, it says that during the celebration of George V's silver jubilee in 1935, a very few die-hards "defiantly flew the old republican colors which had been used in the days of the Chartists : red, white, and green in horizontal stripes." I assume that this means that there was a republican and/or Chartist red-white-green horizontal tricolor flag used in England around 1848 (if such a flag had been invented after 1848, then presumably there would have been a greater awareness of potential conflict with the Hungarian flag).

Has anyone ever actually heard of this British republican flag?
Henry Churchyard, on rec.heraldry, forwarded by Mark Sensen, 26 April 2002

It is worth mentioning that the flag used by the Parti Patriote, the republican party in Lower Canada around 1837-39, was a horizontal green-white-red. I am no implying that one influenced the other, I just find the coincidence interesting.
Marc Pasquin, 28 April 2002

Yes, I have, and I'm very glad to read this message as I'd come to the conclusion that I must have imagined it! I remembered reading about such a flag being flown in an account of the 1819 "Peterloo" massacre (when reformists were killed by mounted troops at St Peter's Fields near Manchester) when studying for my pre university examinations back in the mid-1980s.  However, I never made a note of the reference and never came across it or any confirmation since, until now.
Roy Stilling
, 28 April 2002

In John Stevens "England's Last Revolution" (Moorland Publishing Co., Buxton 1977) there is a reference to a British Republican flag; "...William Oliver - 'Oliver the Spy' -...had talked of London waiting for the country to rise, and of people like Sir Francis Burdett waiting in the wings to lead the new British Republic with its red, white and green Tricolour." (p.32) As the Pentrich Revolution was greatly influenced by that of the French, I believed the flag to be a tricolour in the same sense as the French flag. As both sources mention the red-white-green combination, it is a logical deduction to believe the two are related.

The Pentrich Revolution (1817) was a good decade before the start of the Chartist movement (early 1830s). The flag may have started as a vertical tricolour (i.e. influenced by France), but when it was 'adopted' by the Chartist movement it may have changed to horizontal, either to distinguish it from the French flag or because flag from the Pentrich era was not known. Hence the important fact is the colours (i.e. Republican colours) rather than the direction of the bands.
Matt McCullock, 14 April 2003

This flag is carried in the masthead of James Linton's journal The Cause of the People, 1848, with the wording "Fraternity - Liberty - Humanity" inscribed on it.
Chris Ford, 17 April 2003

I have been interested in Welsh republican and English republican flags for some time. Republicanism began to revive in Britain circa 1750 and along with its revival politically it revived a version of the new model army's livery of "blue and buff" which could be interpreted as blue and orange, suggesting loyalty to the house of orange, i.e., the monarchy introduced by the glorious revolution. British flag colours at this time remained as they had been in the 17th century:

  • blue was the basic flag of civil government (hence basis of colonial government flags such as used by Australia and New Zealand, and the blue area of the USA flag)
  • red was the basic flag of military authority (hence associated with the monarch as leader of the armed forces and origin of the red ensign of the royal navy, it symbolised the intention to give fight and so was also associated with pirates as the "jolly roger", i.e., "joli rouge" as in French )
  • white was frequently associated with private companies as well as non-combatants such as heralds (hence erecting a white flag to symbolise intention not to fight )
  • black was associated with death and mourning (hence later association with anarchists announcing death of old society)
  • yellow was associated with Catholicism (yellow + white = papal colours)
  • orange was traditionally in heraldry a colour used to stain a coat of arms to mark disgrace, but under the name "orange" had been used to pun the title of the principality of orange, a small city state in the south of France that passed into the hands of the stadholders of Holland who came to the throne of England in the glorious revolution (1689?) ( hence orange became associated with the Protestant cause and later the colour of the whigs who became the modern liberal-democrats)
  • purple I have had many debates about recently, because it was extremely rare until the mid 19th century when Perkins' Purple became cheap, whence it lost
    its associations with luxury and even royalty and imperialism (in Britain green-white-violet were the suffragette colours, but I have argued that since the right to wear purple implied citizenship in ancient Rome's republic it has a long association with republicanism, and coal-tar dyed clothes were seen as progressively "modern" in Victorian times).
  • picture sources show 17th century revolutionaries like the diggers and levellers with green flags - green was the colour of 18th century radicals because it was the "commoners' colour" and hence construed as democratic - after the union of Britain and Ireland it was seen to imply opposition to the red white and blue union flag. Green seems to have been combined with blue and orange to imply the British lobby for democratic controls over crown and government. (Some people just openly flew "old glory" at state occasions like the king's review of the fleet...) Green and orange have also apparently been commonly used since the late 19th century in British trade unionism to symbolise that protestant and catholic are united in their industrial struggle.
Then came the French flag and the idea of an internationalised struggle for democracy led by the hero of the moment, Napoleon. Now I have not settled this quite, but it seems that Napoleon had a kind of imperial tricolour that has become the basis for many national flags that were touched by his conquests of liberation, and some that merely shared the vision of an international democratic brotherhood of man. The two well known examples are Italy and Mexico, and in Britain the democraticising movement adopted the same colours and so they became associated with chartism. Pictures of chartist rallies depict tricolours that are arranged as the republican model (vertical bars) and the monarchical model (horizontal bands). Here in Wales these colours seem to have already been associated with neo-druidism, which itself had deeply democratic, nationalistic and anti-establishmentarian views. Radicals like Edwards and Price freely associated with both intellectual movements, and after the chartist insurrections druidism was clearly seen to be subversive, and hence so was speaking Welsh and so eisteddfodau became a political cause celebre. Out of this emerged the subversively new flag to replace the old golden cross on a black ground denoted the cross of Saint David. The new flag was not only boldly pagan in its druidic symbolism, but contrived to use red, white and green and insist that they were the ancient colours of the Welsh nation! (Actually the dragon flag is an heraldic nonsense in that it breaks the established rules of heraldic flags) (there were originally several dragon flags of different colours on single colour grounds, used as military standards for different areas, e.g., Dyfed's dragon was red on a white ground )

The first association of red with the working class /socialist cause is usually attributed to the Merthyr Tydfil uprising when in a bout of disorder in circumstances of extreme poverty a group of iron workers decided that people must be fed and captured a calf on Hirwaun Common and butchered it, bringing the bloody joints back in a sheet which they then displayed as a kind of hatchment and declared that the cow was a martyr to their just cause (1832?).

The question remains in my mind as to whether purple / violet is a definitely republican symbol in Wales, the hint being that around 1800 the most common kind of violet, wild heartsease, gets the name "trilliw" in Welsh, i.e., gets denoted by the same word used of the republican flag (it is a firect translation of "tricolour"). Heartsease has two upper petals that vary from a dark blue-purple to pinkish violet, and three lower petals that vary from orange-yellow through to a very pale yellow verging on white. It used to be a common button-hole that might have had a coded significance. The rest of the plant is of course green, and I find that purple yellow and green make a very satisfying combination of colours (especially with red symbols on the yellow).

Something that you have not mentioned in the design of your flag is proportions. The most popular proportion for modern flags is 2:1, but that is not the majority. Look in a modern book of flags and there are some very peculiar proportions. I have toyed with various republican flag designs as I speculate about their history, and I find the most satisfying tricolour shape and division is one that hints at the mystical-religious side of 18th century republicanism's Deism. It is the irrational proportion of one to the square-root of three, which when divided into three vertical parts yields self-similar rectangles (suggesting both the Christian Trinitarian
godhead and the equivalent importance of liberty, equality and fraternity) (or anything else you choose ...)

David Barry Lawrence, 2 January 2004

I would suggest that the republican flag developed like this (imaginative exercise): the Foxite radicals were using blue + orange to symbolise government + crown, and the prince regent's lobby might well have imagined the crown to be a moderator of extreme government measures against the people and placed orange between blue (government) and green (people). The committed democrats however would have dropped the orange after the French revolution, producing the early tricolour scheme of blue + white + green (peace between government and people?). The British empire emerged out of the government takeover of the East India Company territories in the mid 19th century, when the new cheap "Perkin's purple" was all the rage and favoured by Victoria, newly declared empress - hence the later tricolour, post-chartist, of purple + white + green (peace between the empire and its peoples) used by the growing British republican movement that was finally bought off by manhood suffrage in 1885 and so disintegrated into several factions (mainly home-rule and socialism that led to the nationalist and labour political
movements in modern Wales). Those that had not got the vote in 1885, i.e. women, used the same colours reversed: green-white-violet for "give-women-votes".

David Barry Lawrence, 7 March 2004