Essex’s fearsome flag was included on the registry from its inception, in the early years of the 21st century. The three white seaxes (short Saxon swords) with gold pommels, on a red field were the arms ascribed in the later mediaeval period to the ancient kingdom of the East Saxons, or Essex. They appeared on John Speed’s 1611 Atlas “The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine” here,
and were thus regarded as representing the former kingdom, turned county, of Essex for centuries. This is acknowledged by heraldist Arthur Charles Fox-Davies, in his 1915 work ‘The Book of Public Arms”
which also includes an image of the emblem
As they had already been in the public domain, well before the creation of the council, however, an armorial banner formed from these anciently attributed arms could not be restricted to the council’s use but as with the arms from which it was derived, represented the whole county as an entity. The armorial banner was, therefore, the county flag. Interestingly, the Essex council arms feature no supporters, crest, motto or other adornments typical of a heraldic award, the plain decorated shield, of ancient renown, being used alone. Such plain arms are a rarity in heraldry and usually typify arms of antiquity before the development of such additional features.
Speed’s depiction of the Essex seaxes was predated by 6 years, as their earliest reference, by Richard Verstegan who in 1605 stated in his work “A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence”,
printed in Antwerp,
“Erkenwyne king of the East-Saxons did beare for his armes, three [seaxes] argent, in a field gules”
i.e. three short Saxon swords on a red background. He cited no authority for his assertion but appears to have been confident about it. Speed subsequently included the arms in his atlas but qualified the notion that they were used by the ancient East Saxon kings with the statement “as some or our heralds have emblazed”. Why precisely the three seaxes were originally ascribed as the arms of the Kingdom of Essex has been lost in the mists of time, however, as it is believed that the name of the nation of the Saxons was itself derived from the Seax, the form of weapon for which they were best known, it seems logical that the weapons were chosen as a reflection of the name. However, it may well be that there had been a royal tradition of using the seaxes in Essex as there had been an association in Kent with the white horse emblem held to have been borne by that kingdom’s founders Hengist and Horsa. The choice of arms attributed by later heralds may have been based on such a tradition.
The depiction of the blades themselves seems to have evolved over the years. Whilst some assert that the notches seen on the blades in the Essex flag were used to prise open oysters, a common food on the county’s coast, they are not present on existing seaxes, such as this one
displayed in the London museum (missing the original wooden handle). Gouging chunks out of a weapon like this would seemingly weaken its solidity and usefulness. Examples of seaxes are also not curved like scimitars. These characteristics seem to be the products of heraldic fashion!
The extent to which the arms were recognised as symbolic of the county is demonstrated by a number of examples; in 1770, Peter Muilman published the first volume of his History of Essex, on the front was a female figure with a shield by her side bearing three seaxes, they later appeared on the masthead of the Chelmsford Chronicle, as seen on this edition dated Friday, July 14th, 1815
and they were used on their fire plate, by The Essex Equitable Insurance Society, established in Colchester in 1802
Today, the arms can be found today on a stained glass window in Chelmsford Cathedral
and boldly announce entry into the county
They appear in the arms and the badge of the University of Essex
and the badges of the local police
and cricket club
The arms of several towns in Essex, issued in recent decades include a seax or two from the county emblem
The old Kingdom of Essex stretched further inland towards the Midlands and covered territory now in Middlesex and Hertfordshire. Accordingly the same arrangements of three seaxes on red was used in Middlesex for centuries until in 1910 the County Council there received arms that were distinguished by the addition of a Saxon crown over the seaxes
The original form of the arms is retained in the badge of Middlesex County Cricket Club
The Essex flag is widely recognised and much used, especially on vessels
and in sporting contexts
It can be found flying or displayed around the county
and over the Glastonbury crowd
and has been unfurled at the county’s highest point, “High Wood”.