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 to the ancient kingdom of the East Saxons, or Essex, by Richard Verstegan, who, in his 1605 work “A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence”,
printed in Antwerp, stated that
“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.
John Speed subsequently included the arms in his 1611 atlas, “The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine” where they appear twice on a map of the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy, once on a decorative column at the left of the page, denoting the “founders” of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, where “Erkenwyn” is seen holding a shield bearing the design
and again on the actual map
John Speed qualified the description that they were used by the ancient East Saxon kings with the phrase “as some of our heralds have emblazed”.
There is, as yet, no definitive origin for the three seaxes as the arms of the Kingdom of Essex. 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, so it is logical that the weapons might be chosen as a reflection of the name. One theory has been propounded by historian James Lloyd whose research unearthed a mediaeval manuscript (Harley 2169) originating in the reign of Henry VI (1421-1471). This includes a set of arms ascribed to the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy, the seven kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon era from approximately the late fifth century to the ninth. Remarkably, the arms featured in this work for the Kingdom of Kent, depict three seaxes! White on a red background.
Lloyd has proposed two theories regarding this set of arms. In the first he contends that the mediaeval herald who completed this work, following the contemporary practice of referring to Hengest and Horsa, the legendary founders of the Kingdom of Kent, as generic “Saxons”, may have invented the seaxes as “canting arms“, where the devices on a shield are visual references to the names of the people who bear them – this is a common heraldic practice; the herald assigning these to Kent on the grounds that that was the first “Saxon” kingdom to be established. Alternatively, he suggests that the design may commemorate a gruesome but significant chapter in the annals of the founding of the kingdom, the so-called “Treachery of the Long Knives“, recorded by Nennius and made famous by Geoffrey of Monmouth, when Hengest’s forces, gathered to negotiate with the Brittonic (British or ancient Welsh) ruler Vortigern, concealed their seaxes under their cloaks. Hengest is reported to have cried out “Nimat eowre seaxes”, (Take out your seaxes.) as the signal for his men to kill the Britons. The herald who devised the arms bearing these three seaxes may have had this infamous incident in mind.
James Lloyd’s extensive study of Kent’s white horse has concluded that Richard Verstegan, in his above work, later assigned the white horse to Kent on the basis of a set of prevailing ideas and then re-assigned the above three seaxes emblem to Essex, based on the etymological link between the name of that kingdom and the seaxes depicted.
The seaxes of the Kingdom of Essex then appeared in an account of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy “Divi Britannici”
published in 1675 and have subsequently been regarded as the emblem of the 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. In the twenty-first century therefore the Flag Institute accepted that the armorial banner of the shield bearing the three seaxes, was 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.
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 its county council sought a distinctive arrangement of its own, and was awarded amended arms, distinguished by the addition of a Saxon crown in chief, (at the top of the shield) over the seaxes, in 1910.
The original form of the arms was retained in the former badge of Middlesex County Cricket Club, replaced in 2017
and the current Middlesex Rugby club badgeThe 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 flags were used to prise open oysters, a common food on the Essex 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. Existing examples of seaxes
are also not curved like scimitars. These characteristics seem to be the products of 19th century heraldic fashion!
“I have long been intrigued by seaxes. Why do the blades each have a huge notch in the back? What blacksmith would damage the strength and flexibility of his fine forgework in such a way? What could be more impractical in use? A quick trip to London Museums found 5 genuine seaxes, although the perishable hilts do not survive. A trawl through the internet confirmed my findings. The seaxe was not a curved scimitar missing a disfiguring bite but a strong and practical weapon and tool. The blades varied in length from 3 to 30 inches and were straight, unnotched and very sharp. They were solidly triangular in cross-section with a long and lethal point; the larger ones were quite heavy. A few were decorated with linear designs near the back, a very few had an owner’s name.
So when did the notches appear? Next a visit to the College of Arms. Here it was clear that seaxes in early heraldry were straight and unnotched. Only later did they become curved and notched. There was apparently a gradual transition during the 19th century. Possibly there were in that century Heralds of an artistic turn of mind who had, or sought, no access to the genuine article.
The last question was why did the notches appear? The only clue I came across was a description of the seaxe as sometimes grooved. Some blades had lengthwise grooves along or near the back. There could be several reasons for this, one being to lighten it as a weapon. A carefully designed groove would not necessarily reduce the strength of the blade, unlike a notch which cuts across the inner patterning and can only weaken its structure. There is the possibility that at some time “groove” became confused with “notch” with the result we see. A misunderstanding…”
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 its fire plate, by The Essex Equitable Insurance Society, established in Colchester in 1802
Today, the arms can be found 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
and in sporting contexts
It can be found flying or displayed around the county
and over the Glastonbury crowd
and other similar events
and has been unfurled at the county’s highest point, “High Wood”.