The flag of Kent was included on the registry from its inception. The design of a white horse rearing on its hind legs has been associated with the county for over a thousand years. Tradition holds that the first Germanic invaders in Britain were Jutish mercenaries from the Danish peninsula, led by brothers Hengist and Horsa: the pair appear in the 9th century work on the history of the English people, “Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum” by the Venerable Bede; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; the 9th century work attributed to the Welsh Monk Nennius, “Historia Brittonum” and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century “Historia Regum Brittaniae”. All these works of course were completed centuries after the events they describe and the two brothers may well have been legendary, the theme of twin brothers appears frequently in Germanic stories as recorded by classical writers and additionally the horse was an important element in the rituals of many ancient peoples, with names derived from the words for horse appearing frequently – the Old English words “Hengest” and “Horsa” meant respectively, “stallion” and “horse”. Conceivably, these founding fathers may in fact have been just the one individual, which is suggested by the similarity of these two names with equine associations. Reflecting all these characteristics, these Jutish invaders were said to have borne a banner bearing a white horse and it is further speculated that the symbol may have referred to the mythical horse Sleipner, which belonged to the god Odin, venerated by these Germanic warriors. The story of Hengist and Horsa further relates that the latter was killed in battle with the Celtic leader Vortigern at Aylesford, where a monument was raised in his honour, the White Horse Stone
near Maidstone. This standing stone is considered by some visitors to resemble a horse’s head. Apparently the site has also been known locally as “The Ingá stone”, which presumably could be a corruption of the name “Hengist”?
An alternative school of thought postulates that the white horse of Kent is actually derived from the ancient white horses cut into chalk downs and stamped on the coins of more than one pre-Roman British king; these
However forged though, the link between the emblem of a white horse and the county of Kent was demonstrably established by the heraldic era.
As with Essex, the emblem of this early English kingdom was first recorded in print in the 1605 work “Restitution of Decayed Antiquities”
by Richard Verstegen which included an engraving of Hengist and Horsa landing in Kent in 449 under the banner of a rampant white horse.
It is worth noting that the illustration specifically shows a flag bearing a horse rather than a shield, the inference is clear that the invading force specifically used a flag with the horse emblem on it and lends an obvious historical legitimacy to the horse bearing flag of Kent.
John Speed subsequently included the white horse in his 1611 “Atlas of Great Britaine”, appearing twice on a red shield, once held by “Hengist”
and here on a blue shield
Although it has been suggested that the white horse was subsequently used by the Justices of Kent for many years no evidence of such usage has yet come to light. Evidently however, the white horse came to be generally regarded as the emblem of the former kingdom, turned county. It appears, for example, on Thomas Moule’s 1836 map of the county
and on this insignia
of the nineteenth century company operating rail services in the county. The acknowledged county emblem is also included in this array
located at the Crossness Pumping Station, in Bexley in the county, completed in 1865. The emblem of the Metropolitan Board of Works, which built the station, it incorporates various arms and emblems including the three seaxes of Middlesex, indicating the board’s territorial remit encompassing areas from these counties.
The horse also sits over the old post office building in Canterbury
erected in 1802, although the emblem is here surrounded with mining equipment, which industry was not established in the county until considerably later, so the horse may have been a later addition to the building.
Kent County Council, established in 1889, was formally awarded a grant of arms, bearing the white horse, on 17 October 1933
– the blazon of the shield, “gules, a horse rampant argent” i.e. red with a white rearing horse, is one of the simpler heraldic descriptions. As this emblem had already been in the public domain long before the creation of the council, an armorial banner formed from such anciently recognised arms could not be restricted to the council’s use but represented the whole county as an entity in itself. The armorial banner was, therefore, the county flag and was thus accepted by the Flag Institute on the basis of this traditional association and use. The motto used on the council arms means ‘unconquered’ and refers to a local legend which holds that in 1067, shortly after the Norman Conquest, a detachment of Kentishmen ambushed the newly crowned King William; in return for his life, he promised that the county would be able to keep its ancient privileges, the “Treaty of Swanscombe”, thus Kent was the only part of England deemed “unconquered” by the Normans. This motto is thus also a popular theme in the county and the county flag is accordingly sometimes referred to as the Invicta Flag or Invicta Flag of Kent. The defiant rearing stance of the horse lends itself naturally to the description, invicta!
There can of course be no categorical proof that the Jutes arrived on the shore of Kent brandishing a white stallion over their heads but it should be noted that a rampant white horse remains the arms of several continental territories that are broadly the locality whence the Jutes sprang, these include;
Lower Saxony, Germany
North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany
In fact to this day the heraldic motif of the “Saxon Steed” is a recognised trait in German civic heraldry which originated in the continental “Duchy of Saxony”. It is said that it originates either from the white horse reputedly ridden by the Saxon leader Widukind after his baptism – formerly he had ridden a black one – or again, as a representation of Odin’s horse Sleipnir. It is interesting, if not a little remarkable, that two of the figures noted as founders of the English nation, Hengist and Horsa are commemorated in a local house building tradition. A common decorative feature on the roofs of farmhouses in the states of Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein are gables shaped as horse heads which, it is reported, as late as 1875 were apparently referred to as “Hengist and Hors”
This does tend to suggest that “Hengist and Horsa” may have been the subjects of an ancient Germanic tradition – horse shaped or horse associated figures, possibly the remnants of some religious rite, which would have been carried with the invaders over the sea to Kent. It also lends credence to the idea that the symbol of the horse would have made the journey with the Jutish warriors – this is all highly speculative of course but if accepted, Kent’s flag can be seen as vying with the dragon/wyvern banners of Somerset and Wessex, Cornwall’s white cross and Northumberland’s yellow and red bands, as the oldest of the symbols to appear on our county flags.
The “Saxon Steed” was later incorporated into its arms
by the House of Welf or Guelph, amongst whose members was the Elector of Hanover, Georg Ludwig, who acceded to the British throne in 1714 as George I. Upon his enthronement the Royal British coat of arms was altered to accommodate the Hanoverian arms
including the “Saxon Steed” which seemingly shared an origin with the emblem of the county of Kent. The reported ancient Jutish symbol, had thus reappeared in Britain as the symbol of a national leader! Perhaps the accommodation of the Hanoverian arms was easily effected because the white horse emblem was a Germanic symbol already well accepted in England?
A red flag bearing a white horse
seems to have been used in an unofficial capacity to represent Hanover until 1837 and the recognition of the symbol is demonstrated by a bronze statue in Hanover city
It is interesting to note also that the white horse, whether in Kent or on the continent, is predominantly shown against a red background although one illustration on the Speed map suggests that there was no fixed colour for the background until more recent times. It has been reported that some 19th century versions of the Kent arms even occasionally included a green strip of turf below, as well as with a blue background.
An example of the latter is found at the Ightham Mote country house in the county, amongst some stained glass panels depicting coats of arms
including one attributed to the Jutish kingdom of Kent’s celebrated king, Ethelbert
Another consideration is that whilst the modern depiction of the horse is “rampant”, that is, rearing on one hind leg, earlier versions showed the horse as “forcené” meaning rearing naturally on its hind legs as in the above image of the statue, or even occasionally as “courant” or running – the depiction on the above Hanover flag.
Kent’s trenchant association with the white horse was further solidified with its usage during World War II by the RAF’s “County of Kent” Squadron, No. 131. Kent was the only county to have had a squadron of its own as a result of large donations made by the people of Kent. The full story of the squadron can be found here. Inspired by the Maidstone based Lord Cornwallis, large funds were amassed to purchase a number of Spitfires. Acknowledging the donations Lord Cornwallis spoke of “…blessing and protection for these glorious men who are riding on the wings of the White Horse of Kent”
Lord Cornwallis presented two flags to the squadron, one bearing the motto “Invicta” and the other, the white horse of Kent.
The arms awarded to Kent county council in 1933 were reconfirmed for the successor administration, whose remit does not cover the full extent of the county. In addition to its official arms, the modern council uses a simplified logo derived from them
The white horse also appears on the civic coats of arms of many of the county’s towns and cities, either as a charge on the main shield, as part of the crest over the shield or as a supporter, including;
Ashford Beckenham Bexley
Bromley Dartford Deptford
Dover Gravesham Lewisham
Maidstone Medway Sevenoaks
Swale Tonbridge Tunbridge Wells
A white horse is the main charge on the coat of arms of the University of Kent
and it appears on the badge of Kent Fire and Rescue Service.
and Kent Police
as well as on the official arms of the High Sheriff of Kent
Unsurprisingly the white horse is also found on the arms of the Kent County Society
Several Kentish sporting bodies also include the white horse on their badges such as Kent County Cricket club
The county’s famed white stallion is also the insignia
of Sittingbourne based Kent Kings speedway team
Another notable appearance of the Kent emblem is on a plaque alongside one bearing the Sussex martlets
which are today on the wall of a school in Tunbridge Wells on the Kent/Sussex border,
but were formerly to be found on the Kent and Sussex Hospital
which occupied the site previously and served both counties.
Others curiously opt to display the white horse against a blue background including Kent Football Association, Kent County Football League and Kent Rugby Football Union.
Kent football club Gillingham, previously displayed the white horse alone, also against a blue background but now includes it as one element on its badge.
The county symbol also appears on the badges of many other Kent clubs, examples of these can be seen on this page.
As can be seen the emblem is well used and familiar to county residents, to the extent that it also regularly appears in the logos of companies and businesses; the Rochester based 19th and 20th century firm Aveling and Porter, produced agricultural engines and steam rollers, the white horse of Kent appeared on the front of its vehicles
In the late twentieth century, coach firm Invictaway, which ran London bound commuter coaches from the county, cleverly combined the popular Kentish Invicta motto in its name with the white horse emblem in its logo
A large number of pubs in the county include “White Horse” in their names, three examples are in Cranbrook, Bridge and Dover
The continuing recognition and popularity of the white horse as the symbol of Kent is demonstrated by the presence of a large white horse design cut into the hillside overlooking the town of Folkestone and the English terminal of the Channel Tunnel
, which was completed in June 2003. The horse was planned as a Millennium landmark and designed by a local artist, Charlie Newington. Similarly, but on a much grander scale, was a proposed project to erect a 50 metre/160 feet high sculpture of a white horse
in Ebbsfleet Valley in the county. Designed by Mark Wallinger to faithfully resemble a thoroughbred horse, the structure would be visible from both the A2 road and High Speed 1 railway line, which cross each other nearby.
Kent’s flag being a simple white horse against a red background, the realisation of the design is open to wide interpretation. The horse depicted on the Flag Institute registry is a rather flamboyant realisation
but in practice the majority of commercially available Kent flags
appear to be based on the logo used by Kent County Council and are much simpler in stylisation as the following examples of the flag flying around the county demonstrate
This flag has also been used in a sporting context and to identify locally made products
Both the shade of red of the background and placement of the horse emblem also vary to some degree. On the design of the Kent flag found on the registry, the horse is placed off centre, closer to the hoist, this is to allow the figure to appear at the centre when the flag is in a full gust of wind. Again, in practice most available flags do not observe this precise positioning and simply place the horse at the centre of the flag, as can be seen in these various examples Such varying stylisations, including one at left with the horse offset, are occasionally seen in flight
In 2011 it was the logo style version of the flag that flew outside the Eland House Headquarters of the Department For Communities and Local government in London,
Whilst the registry version of the horse is highly detailed, the logo style version is too simplistic and insubstantial; a happy medium is the version favoured on these pages ( available here )
which is taken from issue 92 of Flagmaster, the journal of the Flag Institute
and appears to have been based on the county arms that adorn the Kent County Council building in Maidstone.