Somerset’s flag was registered on July 4th 2013, the day it was announced as the winning entry in a competition organised by a county law firm and local media. Although the winner of the competition however, the design was basically traditional, having been used for the previous century by the local county council on its coat of arms and being derived from banners borne by Alfred the Great and his kinsmen. Such flags were based in turn on Celtic use of a dragon symbol, which ultimately derived from the Draco symbol used by the military during the Roman occupation of Britain. In essence therefore, the flag has a pedigree of at least, some two thousand years.
Archaeological finds demonstrate that the ancient Celts in Britain practised serpent worship. Celtic deities dated from c.500 BC are depicted encircled by a horned snake and brooches and pins with serpent images from this era have also been found. Sometimes the images resemble dragons. Coinage from the second century BC bears serpent images some of which resemble dragons, while scabbards from approximately 300 BC are decorated by pairs of dragons. There are also Celtic dragon legends, such as the destruction of two dragons by one King Llud and “Peredur”, a tale recounting the slaying of a dragon who sits on a treasure mound. There is sufficient indication that a serpent/dragon theme was already a substantial element in Celtic culture before the Roman conquest of Britain. Bear in mind also that “flying serpent” was an early mediaeval term for a dragon.
Dragons were also used by the Dacians and the Parthians as a military ensign in their clashes with Rome. These were comparatively elaborate affairs, more a “windsock” than a modern flag. The hollow head, in the form of a toothed dragon, was formed from metal while the body was composed of strips of cloth sewn together in a serpentine form that, filled by the wind when horses were at a gallop, would make a hissing sound!
Impressed, the Romans adopted the same emblem after the Emperor Trajan’s conquest of Dacia, becoming the standard of the cohort or “draco” (a word derived from the Greek “drakon”) ten of which formed a legion. The bearer of the device was termed a draconarius. This military standard duly made its way to Britain, where, conceivably, the existing veneration of dragon like creatures facilitated its eventual adoption there.
Several centuries later, as the Roman era was ending, resistance to Germanic invaders was organised by Romano Britons, likely on Roman lines. The use of the Roman military dragon standard was therefore naturally continued. Shadowy figures such as Ambrosius Aurelianus and King Arthur (or perhaps Artorius), Romano-British warriors, would have maintained the familiar Roman military emblem. Whatever the reality behind the legend of King Arthur clearly the symbols with which he is associated were of contemporary significance; there are references in early Welsh records to “draig” and “dragon” meaning warrior, and great warriors are called ”pendraig, pendragon “. King Arthur’s father is said to have been one Uther Pendragon, the designation “Pendragon”, meaning “dragon head” i.e.” chief dragon” or “chief warrior”. Perhaps the emblem was used a crest over a war helmet as an emblem of leadership. Uther Pendragon is said to have seen two golden dragons in the sky, as accounted by the mediaeval writer Geoffrey of Monmouth, which he took as an omen of success in attaining the kingship. So, the legends state, he made two dragons, one for the church in Winchester and one to be borne in battle. Mediaeval heralds consequently assigned him arms bearing theseSuch accounts indicate a general usage of dragon standards by the Romano-Celtic population of Britain. Plausibly an indigenous Celtic serpent theme may have been strengthened by the Roman deployment of a dragon as a military device which can only have strengthened the association of the dragon with the warrior. In his 1982 article “The Dragon Of Wessex” in local history periodical “Earth Giant”, Jeremy Harte describes how the Byzantine successors of Rome also made use of dracontine standards and that the practice was taken up by western armies such as that of Charlemagne. The front cover of the publication shows a scene reproduced from a ninth century manuscript from the monastery of Saint Gall, Switzerland, depicting the biblical King David riding out to meet his enemies but reflecting the contemporary appearance of Charlemagne’s military, which bears before it a dragon standard.
The pole mounted dragon is seen to be “breathing” fire, created by a mass of pitch and tow!
When the invading West Saxons fought against their Romano-Celtic opponents they would have become familiar with this emblem of leadership and it is likely that the West Saxons adopted this emblem from them either as a symbol of their ultimate triumph over their enemy or perhaps in simple recognition of the device’s intrinsic splendour. The Anglo-Norman historian Henry of Huntingdon, wrote of Cuthred of Wessex bearing a golden dragon standard at the battle of Burford in 752 when he triumphed over the Mercians
“The armies being drawn up in battle array and rushing forward, having nearly met Æþelhun, who led the West Saxons, bearing the royal standard, a golden dragon, transfixed the standard bearer of the enemy.”
He refers to its use again in 1016, by the army of King Edmund Ironside in the Battle of Ashingdon against Canute
“…He quitted his royal station which as wont, he had taken between the dragon and the ensign called the standard”
Such dragon standards are also seen borne by the English army, on the Bayeux tapestry.
Bearing in mind that the standards in use at this time were “windsocks” that is, not actual flags but serpentine in form, with small wings and “vestigial” limbs as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry and previous example, a two legged “wyvern” illustration is likely to be a more faithful representation of the actual form of standard used in this era. In essence therefore a two legged wyvern as seen on a coat of arms or heraldic banner is simply one interpretation of a dragon standard – its bodily form is perhaps more akin to the “flying serpent” notion. And indeed the word “wyvern” derived from Middle English “wyvere” from Latin, meaning viper, is more descriptive of the elongated windsock shape of these early standards. As depicted in heraldry, the beast is basically a dragon with only two legs
It generally has wings and a barbed tail. In the Anglo-Saxon era however such a fine distinction between two and four legged beasts on the top of a spear would not have existed, the wyvern is just a heraldic development of one early dragon realisation.
Heraldic historian CW Scott-Giles refers to Celtic writers’ descriptions of the dragon as “ruddy-gold” – a description that seems open to interpretation as either more gold or more red. Both Henry of Huntingdon’s references describe a golden dragon, indicating that when used by the Saxons of Wessex the dragon device may have become standardised as golden in colour. However, in the twentieth century the college of arms supplied arms to the councils of two neighbouring shires, Dorset
In the former the shield is supported by two golden dragons, in the latter, the shield bears a red dragon in the canton, both in token of the ancient kingdom of Wessex, of which they were both a part. These examples illustrate the imprecision of the colours – Wessex’s dragon is sometimes shown red and sometimes gold, rather reflecting the early description of the beast as “ruddy gold “and bearing out how in ancient times colours were not fixed – the emblem shown was more important than its colour!
The same historico-cultural environment produced the Welsh flag
to Somerset Council in 1911 it similarly opted for a red dragon, reportedly making reference to the tradition that King Arthur had a red dragon – an apparent acknowledgement of the original more “ruddy” colour of the Celtic emblem and Somerset’s claim to have been the centre of King Arthur’s realm; a recognition moreover, of the county’s ancient Celtic heritage.
The council had been formed in 1889 but had no armorial bearings. Initially the Clerk of the Council was asked to provide a seal for the body for use on official documents and a design with a dragon rampant surrounded by a wreath bearing the words “Administrative County of Somerset” was obtained. Some councillors, with an interest in heraldry, subsequently investigated the acquisition of a coat of arms for the council. As Somerset had been part of the old kingdom of Wessex it was felt appropriate to make use of the historically accounted West Saxon symbol of the golden dragon, particularly as no other county council in Wessex had yet done so. Thus a red shield with a gold dragon was unofficially adopted in 1906. Such a shield had appeared in the 1611/12 atlas of Great Britain (Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine) produced by cartographer John Speed. The golden dragon was shown on the title page
and in the border of the map of the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy – where one of the depictions shows it wielded by Cerdic, founder of the ruling dynasty of Wessex.
These proved to be the inspiration for the choice of arms adopted by Somerset’s councillors. Evidently there was a conscious local association of the dragon symbol with the county which had also been demonstrated three decades previously when in 1873, the borough Conservatives spent £10,000 (a colossal sum at the time) in a legal action to contest the outcome of an election. The whole cost was met by a local landowner, John Marshall of Belmont and the grateful recipients presented him with a silver-gilt commemorative casket. It was notably decorated at each of the four corners with a silver sculpture of a dragon rampant. The county cricket club had meanwhile also adopted the county’s unequivocally recognised dragon emblem for its badge, as featured on its 1890/1891 year book cover
as had the West Somerset Yeomanry, from the turn of the twentieth century
; an unambiguous dragon emblem!
In 1911 the High Sheriff of Somerset, William Bucknell Broadmead, offered to finance the official registration of the adopted golden dragon arms. An official registration was duly received from the College of Heralds on December 2nd 1911 although as noted, the colours of the arms used hitherto by the council, were reversed. In addition, the dragon was illustrated grasping a blue mace as a symbol of the council’s authority.
as found in this stained glass window at St.Andrews church, Banwell.
It is likely that in addition to emphasising the Celtic aspect of the county’s heritage the heralds of 1911 were also keen to keep the anciently attributed emblem of Wessex distinct. Assigning the same design of shield to both ancient kingdom and modern county council would have been both confusing and rather unfair as other Wessex counties would all have been equally eligible to have made use of such arms. Somerset folk however have clearly felt that their entitlement to these arms was greater!
In 1922 the choice of the red dragon as a county symbol was referred to in “The Somerset Year Book”, produced by “The Somerset Folk Society” which included an article entitled ‘The Wessex Dragon’. This concluded that “The county of Somerset, having formed part of the Kingdom of Wessex, was fully entitled to display the arms of that principality.. (“principality” is used here in a figurative or poetic sense)… Somerset folk everywhere may regard themselves to-day as under the banner of the Dragon of Wessex, even as their forebears in the days of Alfred flocked to this Royal ensign. Hence our cover.” The Year Book’s front cover showed the dragon, on a shield.
This design subsequently featured on the following editions. A note in the 1922 edition states that “The necessary drawing for the new cover design has been kindly carried out by Mr. Alfred Leete”; a resident of Weston, best known for designing the ‘Your Country Needs You’ poster featuring a pointing Kitchener!
Interestingly, the short lived twentieth century administration of Avon, which covered territory in eastern Somerset, was awarded arms bearing a dragon
divided gold on red in the upper section and red on gold in the lower, in token of the locality’s links with both Wessex and its Celtic predecessors and acknowledging the varied local depictions of the beast over the years, as described.
Use of the dragon symbol further illustrates how the dragon lore of Somerset runs deep, woven into the very culture of the county – local stories about dragons are legion, suggesting that the choice of a dragon for their arms by the councillors of Somerset was a natural inclination – the beast was clearly a very obvious part of the local fabric. As noted there is substantial evidence of serpent/dragon veneration and display in early Celtic culture. Such a practice appears to have been supplemented and strengthened by the appearance of the Roman military standard and then again by the Anglo-Saxon take-up of the same symbol in the south west. Dragons were a persistent cultural theme long associated with Somerset. Legends tell of; John Aller, said to have slain a dragon and then succumbed to its poisonous breath or its fiery blood – a bare patch of earth is said to mark this spot; of Carantoc who persuaded a dragon who had been terrorising a village to depart, bowing its head in submission; of Blue Ben who whilst cooling himself in the sea became stuck on the muddy shoreline and drowned when the tide came in – this tale was inspired by the discovered fossil skull of an Ichthyosaur; of the dragon of Churchstanton who having received a mortal blow from a knight thrashed his huge tail around and furrowed up the ground with marks that can still be seen today; of the Dragon of Castle Neroche, drowned by an ingenious villager who oversaw the diversion of a stream into the dragon’s lair, from where the villagers then retrieved the beast’s great treasure hoard. These are but a very small sample of such Somerset dragon stories which are detailed extensively in Brian Wright’s “Somerset Dragons”, printed in 2002.
The county’s dragon laden folklore is reinforced by its geography, especially in the west, where there is a lonely wild coast, dense woods, wide misty marshes and a low population – ideal habitat for dragons! Many of the stories unsurprisingly originate in this locality. Additionally Somerset was comparatively unaffected by the industrial revolution, populations remained sedentary and the stories have stuck with them. With such a trenchant, dragon filled heritage, the dragon flag that now represents the county of Somerset can be seen as highly appropriate and meaningful.
More recently Somerset MP Jacob Rees-Mogg in an interview for “The Wessex Chronicle” spoke of the county’s firm identification with Wessex,
“As I’m a Somerset MP you may think me biased but Somerset is absolutely essential to Wessex. It’s the last bit that Alfred has at the worst point of it all. His security on the Levels is crucial when he’s working his way back, having been defeated. Although Edington is thought to be in Wiltshire – it may or may not, but let’s assume that that tradition is right – because Guthrum held Chippenham it’s not a hugely Wiltshire force that Alfred is bringing. It’s mainly Somerset troops, along with those from part of Hampshire. It’s controversial maybe, but without Somerset there would be no Wessex and without Wessex there would be no England.”
By the modern era therefore use of the ancient dragon emblem in arms and banners, as seen, was open to some interpretation regarding form and colour. However, whilst wyverns were variously used across the Wessex region in military and civic armorial bearings, for example the arms of West Dorset district council feature wyverns (marine versions) as supporters
and the badge of the Wessex Regiment was a wyvern
it should be borne in mind that the county of Somerset itself, has never been represented by a wyvern. In the modern era this precise form of winged reptilian beast has come to represent the wider region of Wessex – a heraldic development of the more generic emblem seen on the Speed atlas. Confusion has persisted however. For example the former Somerset Cricket Supporters’ organisation was called the ‘Somerset Wyverns’, even though, as previously noted, the cricket club clearly used a dragon as its badge.
The group was presumably so named on the basis of a misapprehension that the badge used by the county cricket club featured a wyvern, although this is demonstrably not the case! And in fact during the 1950s there was a Somerset based cricket team, associated with the county club but separate from the Second XI, named the ‘Somerset Dragons’! The club also flies a flag, comprising maroon, black and white horizontal stripes, with a maroon dragon (i.e. not a wyvern!) in the middle.
Pointedly, in 2017, several years after the adoption of the county flag, the club revealed a new kit bearing its resplendent red dragon on gold
Somerset Rugby Football Union uses a very similar flag to that of the cricket club, which repeats its colours and stripe pattern. The dragon on the rugby flag however, seems to be the same as that found on the county flag
Many in the county are adamant that the beast appearing on the council’s arms is either a wyvern or a griffin. Given the above history, the wyvern confusion is not surprising and unfortunately the use of such names as “Somerset Wyverns” prolongs and increases the confusion! Nonetheless, no device borne by any Somerset body depicts a two legged wyvern, as can be seen in the selection following, below.
It may be further noted that the cricket club badge, adopted long before the creation of the county council, appropriately does not include the mace, specifically included in the 1911 arms awarded to Somerset council to symbolise the authority it wielded; by definition the mace specifically and solely symbolises the council. While the dragon appears in the logos and badges of several county organisations, they differ in their use or exclusion of the mace. Basically while a (red) dragon is the obvious symbol to appear in such county badges, the mace should not be included – it refers to the council alone and its appearance elsewhere is inappropriate. This has been recognised by some bodies but not by others.
The county fire brigade and its successor the Devon and Somerset fire brigade, both include the mace in their badges as does the county football association – all in the top row above, from left to right. While retaining the later mace, however, the football association’s badge retains the colour scheme of the arms first adopted by the county council in 1906, a golden dragon on red. The county police service, on the middle line at left, replaces the mace of authority with it seems, the scales of justice, while the badges of the county hockey and rugby teams, centre and right, like the cricket badge, sensibly dispense with the mace altogether. The badges of the county archery teams at left and swimming association second from left, on the bottom row, also feature the dragon alone, while the county bowling association has used badges both with and without the mace, second from right, third row down. This latter organisation again opts for a gold or light coloured dragon on red in both cases – mirroring the early council arms. In the bottom row are the badges of Somerset Archery, Somerset Women’s Institute and East Somerset scouts, all with basic red dragons against gold backgrounds exactly like the design of the county flag. In recent years the Somerset County Schools Football Association has adopted a badge featuring the dragon from the county flag
This selection of badges both demonstrates the widespread acknowledgement of the dragon as the county emblem of Somerset and categorically shows, notwithstanding the wide confusion that exists, that a two legged wyvern has never been used to represent the county of Somerset.
Additionally it is possible that the “rampant” stance of the dragon appearing on the arms of Somerset council, especially when depicted in its modern “logo” style, below left, makes it resemble a griffin, below right.
as its badge since its origin, so it is nevertheless a locally used emblem of some standing and has certainly developed a certain local mystique. This is further demonstrated by the existence of the “Gryphon School” in Sherbourne, near Yeovil, founded in 1992 which clearly has a griffin as its badge
The award by the College of Arms of a red, four legged, dragon as the basic arms of Somerset Council definitively assigned this version of the winged beast, with its combined Romano-Celtic-Anglo-Saxon heritage, as the acknowledged county emblem. The red dragon is virtually a graphic encapsulation of the county’s history, stretching back some two millennia to the era of the Roman invasion! There could be no more meaningful emblem for the county. Furthermore, in 1974, a flag based on all the historic accounts, bearing, distinctly, a gold wyvern on a red field
was created for the Wessex Society by William Crampton, founder and first director of the Flag Institute. This flag was eventually registered as the flag of the modern region of Wessex, in 2011. Although obviously sprung from a common source, a clear distinction between the flag of the wider region of Wessex as a golden wyvern on a red background and the emblem of the county of Somerset as a red dragon on a gold (yellow) background had been drawn. Whilst Somerset was entitled to use the ancient symbol of Wessex for all the reasons cited, it had a version distinctly its own.
As with any coat of arms, Somerset Council’s arms have been occasionally realised as an armorial banner, this is one such realisation
although it is unclear to what extent this banner has ever been deployed by the council. Adaptations of this armorial banner however have appeared from time to time, effectively being used as the county flag.
The flag at left above, appears to combine the colours of the armorial banner in a form more reminiscent of the council’s modern logo, itself an adaptation, in various forms,
from the original arms. This was the basis of a poorly designed flag,
which has been marketed as a county flag for Somerset for several years. This design eschewed the county’s traditional red and yellow colour scheme and again included the blue mace which had been specifically included in the 1911 council arms to symbolise the authority wielded by the council. The mace is therefore a symbol of the council per se and quite inappropriate for inclusion on a flag intended to represent the county as an entity. Worse yet this design includes script on the flag – one of the worst vexillographic offences imaginable! No flag should ever have writing on it! Lastly, being all white, to the edges, this was an ineffective flag, being lost against a cloudy sky. This spurious and badly designed item is not the county flag.
Another commercially available design
still available here, oddly includes the motto from the arms, so is not a true armorial banner. Again, it is not the registered flag of the county of Somerset.
Amidst this confusion of ideas and designs it was time for Somerset to have a well- designed, meaningful flag.
In 2007, amidst a flurry of flag adoptions by counties around England, Somerset resident Ed Woods
proposed the same for his county. In the wake of government legislation which had riven the county administratively into a number of different units, he wanted to see the adoption of a flag that would represent the entirety of the county. He stated at the time that “A lot of people are not happy about this post-Avon limbo and long for Somerset to be reunited.” Ed pointed out that the Somerset Council’s mace bearing dragon was popularly flown across the county. Whilst this demonstrated the strong attachment that people felt for the basic long time dragon emblem of the county, use of this specific council version also highlighted the misconception that the council was coterminous and synonymous with the county. Other portions of the real county, the North East and Bath, had been hived off administratively so using the symbol of one council did not represent the entirety of Somerset.
Mindful of the county’s millennia old association with the dragon emblem, Ed naturally proposed a flag based on it. His initial ideas centered upon a blue flag, with the red dragon from the Somerset Council’s arms, bearing the white cross on red shield associated with Saint Aldhelm,
who did various good work in Somerset. The blue of the proposed flag was intended to represent the sea with which Somerset has always had strong connections. While not a viable design, this initial foray to secure a flag for the county engendered some debate. Ed was interviewed by the BBC and liaised with local politicians regarding the idea of a county flag. He received the support of David Heath, the MP for Somerton and Frome and Lady Elizabeth Gass the Lord Lieutenant of Somerset. Ed created a website to promote the idea of a county flag and to remind people that Somerset was one whole entity irrespective of the council boundaries which ran across it. For a while no single design was promoted, as Ed focussed initially on gathering support for the concept of a county flag. In time, with further consultation and research Ed concluded that a flag derived from the council arms, with a millennia old legacy i.e. a red dragon on a yellow background but obviously minus the blue mace, was the logical choice. He therefore created a new dragon image and placed it on a yellow background
For a while Ed promoted this prototype dragon flag for Somerset and tried in vain to secure in-county support for it. At this stage matters stalled somewhat and after several years without success, Ed withdrew from the campaign.
The cause was taken up again a few years later. Enthusiasts from the Association of British Counties who agreed with Ed Woods that Somerset’s traditional dragon should be adopted as the county‘s flag contacted him to reinitiate the campaign. The theme of a red dragon on a gold (yellow) field was revamped; several versions
were created, before one was settled on that was considered most effective.
This duly appeared on a Facebook page as the public face of the campaign. As expected, given its legacy, the flag proved pretty popular with the people of Somerset and the page rapidly received a number of likes and inspired some healthy debates. The plan was for Ed to work with local organisations to secure support for registration of this traditional flag, a process that had been formerly successful in Westmorland, Cumberland and Cheshire. That plan was derailed however when an unexpected Somerset County Flag Competition was announced in the local media in May 2013.
The competition had arisen as the result of a letter sent by Somerset resident Adam Thomas to the Somerset County Gazette in March 2013
in response to the paper’s report about local law firm Pardoes flying the aforementioned poorly designed mace and dragon design. Adam pointed out how inappropriate this was. His letter was read by Pardoes management who consequently determined to initiate the county flag competition.
With the advent of the competition, plans to secure support for the design were shelved and instead, seven years after he initially presented the idea for public scrutiny, Ed submitted it anew to the competition, which he duly won, having first been amongst the 13 chosen finalists. Whilst there was no announcement on the number of voters or percentage of votes won, it seems that the red dragon’s evident popularity, which had been amply demonstrated by the support it had received on the Facebook page, engendered by its fundamental local heritage, made the design the inevitable natural choice for the county flag
Ed (seen below second from left) attended the ceremony where the flag was revealed for the first time as the competition winner, at the headquarters of Pardoes, the hosts and sponsors of the competition, Creech Castle.
One of the judges who selected the final thirteen for the public vote, local entrepreneur Deborah Meaden (seen above second from right and below) also presented the award. She commented “I love the winning design. Somerset is the place I call home. This is an historic event for the county.”
Ed Woods reflected on his years of campaigning to get a new flag for Somerset, “I am so shocked but grateful to those who voted. Somerset now has its own flag. I’m delighted, especially after I campaigned for so many years to get one.”
The flag was then raised for the first time, over Creech Castle.
Nigel Muers-Raby, head of marketing at Pardoes, stated: “We are delighted to have a Somerset county flag flying high above our base here at Creech Castle.”
Shortly afterwards Chairman of the Somerset Council, David Fothergill (right below) presented the new Somerset county flag to Commander Mike Smith, Captain of the Royal Navy frigate HMS Somerset!
It then appeared in a catalogue of stitching patterns
and was soon seen, fluttering proudly, over private residences.
The flag has subsequently become very popular
and is flown
across the county
by residents, businesses and local organisations
The following references have been consulted in the compilation of this account;
Civic Heraldry Of England And Wales – C.W. Scott-Giles 1933, 1953.
The Romance of Heraldry – C.W. Scott-Giles, 1965.
Jeremy Harte, “The Dragon Of Wessex” ,1982.
A History Of The Red Dragon – Carl Lofmark, 1995.
Somerset Dragons – Brian Wright, 2002.
Union Jack: A History of the British Flag – Professor Nick Groom, 2007.
Acknowledgement and thanks are also due to Dave White and David Robbins for their extensive research notes.