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Hamburg Citizens' Sentinels (1619-1810)

Hamburger Bürgerwache

Last modified: 2021-01-02 by klaus-michael schneider
Keywords: hamburg | militia | buergerwache | st. catherine | st. james | st. nicolas | st. michael | st. peter | sentinels |
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Since 1529 the citizens were allowed to participate in the city government.
At the eve of thirty-years war the citizens of Hamburg felt threatened and finally the Dutch fortification architect Johann van Valckenborgh was appointed to built a new fortress with stronger walls. The range had to be extended. St. George suburb was integrated. St. James main church became the imaginary centre of a circle, having a diameter of nearly 2400 meters, on its perimeter the walls were erected. In the western part of the city the new town was also integrated. Finally there was added a 4-point star shaped extra fortification, right in front of the city walls.
The military protection since then was run by some 50 up to 100 mercenaries. The citizens were organized in guilds (German: Zünfte), which also managed the self-defense of cities since the middle ages. This was useful, because people of the same profession lived in the same quarter. Therefore they could be alarmed very easily. (see [neu39a], p.60).
But Hamburg?s population increased and the people were mixed up in their quarters. Furthermore the length of the perimeters increased and they couldn?t be manned by mercenaries without ridiculous financial efforts. The city needed a new defence constitution (German: Wehrverfassung). So in 1619 a militia was established, the Hamburg Citizens' Sentinels, the regiments were named and ordered by the main churches of Hamburg into parish regiments (German: Kirchspiel-Regimenter).

Each regiment was divided into ten companies, each company had 180 - 200 militiamen. A regiment was led by a lord colonel (German: Colonell Herr), who always was a member of the city council. The assembly of lord colonels elected the civic captains, who were chiefs of a company and appointed for life.
Beside the civic captain in each company there were also a lieutenant and a number NCOs, according to modern terms. Those were a cadet and a lieutenant cadet (flag bearers), a purser (in charge of the pay roll), a quartermaster, a staff sergeant (probably in charge of one guardhouse) and some foremen (German: Rottmeister), being commanders of subunits of a company, called "Rotte". All officers had to swear the citizen oath of Hamburg.
Every year a chairman, named "Worthalter" (lit: promise keeper) and a treasurer, named "Schaffer", who was in charge of the cash register of a regiment and for the widows as well, were elected by the assembly of civic captains. The latter also organized an annual banquet, the "convivium" and had to give one piece of plate to the regiment. The war council was led by the mayor, who was supreme commander, in this function he was called "Generalissimus", The other members were the lord colonels, some civilians and since 1635 the commander in chief of the sentinels.
The individual equipment was bought and maintained by the militiamen. There were no uniforms before the beginning of 18th century. Therefore distinct regimental colourss were necessary. The sentinels had nearly 7000 men at the beginning. Their number increased up to 9800 men in 1679. Beside the sentinels there existed a number of mercenaries, mainly to run the artillery, their number was about 1500 gunners in 1638.

It was controversial and doubtful from the very first moment, whether there was any military use of the sentinels. Their first commander critisised drunk and lack of discipline among the troopers. As Hamburg was threatened by Danish siege and occupation in 1686 the city survived by reason of their strong fortifications and the support of 2000 soldiers of the Duke of Lüneburg-Celle.
Later the sentinels deteriorated to a mere mixture of a fire-brigade and a constabulary, respectively a riot squad. So the sentinels overpowered an insurrection of craftsmen in 1791 and a rebellion against the French occupation in 1813. Officially the sentinels had been already dissolved by the French commander Davout on 10 December 1810, when Hamburg was incorporated into the French Empire.
According to von Hess the sentinels continued to exist later on, consisting of males older than 45 years in times, when the new citizens' militia had been established by Mettlerkamp. The militia renamed the regiments to battalions, St. Michael was divided into Groß St. Michael and Klein St. Michael, both forming the new regiment "Neustadt" (new town), while the other battalions formed the new regiment "Altstadt"(=old town)
1) Hamburgmuseum, explanations in the show cases
2) Eckardt Klessmann: "Geschichte der Stadt Hamburg", Hamburg 1981, p.346-348, ISBN 3-455-08803-1,
3) Jonas Ludwig von Hess "Agonieen der Republik Hamburg im Frühjahr 1813" ,2.Aufl., Hamburg 1816, p.175 ff.
Klaus-Michael Schneider, 11 Oct 2009

The Flags:

All images are based upon photos, provided by Gudrun Hildebrandt, textiles restorer of Hamburgmuseum. Very special thanks, without her it had not been possible to paint these images. For tiny details additional information was taken from the filing cards of the museum's inventory.
Every parish regiment had its own basic colour of flag. The 18th flags probably had different ratios, more or less approx. 5:7, a Hammonia (a woman or goddess, symbolising the city of Hamburg, either depicted with a mural crown, a staff of mercury or a so called "freedom hat"), who supported a coat of arms, which was usually white with a red castle. Hammonia always was surrounded by bundles of flags and military equipment, like swords, lances, guns, cannon balls, drums. She was sitting upon a pedestal. Although Hamburg was a protestant city, there was also a small image of the saint of the parish church of the regiment (normally a Catholic attitude). The flags were made of silk. At the edges there were golden embroideries shaped as Rocaille ornaments (irregular floral and creeper ornaments, from which the name rococo is derived).
There was the number of a year and an identification of the company, either given by a number or by the coat of arms of the company's chief.
Upon the peaks of their lances or spontons was an image of the related saint.

Basic colours:
Flags of Jakobi-Regiment (St. James) were white, those of Nikolai-Regiment(St. Nicolas) blue, those of Petri-Regiment (St. Peter) red and finally those of Katharinen-Regiment (St. Catherine) yellow.
Also part of Jakobi-Regiment was an extra 11th company of St.George suburb, in 1644 the 2nd suburbian company was added as 12th company.
In 1620 the Michaelis-Regiment (St. Michael) for the new town was added, but there was lack of staff, because in new town there were the poorer quarters. The flags of this regiment were green.
Klaus-Michael Schneider, 11 Oct 2009

Although it is believed, that each regiment had its proper colour of the sheet as described above, the colour had been ascertained in 1711 by an imperial decree.
Information is hard to get, because nearly all public files of the city had been destroyed during the great fire of 1842. Allied bombing in WW2 furthermore destroyed important secondary private information. According to filing cards there exist flags of the companies as follows (numbers in brackets gives number of existing photos): St.Catherine Regiment 26(4), St. James Regiment 36(6), St.Michael Regiment 27(8), St.Nicolas Regiment 34(6), St. Peter Regiment 32(6).
The oldest existing flag is a company flag of St.Peter Regiment dated 1707, the newest flags are from 1814. Despite of the basic colours there had been no standardisation neither of size nor of pattern. But there are basic elements in common, which appear on every flag from the 18th century, however not always as a complete set. Those elements are:

[Hamburg citizens' sentinels elements] image by Klaus-Michael Schneider, 12 May 2012

1) the Hamburg arms, usually a red castle with open door and portcullis in a silver (= white) shield but with interesting exceptions
2) an image of the parochial patron saint, easily being recognized by his standard attributes due to iconography.
3) the main theme, the only element having a fixed position in the centre of the flag. Often a woman is depicted, perhaps Hammonia, although she is nearly never called like that. There are also themes consisting of a group of persons, therefore called "central group" in the filing cards, always being an allegorical depiction. Part of the theme is always military equipment, i.e. weapons, flags, drums, ammunition, like on the flag of Haiti.
4) a motto, which is often corresponding with the main theme
5) a Protestant symbol like a Jehova sun, a trinity eye or an arm out of the clouds, because for Protestants it was inediquate to give a personal depiction of God (the saint is basically a Catholic element, here used in order to represent the parish)
6) the coat of arms of a civic captain commanding the company, sometimes there is a 2nd coat of arms
7) the number of the company
8) a date
9) an ornamentation surrounding the ensembles, e.g. Rocaille, baroque strap work, staff constructions and leaves of oak, laurel or acanthus. Gaedechens on p.13 of his book, based on the fire rules, fixed in 1676, gives a summary as follows: "The flags were fairly big, carefully painted with allegorical depictions, among those Minerva or other goddesses and the parochial patron saint were seldom missing. Alongside of this the arms of the city were placed into a humble postion."
Klaus-Michael Schneider, 12 May 2012

The Structure:

There were 5 regiments, one for each (civil) parish. The regiment was divided into 10 companies. St.James Regiment had two additional suburban companies. So in 1681 there existed 57 companies. Gaedechens claims that all flags had been no regimental colours but only company flags, because due to the structure of the sentinels no regimental colours wer needed. There should have existed a "main banner" transported on a waggon during parades. But the pattern of this banner is not known.
a) Every company was subdivided into three(!) quarters having four squads (Rotten) each. There also existed a complete payroll of the sentinels from 1681. According to this roll there had been
b) colonel (Colonell Herren), lieutenant colonel (Colonell Bürger), one for each regiment
c) captain (Bürgercapitaine), lieutenant, ensign, lieutenant ensign, constable (Wachtmeister), payroller (Musterschreiber), piper, messenger (Läufer), one for each of the 57 companies
d) quartermaster, sergeant (Korporal), drummer , three for each company ( we can also say one for each quarter)
e) squadmaster (Rottmeister), four for each quarter (we can also say one for each squad) The ordinary militiamen were unpaided volunteers.
Sources: Klaus-Michael Schneider: "Die Hamburger Bürgerwache und ihre Fahnen im 18. und frühen 19. Jahrhundert", Berlin 2012 and
C.F.Gaedechens: ""Hamburgs Bürgerbewaffnung - Ein geschichtlicher Rückblick", Hamburg 1872
Klaus-Michael Schneider, 12 May 2012

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